Online etiquette: the fork and the iPhone

By Nicole Pangborn

In his recent New York Times article, Frank Bruni discusses the world of “instant expression” and “immediate audience” that we have come to know all too well in the digital era. He contrasts this world — of 140-character real-time updates and instant Facebook statuses — with the world of his mother, where it used to be common advice to “count to ten before you speak”. Making a reference to the recent Twitter gaffe of a prominent PR executive (in which she lost her job after tweeting a distasteful joke about being white, and therefore not having to worry about AIDS on her trip to Africa), Bruni claims that today, speed has overtaken sense, and nuance has simply “exited the equation”. When quickness is what matters most, complex and intricate ideas are nearly impossible to circulate widely. Bruni makes the case that our biggest challenge in the new year will be to learn how to take advantage of our new technologies while simultaneously avoiding the loss of complexity of thought.

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When I read Bruni’s article over the winter break, I was immediately reminded of Norbert Elias, one of the theorists we studied in our first year Classical Theory course. In his most famous work, The Civilizing Process (1939), Elias describes the role of new technology (e.g., the fork) in the historical shaping of social behaviors (e.g., table manners). He also emphasized the effects of such technology on the more internal processes that mold how members of society think and feel about such behaviors. Broadly, he poses the question: to what extent do we create the technology that is inspired by our behavior, and to what extent is our behavior then a product of that technology? This got me wondering: what would Elias say about the effects of social media and digital technology in our era, and how might they fit into larger historical processes?

It seems to me that digital technology fulfills our natural need for connection and association. But after a need is fulfilled by a new technology, that technology in turn shapes behavior (either by stigmatizing or commending practices). In the rapid-fire online world, slow deliberation — long, drawn out argumentation, infused with complexity of thought — is quite frowned upon. This distaste for slowness in many ways forces us to want to read, express, and think more quickly, even when the subject matter might actually call for a more complicated solution. The aversion is particularly strong within the Silicon Valley startup communities, where adjectives like “simple”, “fast”, and “elegant” reign supreme for investors. One might imagine that if simplicity is such a priority for these startups, who are largely responsible for introducing future technologies, the cycle could continue: web-based platforms for connection in the future could very well be focused on even more rapid-fire, simplified communication.

For now, though, because this technology has pushed us to frown upon slow deliberation, it has then also allowed us to approve some other behaviors that we might have disapproved in the past. When our need for instant gratification is combined with the fact that the Internet keeps us physically removed from our audience, acting on impulses — even to the point of rudeness — becomes almost acceptable. In this new type of social space, we don’t have to physically face the person(s) we are speaking to, and we can lash out without reaction or consequence. For instance, it’s considered completely “okay” to start a heated political battle in, say, the comment section underneath a friend’s Facebook link. There is barely enough space to properly argue through such a medium, and perhaps because of the loss of a more nuanced discussion, such fights often devolve into misunderstanding, coarse name-calling, and heat-of-the-moment insults, which are then etched in digital stone for all the world to see (and remember).

So, it seems (to me at least) that the ideas we have about what is socially “okay” have changed at the hands of the Internet. Whaddaya think, readers? What might the message boards and posts of the future look like? (Please feel free to discuss in the comment section!)