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?