5 (pretty easy) steps to improve civility online

Shutterstock / Yulia Grigoryeva
Changing the tone of online culture may be as simple as fine tuning some of our own bad habits.

Because of an unforeseen glitch in the Internet era, we seem to have shorted out the motherboards our mothers gave us and deleted the folder where we store our manners. Go just about anywhere online (or just scroll straight down to the comment section here) and you’ll find that kindness and courtesy have brusquely been dragged to the trash.

For shame. (If only we had some left!)

Lately we see signs of civility’s collapse play out over social media: a sitcom star spewing racist slurs; a comedian saying a nasty word about a public figure; a president mocking a disabled person, opining about sexual assault, or dehumanizing entire populations. But these spectacles aside, we’ve each been helping dismantle civility with our own hands. More specifically our thumbs.


It’s not that we’ve suddenly become horrible people; it’s that we've gradually become horrible people. In ways big and small, the fundamental framework of how we relate to each other online has shoved this creeping deficit of humanity into a full-blown crisis. And in a political climate that demands everyone stop playing Mr. Nice Guy, the timing couldn’t be worse.

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“As a tool, civility has value,” Detroit Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer wrote recently in a piece called “Civility is for Chumps: In Defense of Anger.” “As a goal? It's lipstick on a pig.” 

She has a point, but whatever happened to civility just being a basic expectation that hovers between us? And how do we repair a mechanism that ought to guide us automatically though our dealings with each other? In this predicament, sweeping demands for courtesy may not go as far as small gestures. Changing the tone of our culture may be as simple as fine tuning some of our own bad habits.

 LEFT HANGING: Texting has not only made it easier for us to communicate, it’s made it equally easy to just . . . stop communicating. While asynchronous chat has freed us from the temporal bonds of conversation, it’s also turned us into real jerks. Who among us hasn’t ghosted from a rhythmic volley of text messages with no explanation? Who among us has never read a text on our lockscreens as a way to stealthily deny acknowledgment of receipt? And worst of all, who among us has never resorted to use of the passive aggressive “k” to get a point across. Texting etiquette may be complicated, but the basic premise of how conversation works (you listen, you respond, you see it to its conclusion, you sign off) are as simple as ever. Treat people like they’re there, and you’ll notice you’re treating them better. 

 COMMON SENSE: And while that last bit applies to your conversations with friends, the same principle goes double for your arguments with strangers. It’s easy to forget that the JPEG of an American flag that you’re arguing with on Facebook is, in fact, a real person; but “I forgot to not be terrible” is a really lousy excuse for being terrible. It’s so easy online to get sucked into bickering sessions over issues that are far more gray and gooey in nature, and we’ve seen where this coarse kind of discourse lands us. The temptation to operate on assumptions when facing off against an unknown adversary is real and toxic, so cleanse it from your system. A great way to keep an argument civil (at least on your end) is to identify what’s common between you and your co-bickerer and work gently outward from there. Starting from the same place makes it harder to lob grenades — or so goes the theory.


 TAKE IT OUTSIDE: Quick story: There was this one time when I was a busboy at Sonsie that I walked home from my shift and couldn’t get into my apartment in the Fenway because there were two big, fat, wet rats fighting on my doorstep. They just kept going. I had to go wait it out at the White Hen Pantry across the street until they wrapped it up. I have no idea which rat won. Didn’t matter. They were both gross. I think of this whenever I observe friends fight on a third friend’s wall. I’ve done it myself. It’s never a good look. If you want to preserve the sanctity of your friend’s wall, do everyone (and your argument) a favor and move that squabble into a private chat, where no one has to watch. Removed from the performative realm, arguments get less hissy and bitey and more productive and civil. 

 BIRTHDAY PRESENCE: Apart from facilitating relationship-severing fights over the whims of distant politicians, social media is also great for helping us keep track of each other’s birthdays, which is great. I’ve disclosed before in these pages that faithfully I use the daily birthday list on Facebook as a mechanism for culling my friend’s list — which, yes, makes me a terrible person by some measures. But I also use the birthday list as a daily way to connect with friends near and far, dear and distant, whether through a little video of me singing (rare) or the wall-post equivalent of a high-five: “HAPPY BDAY BABY!” (frequent). The Internet has a way of making us feel lost in a crowd while alone in our rooms; but everyone has one day a year where that dynamic can get dramatically reversed. Show up for the party every day. 

 GO OFF: No, really. The best way to bring civility back to life online is to spend a lot more time offline, and I say this as someone who has ordered from Amazon while technically asleep. The Internet has made us acutely aware of each other, and hopelessly lost as to how to deal with one another; and we’re beginning to see real-life adopt uncivil cues from the flame-or-be-flamed battlefields of the Web. If we don’t debug the system when and where it counts, it’s only a matter of time before it crashes.