Saturday, 17 October 2009

The medium and the message

A while ago, somebody here suggested that the vitriol and unpleasantness on some home education lists was due to the nature of the medium, rather than anything specific to home education. I have been thinking about this and it seems to me to be very likely. I am a member of a message board about grammar and the correct usage of English. Some of the exchanges on this list are also very aggressive, even about such relatively trivial matters as gerund forms of verbs and irregular plurals. My wife has had similar experiences on the Ebay sellers advice forum.

At first sight, it seems odd that people should be so aggressive and sometimes even abusive, just because they are typing their words rather than speaking them. After all, in the old days we used to write letters to each other without being like this. What's so different about the internet? I think the answer is that it depends upon whether you are writing to one person or addressing hundreds. Because another thing that I have noticed is that no matter how sharp the exchanges I might have with individuals on a forum, when we email each other personally, everything is perfectly pleasant and friendly. I suppose that when we post a message on a forum, there is bound to be an element of showing off involved. We check the spelling more carefully, make sure there are no typos and perhaps use grander words than we would when emailing a friend. There is always the temptation to play to the gallery as well, a temptation that I have in the past myself succumbed!

When addressing a forum, we also often try to conform to what we know of the views of the other members. After all, few of us wish to be outcasts. I noticed this very clearly last week. The day after the select committee hearing, somebody on one of the home education lists posted a message containing the following reference to me;

"I've had dealings with the person in question ... we need to stop feeding the trolls."

Now this is quite standard for that particular list. "I've had dealings with the person in question", she says darkly. What dealings, you are bound to ask yourself? Has she ticked him off? Has he sent her an abusive offline message? She is at any rate, conforming to what the group expect, expressing the same views as everybody else. Now the curious thing is that a couple of days before she posted this, the person had been exchanging emails with me in a friendly and casual fashion. Here is what she said three days earlier;

"Hi Simon,I don't know what I can believe really. I cannot believe that every single Home Educator is of completely the same mind as me, but I do not agree that one can ...................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................If you do happen to remember where you saw the Select Committee submissions posted on the internet then perhaps you'd drop me the links? I am genuinely interested in hearing the alternative viewpoint, debate and discussion being for, rather than against, the intellectual good."

I have removed any identifying bits. As you can see, perfectly amiable. This illustrates neatly the difference between the public and the private email.

I must myself plead guilty to altering my style dramatically depending upon whether the message is for private or public consumption. What's the point of wasting a really witty put-down on an individual who will perhaps just delete it unread? Far better to get it onto a forum, where you will be able to treasure it for all time! Many of us crave attention in this way, at least those of us who hang out on online communities. Few of us would in real life be given the opportunity to address several hundred people and even if we were we might be too nervous to do it. This way we can sit in comfort and see our smart alec remarks preserved for posterity without any risk of muffing our words or becoming tongue tied. How cool is that?

I think that factors such as these might account for a good deal of the unpleasantness one sees on home education fora. After all, most of the home educators one encounters in real life seem OK, why should those on the lists be any worse? The cloak of anonymity plays a role here as well. Some people on the lists are only known by a nom de guerre, which means that they can be as awful as they please. Probably, if one met them in the world outside cyberspace, they would be as normal as anybody else, or at least as normal as other home educators.


  1. >>>>>>>>This way we can sit in comfort and see our smart alec remarks preserved for posterity without any risk of muffing our words or becoming tongue tied. How cool is that?<<<<<<<

    Oh come on. It is *pretty* cool! LOL!

    Mrs Anon

  2. Quite right Mrs. Anon, I wasn't really joking about that. I find it as exciting as anybody that some off the cuff remark of mine will remain one a sitite where any one of the earth's six billion inhabitants can see it. Much better than simply sending an email to one individual!

  3. Why Fiona, I am sorely tempted to respond "personed"? I routinely use the word "staffed" myself, instead of "manned". But "personed", which you used on Wednesday to describe the activity of minding a stall, is a new one on me! As for fora, any fule kno this is the plural of forum! Actually, of course, it is not. I was using it tongue in cheek. It would technically be accurate to use it as the plural of the market places in Roman towns, but to use it as I did for the plural of an information exchange is at best affected, at worst a barbarism. I plead guilty and ask for thirty eight similar offences to be taken into consideration.......

  4. Looks like you touched a nerve there Fiona ;)

  5. I am sure that it is no secret at all that I am pathologically obsessed with the correct use of the English language. I almost had a seizure when I heard Fiona refer to "personing a stall"! That such a one should then query my own use of an irregular Latin plural is beyond all reason. Whose nerves would not be touched to the quick by this?

  6. LOL! Simon, you brighten up my day.

  7. Were I to introduce you to my husband you could have exciting debates about the correct use of the subjunctive!

    Us lesser mortals just have to do our best!

  8. Ahem. I think you'll find that "I've had dealings with x" is just a different way of saying "I fell out with X". For the same reasons as people would resort to calling another person "troll", usually. I'm informed by friends who've been using the internet for rather longer than I have that a troll used to be something else entirely (someone posting to a board or list, aiming to stir up trouble).

    These days, a troll seems to be just someone another person disagrees with, to the point of having diametrically opposing views. I always use the rule that if I wouldn't say something to someone's face, I wouldn't dream of posting it anywhere either. I do agree though, that once one has personal contact, most people seem to mellow, and become a wee bit more restrained and polite. Most, that is. Some people are just rude and ill-mannered no matter what.

    Hey! Subjunctives. I never studied Latn formally, but have always found French and English subjunctives to be fun. I like language. It can be very powerful stuff.