Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A sobering critique

On Monday evening my monthly writers’ group got to me about my Red Electric writing before the New York Times did on Tuesday morning.

Each writer in our group of six invites comments from the others about our monthly submissions. My submissions in the past two months have been several Red Electric posts.

On Monday evening one of my fellow writers put her criticism directly, “Your writing in the blog seems harsher.”

Another asked, obliquely, but tellingly, whether I missed having an editor.

Someone else wondered whether I would write my newspaper column the way I do the blog.

I had to confess that I’m more guarded in the column.

My tone, they were saying, is strangely different on-line. I agree. It is blunter and, frankly, less sensitive to how those I’m writing about might react.

I’ve been particularly tough on those in government and bureaucracies in general. I believe in what I’ve written, often passionately, but the criticism has been coarse at times.

I was sobered by my colleagues’ critique and my own repentance.

The very next morning, I found some solace in an explanation in the New York Times Science section. The author, Daniel Goleman, wrote that when we compose for the internet, we lack the visual feedback (a raised eyebrow, a grimace, a frown) that we do when we communicate face to face. As a result, our writing is far less inhibited. At times it is downright rude. At worst, it becomes “flaming.”

Psychologist even have a name for the behavior: “On-line Disinhibition Effect.”

What to do?

First, for me, a few apologies are in order to anyone who has been offended.

Second, clearly I need to create a greater sensitivity in this solitary writing space devoid of social cues.

Goleman suggests the problem will be solved when we have video e-mail so that we can see how recipients are responding. Until then he believes some kind of visual reminder of caution and civility should be pasted to the computer monitor.

The best one I can think of comes from the Salem, Oregon-based Hands Project. It takes the form of a refrigerators magnet depicting an open hand holding a heart. The image is accompanied by the words “Hands & words are not for hurting.”

In the case of on-line writing, the pledge should apply to typing hands and the words those hands send into cyberspace.

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