How to Have True Dialogue on the Internet

“Should Roe v. Wade be overturned?,” was the question asked by one of my friends on Facebook the other day. Normally, I would have scrolled on past, sure that if I were to weigh in, it would become a raging inferno of disagreement, insults, and hurt. The divisiveness of our country scares me, but for that very reason, I decided to engage, to “run toward the problem as a person of good will,” as Arthur Cooke said and I quoted in my last post. I decided to comment and ended up just conversing with someone on the other end of the abortion opinion spectrum, practicing the good internet communication skills I’ve been reading about.

You see, from what I can tell, that divisiveness is growing daily, fed by a windstorm of people who are all too willing to shout their opinions anonymously over the internet but not willing to listen, and a vacuum of people with strong opinions and loving hearts that desire peace, but who are unable or unequipped to speak up. What we need is dialogue, true dialogue, because we all share a democracy, and that dialogue only happens when people of all persuasions both speak their minds assertively, not aggressively, and listen actively.

It’s not that I think such dialogue will or even should make us all agree. I have no more hope of that happening than I do of my husband and I agreeing on everything 100% of the time. But at the least, we should all feel safe, connected, free to speak our opinions, eager to hear others’, and willing to do what needs to be done so that others feel the same way. At most, our federal and state laws and policies should reflect compromise, if not understanding. Our democracy, our families, neighborhoods, cities, communities, workplaces, and states are what we make of them.

But how does one create dialogue, especially around polarizing topics like abortion, on the internet? And to what end?

Think about how the internet started. It was just a few academicians who wanted their computers to talk to each other, to connect. Those two have been joined by millions more over the years. It organically grew from a simple desire to connect, and it does do that in many wonderful ways, like:

  • helping people find real-life love, through dating sites and apps
  • connecting people with resources they might not have known about otherwise
  • enabling families to stay in touch more easily and dynamically

Facebook, for instance, has given me the opportunity to connect in real life with friends I hadn’t seen in 30 years, and would have had no other way to find them without Facebook and friends connecting with friends. Without the internet, I wouldn’t have found certain support networks for mothers of kids with ADD and other disorders. I wouldn’t have been able to connect with thousands of other book aficionados in the #writingcommunity or with various agents and publishers on Twitter, or with other book reviewers and fans through #bookstagram on Instagram. And don’t even get me started on how helpful ordering my groceries online or Amazon is. I keep in touch with my parents and siblings across the country via Marco Polo. These are all things that would not be possible without the ubiquitous power of the internet.

But it has also enabled inflammatory and hurtful speech to spread so much more quickly and widely than anything else in human history. Joe Battaglia, author of Unfriended: Finding True Community in a Disconnected Culture, says:

The words "Unfriended: Finding True Community in a Disconnected Culture" in white and yellow over a blue background

“A spirit of unforgiveness has been unleashed in our land, and it’s consuming us. The internet fosters this spirit, and we must consider the alternative to extinguish this wildfire of the tongue before it burns our entire land with bitterness.” (see full review here and deal ($11.52 instead of $14.99 through Amazon) here.

And Patricia Wallace, author of The Psychology of the Internet, adds:

A head silhouette in a loose configuration of a globe, with internet cables attached to it.

Because people experience disinhibition on the internet and feel relatively free of serious adverse consequences because of physical distance and reduced accountability, they often use tactics that go far beyond what they might use in person.

Examples of these tactics include threats, name-calling, and harassment. Wallace attributes these actions to anonymity, which is “another potent ingredient in the internet mixture as it applies to aggression.”

Most Americans tend to agree with Battaglia and Wallace. Two surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2014 and 2018 reveal that while 88 percent of them feel like the internet has been a good thing for them personally, the percentage of people who feel like it’s been good for society as a whole went down by 6 percent over those four years.

You’d think, with how much we use the internet, and the plentiful opportunities for its negative use, that someone would’ve developed an authoritative manual for how to communicate in any one of its vast number of platforms, forums, channels, groups, sites, or platforms. Instead, given that there isn’t one and anonymity or false identity is possible if not prevalent, can successful, important dialogue take place on the internet?

Yes it can. Indeed, it should. There are, in fact, many books on good old-fashioned communication that can easily be applied to internet dialogue. I’ve quoted Crucial Conversations before, for instance. These are the guidelines they provide for having conversations about important topics, at least the guidelines that I feel apply to internet discourse especially.

  • Start with your heart: if you’re not good with yourself, when conversations become crucial, you’ll most likely resort to ineffective forms of communication, like defensiveness, debate, etc.
  • Realize that there are more options than agreeing or fighting, and say you’d like to find them together
  • Search for the elusive “And” by clarifying what you really want and don’t want, and asking what others want and don’t want. Look for overlap (i.e., things you have in common).
  • Make it safe: step out of the content enough to state that everyone’s views are respected, and everyone needs to brainstorm solutions or compromises.
  • Establish mutual purpose and respect: somewhere in that overlap is something you and whoever is arguing with you have in common, even if it’s only fairness. You need to want to get to know the other side or person well enough that you can at least understand what that is. And you need to not be afraid to say who you are and what you think is right.
  • If a misunderstanding arises in the conversation, which it will, contrast to fix it, meaning, for example, something like: “The last thing I want to do is say that I don’t value your opinion, because I do. I can see you really feel it’s important that_________. I also feel that ______ is important, but my view differs from yours in that________.”

Authors Roger Fisher and William Ury say, in their book Getting to Yes:

Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, (which you can get for $7.19 instead of $17 on Amazon) that everything in life is negotiation, whether we’re negotiating with our spouse about where to go to dinner or our child about when to go to bed, and it can be done, even when people are

  • rude,
  • accusatory, or
  • vehemently opposed.

