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The Risk of Incivility

At the Les Blogs conference in 2005, Six Apart co-founder Mena Trott delivered a presentation on the topic of civility in blogging. Members of the audience attending the conference—and some outside the room—were using Internet Relay Chat as a backchannel to make comments during Mena's presentation. A large screen on the stage displayed the backchannel comments to the entire audience and to Mena.

After she finished her presentation, Mena took questions from the audience. At one point, Mena glanced over at the screen, read a comment on the backchannel that described her talk as "bullshit" (Figure 4-1).

Figure 4-1

Figure 4-1 In a widely discussed web video, presenter Mena Trott confronts an audience member over comments he made.

Mena raised her voice and said, "Who is dotBen? All day yesterday you've been an asshole to the people who've been in this panel and I want to know...what the *#$@?"

Ben Metcalfe stood up to acknowledge he was the person who had posted the comment, and explained that he had written it because he thought Mena's talk had been "patronizing." The two had a heated exchange about what Ben had written and whether it was fair for him to be called out in the room for what he had posted to the backchannel.

The two agreed to talk about it after the panel. According to posts on their blogs, Ben wrote that "it ended with a smile, a handshake and we even went outside to both cool down and reflect on things," and Mena said, "we were able to spend time talking through these issues in a really productive conversation—including us both apologizing for using such strong words."

But the impact of this backchannel blowup did not end with Mena and Ben's handshake. It continued to reverberate through blog posts and comments as people expressed their opinions of what is appropriate for audiences and presenters to do when the presence of a backchannel somehow disrupts the room.

When the virtual and the real collide

There are differences between what people say in the virtual and often anonymous nature of online communications and what they say to someone face-to-face.

One difference between online and offline conversations is tone. It's common for some people on blogs, discussion forums, and chat rooms to be sarcastic, snarky, or even rude. Part of what fosters this tone is the virtual and often anonymous nature of online conversations: Because people are not saying things directly to other people's faces they may feel freer to take a critical tone. When people in the backchannel go online to make comments, the context may also feel virtual and anonymous. But the reality is that the subject of the comments—the presenter—is there in the room, on occasion reading the comments out loud to everyone.

The juxtaposition of what was meant to be virtual with what has now become face-to-face can be shocking and lead to emotional confrontation.

Assuming privacy

Another difference between online and offline communications is an assumption of privacy. If you're chatting with others in a backchannel, you develop camaraderie and easily assume the conversation will stay among those involved and not reach the presenter.

But the assumed privacy of an online environment does not exist. Again, when the presenter reads backchannel comments out loud, the comments are brought to the attention of everyone in a very public way and whoever made the comments is now publicly accountable for them.

Lacking context

Because of the fast-moving environment that the backchannel creates, and the limited length and context of posts, the environment is ripe for misunderstandings and hurt feelings.

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