Why Are We So Horrible to Each Other Online?

This historian Heather Cox Richardson posted this question as a hypothetical and invited responses. As often happens, I realized that my response was the rough draft of a blog post, and because it’s about written communication, this is the blog it belongs in. I have, of course, messed with it a bit. 😉

Aside: If you have any interest in U.S. history and/or the current U.S. political situation and you aren’t already following HCR’s Letters from an American, you should. As a subscriber, I can blather in the comments, but you can read it for free. You can find it in your inbox almost every morning. Also for free, you can listen to the podcast Now and Then, which she recently started with sister historian Joanne Freeman on the Vox/Cafe network.

Well, in my experience plenty of people aren’t horrible to each other online, and “online” isn’t monolithic. Some online situations facilitate horrible behavior and others don’t. My hunch is that a big factor is that online we can’t see the reaction our words are having. In face-to-face (F2F) encounters we can. (Need I say that some people are capable of being horrible F2F and never regretting it.) Humans are sensitive to the physical presence of others — this is even true for those who perform before large audiences. Online we don’t have those cues. We’re posting in isolation.

I suspect that my mostly positive experience over the years on Facebook is partly due to the fact that a significant percentage of my FB friends are, like me, editors and/or writers, or they work in fields where communication is front and center, like education or health care. We pay close attention to the intended audience for what we’re writing or saying. This shapes how we say it, both the words and the tone. Most of us most of the time probably do this without thinking too much about it.

Those of us who move through different circles in the course of a day or write/edit for different audiences become adept at code-switching. I’m currently editing a book-length manuscript about the oil industry. The intended audience includes readers who know a lot about the oil industry and/or a fair amount about economics, but it also includes readers who are interested in energy politics but know little about economics or the oil company at the center of this book. Earlier this year I edited (1) a travel memoir focused on the Adriatic, and (2) a memoir that combines personal history with African-American history and women’s experience into a hard-to-describe whole. I’m here to tell you that no style guide recommendation I know of could apply to all three jobs. Too much depends on the subject at hand and the intended audience.

Consider, too, that plenty of people active online have less-than-stellar skills in written communication, period. They aren’t accustomed to speaking with people outside of their own circle either. In other words, I’m not surprised that many people are horrible to each other online. This makes me value all the more the skills I’ve developed as an editor.

Over the decades I’ve learned to pay close attention not just to individual behavior but to the underlying systems that shape it. Since I joined Facebook 10 years ago and Twitter last year (I held out for a long time, and on the whole I don’t think I’ve missed much), I’ve noticed a big difference between them and the e-groups I’ve been part of since the late 1990s. Part of it has to do with effective moderation (on Facebook and Twitter there effectively isn’t any), but even more it has to do with structure. The structure of social media makes it hard to have anything close to a conversation or discussion. The comment threads move in one direction only. Subthreads surface here and there, but they’re mostly ephemeral.

If you take umbrage at what someone else has posted, it is very hard to ask that person what s/he meant. Since we generally know very little about the person whose post we’re pissed off at, misunderstandings are inevitable, and it’s much easier to fire back a rejoinder than to ask for clarification.

And we’ve learned that Facebook et al. ❤ this. Their algorithms privilege posts that inspire immediate reactions — emojis and sharing — not those that encourage temperate speech and clarification. As writers and editors we know how much communication benefits from the ability to step back for a few minutes (or hours, or days). Social media do not encourage this.

The short version? As writers, editors, and other word people we know that communication is possible across political, regional, ethnic, and all sorts of differences. We know that we have the skills to help it happen. But social media does not make it easy. I hope it doesn’t make it impossible.

J Is for Journal/ism

Journal, journalism . . .

Lately while out in the woods with my dog I’ve been pondering the connection. It’s out there in plain sight: both words derive from the Latin diurnus or diurnal, daily, by way of the French jour. So does journey, from the Old French jornée, a day’s travel or a day’s work.

The etymological connection is close and clear, but in practice? Both have to do with writing, but journals are private while journalism is very public, right?

Well, a journal is private while you’re writing in it, but in the historical and biographical nonfiction I copyedit, previously private journals become essential sources for published writing. Public figures and figures who plan to become public often keep journals as an off-the-record record of their journeys, their days’ travel and their days’ work. For anyone who seeks to understand what was going on behind the scenes during important events, these journals become crucial.

With journalism, the journey from private to public happens much faster. It may be almost immediate. Being a rather slow writer myself, I’m continually awed by the speed with which a good reporter can gather information, synthesize it, and spin it into a story that makes sense when heard or read. In a competent news organization the reporter doesn’t do it alone, of course. The tighter the deadline, the more important editors and fact-checkers become.

You can see the problem: In the digital age, deadlines have never been tighter, but unfortunately neither have budgets, and the editorial and fact-checking positions are among the first to get axed. For a writer, going to print without adequate editing is like doing tightrope acrobatics without a safety net. Continuous deadline pressure raises the wire a few yards.

Another casualty of the digital age has been local journalism. Local journalists know their areas well. They develop stories that develop under the radar of regional and big-city news organizations. These stories can and often do become the impetus for regional and national stories — the building blocks, if you will.

And that’s a connection between journals and journalism: as journals can become building blocks — sources — for historians, biographers, and historical-fiction writers, so day-to-day news stories become the foundation for longer series, for informed commentary, and for full-length books. Some of the most important books I’ve read began as the writer’s reporting for a newspaper or magazine. Among the works that come immediately to mind: Seyward Darby’s Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the migration of African Americans from the South into the Northeast, Midwest, and West.

Others rely heavily on the in-depth reporting of others, such as Rachel Maddow’s Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.

I recently copyedited two books dealing with Covid-19. One focused on the political and medical aspects of the pandemic; the author had clearly been keeping a detailed record of a year’s worth of developments, while publishing some of it in pieces along the way. The other, by a working journalist, gathered in-depth interviews with individuals variously involved with the pandemic, as patients, health-care workers, local officials, scientists, and so on; earlier versions of most of these interviews had already been published.

So what does all this have to do with you, the writer and/or editor? I see a few possibilities. An obvious one is that news outlets, especially local ones, are a vehicle for getting your words into print and even building an audience. Think letters to the editor, op-eds (opinion pieces that traditionally appear opposite the editoral page), and feature stories, for instance about an individual or organization that’s doing good work in your area.

As local news outlets decline, “citizen journalism” has become more important. Sometimes it’s fostered by existing news organizations; other times it arises from the grass roots, with individuals using social media to report and comment on happenings in their areas. Some practitioners have huge national and international followings. Many more find readers closer to home.

In my area a very large Facebook group has become a conduit for local news, even though we’re lucky enough to still have not one but two weekly newspapers. I think of it as the grapevine on steroids: “news,” such as it is, travels farther faster than old-fashioned gossip ever dreamed of doing, and it can be every bit as inaccurate and even vindictive. But it tells me a lot about the community I live in.