Here’s how:

  • Never bargain over positions, because doing so tends to lock people into theirs.
  • Put yourself in their shoes.
  • Describe the problem in terms of its impact on you rather than what the other side/person is doing or saying. “I feel scared when…” as opposed to “You’re a racist.”

Like Patterson, et al., they also recommend focusing on people and what interests you have in common with them, no matter the situation. Easy enough to do in theory, but can it be done in practice?

Erica Simon, in her book You Deserve the Truth: Change the Stories that Shaped Your World and Build a World-Changing Life (very good book, by the way. Full review here. Deal here), says we need to change the stories we tell ourselves when they’re not working for us any more.

One of the things that isn’t working for me, that even scares me on a daily basis, is not only the fact that so many people die by guns every year, and that I worry about my kids being shot and dying while at school, but also, and perhaps more so, the fact that we can’t have sufficient dialogue in our country to find a way (a compromise?) to solve The Great American Gun Debate so that both sides are satisfied (i.e., everyone is safer AND gun rights are still protected). Let’s see if we can talk about this, hmmm, perhaps using the principles I talked about above?

More to come on that…

Book Review: The Cyber Effect, a Dire Read About Internet Psychology

I have no trouble admitting that I very much hesitated to write this review of The Cyber Effect by Mary Aiken. It’s a non-fiction explanation of how much human behavior changes online, by a cyberpsychologist. It is a thorough examination of  the internet as a relatively new and expanding space, and a very depressing one at that.  As a book, it fulfills the parameters of its title, and is technically sound and structured. Its sources are credible and robust. But, as a description of the human race, it leaves much to be desired. And to the extent that it describes in great detail the many evil uses to which the internet has been put, one might expect that, in the interest of balanced science, it would also describe its positive uses as well, or at least its possible positive uses. But in that, one is disappointed. It is a dire read of internet psychology.

What Is The Cyber Effect About?

cyber-effect-cover

“Technology is not good or bad in its own right,” says the author. “It is neutral and simply mediates behavior, which means it can be used well or poorly by humankind.” Given that introduction, one would indeed expect, or at least hope for an examination of both the ways it has so far been used “well” and the ways it has been used “poorly” by humankind. Instead, it describes only how the internet has caused an explosion in the normalization of fetishes, addictions, and cases of hypochondria. “You don’t have to be an expert in the subject of online behavior to have observed that something about cyberspace provokes people to be more adventurous.” And, “once behavior mutates in cyberspace, where a significant number of people participate, it can double back around and become a norm in everyday life. This means that the implications of the online experience and environment are ever evolving and profound, and impact us all–no matter where we live or spend.”

While knowledge about the proliferation of humankind’s evils as facilitated by technology and the internet is helpful in combating it, so is knowledge of healthy life practices, especially those proliferated by the internet. A whole chapter is spent documenting the necessity of nursing mothers looking at their babies’ faces while nursing, as opposed to their screens, for example, based on the author’s anecdotal experience of watching one mother looking at her screen instead of her baby’s face while nursing. A balanced perspective would have included a listing of any studies that have been done documenting how many mothers do in fact look at their babies versus how many look at their screens.

Can Balance Be Found?

gamer-generation-coverAlong those same lines, many pages are devoted to the ways and reasons why a boy or girl with any kind of an ADD or depression diagnosis will most likely become addicted to online gaming. While parents of those children, like me (my oldest son has ADD), are aware of that possibility, they may not be aware of the positive effects of video games, as described in Jennifer Comet Wagner’s The Gamer Generation: Reaping the Benefits of Video Games or in various studies cited by TIME magazine in its analysis of the Cognitive Benefits of Video Games. This is not to say that a knowledge of the very possible, very negative implications of over-involvement in cyberspace is not important, but by its very existence and by the author’s own admission, too deep a knowledge of such things can be an evil in and of itself.

One could easily argue, as many have done, that any call to balance the debate about the overall value of the internet, and technology in general, is a call to ignore its more ghastly applications, to live in gleeful and willful ignorance. That is not what I advocate by providing this negative view of The Cyber Effect.  While I know that humankind can indeed be depraved, and that the internet has definitely exacerbated that tendency, I have, perhaps, knowledge of some of the more practical and positive uses of technology, having interviewed many wonderful women who’ve done so for MomItForward.com.

Who Should (Or Shouldn’t) Read The Cyber Effect?

I would say that all parents should read it, but only if they make it part of a larger and more focused study of the effects of internet use on their kids. I’m reluctant to review any book negatively because I know the great amount of work that goes into writing them. But it is not the book itself with which I take umbrage; it is its subject matter, its fatalistic view of humankind as defined by its use of the internet. No viable alternatives or positive steps are really given, other than those suggested by a listing of other countries’ approaches to cyberspace regulation. Those alternatives are called for, though: “We need to do more for families, and stop expecting parents to paddle their own canoes in cyberspace,” for one. “We need to start funding law enforcement better, so it can do its job in cyberspace. More resources are needed, and more teams need to be trained in this work. Academics and scientists need to be more flexible and responsive. We should bring together a large, diverse team of people to discuss and brainstorm about how best to redesign [the internet].” A much more in-depth discussion of these possibilities would have balanced out the book greatly.

What’s The Deal?

BetterWorldBooks has The Cyber Effect for $4.83 with free shipping.

Note: I received a free ARC of the book through NetGalley. All opinions provided herein are my own. Also, this post contains an affiliate link, which means I earn a small commission if you click through to purchase a copy of the book.