Scholars and the Public CyberSquare

Over the last several decades educational institutions have called upon their faculty to become socially embedded; other educational and cultural institutions press for the interaction of scholars and other qualified folks (sometimes called “public intellectuals”) to interact with the public on a more frequent basis.  On the whole, those scholars who have these opportunities accept, even embrace them.

However, the world of cyberspace changes the terrain of interaction a great deal. In the past a scholar, speaking before an audience, knew that in most cases audience members would behave in a civil and respectful manner, whatever their personal sentiments and beliefs. If nothing else, they did not want to look foolish in front of other audience members. If one wrote an essay, opinion piece, or op-ed, one did not anticipate many responses, and fewer still that would be public. Here and there one would get a nasty letter, but that exchange was private, and one could simply ignore the letter and leave it at that. There was rarely an audience for such exchanges, and the effort of composition and transmittal deterred many a would-be critic, who had no audience to please or impress.

That is no longer the case in the world of online discussion and e-mail. It’s rather easy for people to contact one another, and far easier to hit “send” than to mail a letter. Moreover, one can conduct these exchanges in public, where an audience that is sometimes all too eager to watch such exchanges (even as some bystanders claim to deplore such stuff) awaits. Indeed, beyond this one encounters people who love to wag their fingers in disapproval of anything that does not meet their own standards of civility (although my experience is that these self-appointed monitors of discourse seem far more interested in how scholars behave than in how other people behave, an interesting concession that one does not hold one’s fellow citizens to the same standards that one expects of scholars and public intellectuals.

Kevin Levin has weighed in at Civil War Memory on a recent incident in which participants aired their exchanges on the pages on Facebook. I think Kevin’s captured only part of the situation. My own experience is that face-to-face confrontations rarely spiral out of control in the way that screen-to-screen confrontations often do, in large part because of the role played by the audience  that is so visible present in face-to-face exchanges.  I had cause to reflect on this several evenings ago, when two people went after me in comments after a public presentation. The challenges themselves were rather easy to handle, and I received numerous complements from scholars and audience members alike for how I handled the questioners. Whether this would have been the same result in cyberspace is difficult to determine, but I think not.

It’s worth pondering these issues and how cyberspace alters public discourse, period. What do you think?

6 thoughts on “Scholars and the Public CyberSquare

  1. jfepperson September 30, 2012 / 6:38 am

    You and I have seen many examples of inane and boorish behavior online. It is very easy to “hide behind the keyboard,” and I think this acts as an enabling mechanism for some folks.

  2. Pat Young September 30, 2012 / 8:52 am

    The phenomenon of attack comments online is not as spontaneous as it is often presented. I write/edit two websites on immigration issues from the immigrant’s pov. Controversial stuff, as you might guess. Yet most days we don’t get a single winger nutty comment. The conservatives are usually pretty well-behaved.

    But every so often it is the Invasion of the Blog Snatchers. I’ll wake up, look at the site, and find 50 to 100 ranting attacks, often on fairly innocuous posts. Drilling down, I’ll find that some Minuteman group decided to rally its forces for a comment assault. One day Michael Savage, a radio host, attacked us and posted a link. This resulted in 500 of the nastiest, most physically threatening comments, I’ve received. On the other hand, Neil Cavuto and Joe Arpaio denounced us on Fox News last week, but there were no comments at all. The difference apparently was that Fox did not provide a link and no one at Fox urged viewers to go to our site “and let them know how you feel”.

    The nasty commenters have a certain herdlike way of behaving. They have to be directed to make an attack and they also need someone to facilitate the attack by putting on a link.

    • Andy Hall September 30, 2012 / 1:12 pm

      But every so often it is the Invasion of the Blog Snatchers. I’ll wake up, look at the site, and find 50 to 100 ranting attacks, often on fairly innocuous posts. Drilling down, I’ll find that some Minuteman group decided to rally its forces for a comment assault.

      League of the South, SHPG and other Confederate heritage groups do this regularly.

  3. Michael C. Lucas October 1, 2012 / 9:44 am

    The Union Academia, Media and many in the public today, present attacks with aggressive anti Confederate themes attacking Southern people, Confederate Heritage period, with distortions of facts and subjects regarding the Civil War discussion and are the cause of much of the problem. And inherently manifest and invite defensive reactions against pro Union Academia positions. On the flip side and overall is the same challenge which pro Southerners views have made in their attacks with errors and distortions based on their beliefs rather than evidence against Union Academia. But note the political contingencies which avail either side maintain the divide. It is a fight which has been waged over 170 years if not more so it has only changed with people, the times, and format but the arguments persist over who was right, what is true, who should be blamed, how it should be remembered. In this format things are often misinterpreted where one on one things are presented more clearly and with modest decorum to reach an understanding even to agree or disagree.

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 1, 2012 / 1:51 pm

      Your reply illustrates some of the very things you deplore. The notion that academics, many of whom hail from the South or teach in the South, are attacking “the South” or “the Southern people” creates exactly the sort of misperception you challenge. Most academics don’t invest in saying who was right/wrong and who was to blame. Nor are their answers nearly as simple as you claim. My question is why you use such notions as your basic assumptions.

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