Can Charity Prevail on the Internet?

Deal W. Hudson
August 13, 2008

Go to any news Web Site and find an article on George Bush, Barack Obama, or John McCain. Start reading the comments section – there may be several hundred if it’s a major news site like MSNBC or Fox News. Before long, you’ll begin to feel like you have been punched in the face or dunked in the mud.

Sometimes, this is true here on InsideCatholic.com, despite very clear admonitions from our editor for visitors to remain civil. Fortunately, most readers have done just that, in spite of marked differences over politics, liturgy, and Catholic doctrine. That’s what we’re looking for: Our staff is committed to creating a virtual space where people can disagree, but speak with charity (we all fall short of that standard on occasion, myself included).

This is important if we want to have any kind of real communication. One disruptive commenter can ruin an otherwise constructive conversation.

The New York Times published an account of its own move to the Internet, and their experience echoes our own. One of its Internet editors, Kate Phillips, is “enthralled” by the readers’ comments, but gets discouraged by the invective – “I almost wish we could go back to the days when we never heard their voices.”

With media moving to the Internet and thus becoming interactive, the commonsense demands of courtesy are being ignored. Internet communication will never truly thrive until it demands the same decency people observe in other forms of interaction. That a relationship is virtual is no excuse for incivility.

So why are people on the Internet so… rude? Studies and surveys have confirmed that Internet use does make people act uncharitably who normally would not. The impact of digital technology has created so many new ways of communicating that it has fostered an atmosphere of freedom without responsibility.

In a humorous column titled, “On the Internet, everyone knows you’re a dog,” Michael Kinsley writes:

There is something about the Web that brings out the ego monster in everybody. It’s not just the well-established tendency to be nasty. When you write for the Web, you open yourself up to breathtakingly vicious vitriol. People wish things on your mother, simply for bearing you, that you wouldn’t wish on Hitler.

Kinsley thinks anonymity is the main culprit, but then makes the telling point that the social networking sites – where everyone abandons anonymity – are actually the most successful. If the implications of this are true, the bad habits of Internet “road rage” appeal to far fewer people than those who are in search of friendship and community.

Rev. Michael P. Orsi has diagnosed the problem well and has spelled out certain moral guidelines Catholics must follow on the Internet. He believes the problem boils down to calumny – the deliberate harm done to a person’s reputation (see CCC #2447) – which is endemic in the virtual world.

His analysis of online ugliness is simply brilliant and should be read by anyone interested in the ethical use of blogs and comment spaces. (Father Orsi is particularly insightful on the considerable craft some bloggers apply to their defamations.)

The Internet began as a place of pure immediacy and anonymity. Readers, cruising along the virtual highway, assumed their behavior would never lead to an arrest, or to any consequences at all. And so with no fear of being caught, they write what they want with no impulse control, nor any thought of the real people on the other side of the screen.

Good manners will eventually inform virtual relationships, though there’s much ground to make up. As Kinsley points out, most Internet users are interested in creating communities of common interests rather than providing an audience for the insufferable.

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