Online Civility and Communicating in a Text-Based World

Sep 8, 2014

When University of Iowa associate professor Kembrew McLeod wrote in protest of the university's pink locker room, he expected some hate-mail, but he was not prepared for how much the comments would hurt.

Responses like "I speak for the state of Iowa in saying that we detest you at a molecular level" and "Honestly, I do hope this guy gets beat up" can really "wear on one’s psyche," he says.

"I hadn't mentally prepared for how wearing it can be to read repeatedly how much people hate you."

Anyone who has perused comment sections online can tell you that civility is hard to find, while back and forth vitriol is typical. In this Talk of Iowa conversation, we look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of communicating with strangers online.

Racheal Ruble, lecturer at Iowa State University, says that we tend to interact based on the rules and norms of our society; but when we lose face-to-face interaction, we also lose sight of how our message is received.

"It's more about sending out the message of disagreement...of wanting to win," Ruble says. "That your side is the winning side...becomes more important than the consequences of what we say."

Barbara King, professor at the College of William and Mary and contributor to NPR's 13.7 "Cosmos and Culture" blog, has always been intrigued by the comment section of her blog posts and interacts with commenters regularly. A major question for her is when and how to engage with so called Internet "trolls."

Credit Jurgen Appelo

She has three rules for engaging with rude commenters.

  1. It's unnecessary to respond to "trolls" with a rude response. "A 'tit for tat' strategy is not the only way to go."
  2. Becoming part of the conversation can help provide perspective to commenters. "Sometimes just jumping in as a human being does act to humanize things."
  3. When things get too intense, she will stop posting. "As a person gets madder, it can be just a little satisfying not to participate in that escalation, because it kind of makes that person a little nuts."