Essays on Technology and Culture

Remember, There’s a Person on the Other End

Whenever we interact online, particularly in text, a lot gets lost. No emoticon, Markdown syntax, mock HTML, or simple caging can truly capture the tonalities of actual speech. Body language is completely out. We’re left with a mode of communication where intent needs, even begs to be defined early on. I suspect that this is the reason why a lot of online communication tools can become method of broadcasting cruelty. Part of how we come to know people, in the real world, is through knowing their face, the tone of their voice, their mannerisms. We are able to personify someone, even if we don’t know their name. So much communication on the Internet, even in the age of Social Media, is de-personified, and that’s where the trouble starts.

De-personification of the people we deal with on our communication mediums allows us to forget ourselves. When we see the person on the other end as a non-person, I suspect this triggers a change in how we choose to act. We’re freed of the traditional expectations of interpersonal communication and the concepts of basic civility. So, we’re less judicious with our choice of words, we’re more aggressive in our stances, and we’re less willing to consider anything that differs with our point of view. De-personalization is also a stepping stone to outright dehumanization, and the lifting of all boundaries on behavior. Once a person is seen as something other than human, history has shown us time and time again what happens.

Anonymity is merely an additional layer of armor in a dangerous world of de-personalized communication. This may have been part of the reason Google insisted on real names and images for profiles on Google Plus. [1] It’s a way to keep people slightly more civil and honest. I don’t know how effective it is, however, because of the point I made at the start of this essay. Online communication is still, largely, textual, and strips out the very things that help us define a person in a human space.

It takes a conscious act of will to see the people we interact with online as more than just pixels on a screen. Somewhere, on the other side of all those cables and boxes, sitting at a keyboard, is another person just like you and I. They think, they feel, they sense, and they communicate just like us, because they are us. Empathy may be innate, but I think only to a degree. Empathy is a skill we develop and learn through interacting with people, and especially in a space where we can get the full range of interaction. When someone lives in a space into which interaction is filtered down to words on a screen, unless a sense of empathy has been built ahead of time, it’s hard to view them as anything more than words.

  1. The other part being that if they know who you really are, they can target ads to you better, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.  ↩