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A free-for-all in the virtual town hall


It goes without saying that the internet is not the best place to have complex conversations, yet it's where we converse now. 'Don't read the comments' has become axiomatic. As comedian Aparna Nancherla tweeted, 'Grant me the serenity to not read the comments, the courage to not read the comments, and the wisdom to not read the comments.'

Woman yelling at laptop screenWhen acting deputy Greens leader Adam Bandt recently posted about his 'hot wife' on Facebook, a handful of people criticised him for sexually objectifying her. Those few comments would have disappeared down the feed had they not been amplified by other users, as well as the media that turned it into a story. This led to more comments — until the situation was diffused and the moment passed.

The controversy around the recent finals of the US Open, however, was far more complex. Not having watched the match — as undoubtedly the vast majority of us hadn't — reading the comments led to a confusing picture of what had occurred. Depending on people's politics, certain aspects were emphasised over others. The only thing agreed upon, if it was brought up at all, was that Naomi Osaka seemed to have her hard-earned moment of glory taken away from her.

Then along came the Herald Sun's cartoon of Serena Williams. As the discussion rippled across the internet with no consensus in sight, it became obvious that none of us win in such a scenario, aside from cartoonist Mark Knight and the Herald Sun (owned by News Corp). No doubt they gleefully counted on the inevitable outrage, high-fiving each other when their cartoon drew international attention.

When I was in an online fight recently, it didn't take long for it to escalate in a way that took me aback. Only a small number of steps were required before someone interpreted an action as being the exact opposite of what it actually was. There's a greater possibility of de-escalating an argument face-to-face whereas the internet is an intensely verbal space without non-verbal cues for context, so when people — strangers — interact there is every chance for misinterpretation, which may even be willful. Often we're not entering discussions with the same spirit, let alone understanding.

Seeing arguments unfold online certainly reflects the idea that we live in polarised times. Why is this? The reasons are many and complex but at no point before in human history have we been exposed to so much information on a daily basis via the internet. Our brains are rewiring to cope but in the meantime, it's little wonder most of us feel overwhelmed, and why particular incidents and people are zeroed in on and gain our attention.

At its best, commenting is about entering into public conversations to share, learn and teach. Over time I've read many critical comments that offer important correctives and counterpoints. But more often than not commenting just seems to be about processing the events of the day — even when the thoughts are half-formed, ill-informed, reactionary and deliberately provocative.


"What will it take for us to work out how to talk in civil ways that are inclusive and productive online — or is that simply not the goal?"


Does the ready desire for argumentation that some thrive on come from wanting to feel, well, something — anger, certainly — rather than passively watching the world whir by? Humans are inherently social creatures with a need to converse, yet we live in isolation and mental distress in greater numbers than ever before. I wonder if some of us are even mainly connected to others via the gossamer of the world wide web. So commenting in whatever way is in part about feeling a sense of relevance and control, when mostly we feel powerless about the large-scale problems of our societies.

The idea of a 'virtual town hall' has been used in some domains to bridge power divides, bringing laypeople and experts together to map out futures for our communities in facilitated ways. But what we see on the largely unregulated internet is more of a free-for-all rather than a town hall. What will it take for us to work out how to talk in civil ways that are inclusive and productive online — or is that simply not the goal? Perhaps there is just too much pluralism, as these discussions often go well beyond national borders too.

I've long been interested in the thinking of artist and computer scientist Jonathan Harris. He was once far more optimistic about the communal aspects of the internet but on his latest project, A Silent Place, he writes, 'our collective relationship with the internet has changed. The techno-utopian rhetoric that once prevailed has now given way to talk of addiction, fake news, electioneering, and the vast manipulation and monetisation of human attention.

'The internet has become a cacophony, and its promise of informational omniscience no longer feels plausible, desirable, relevant, or wise.'

It's easy to fall into despair about the cacophony. But the internet is obviously still powerful in helping us come to grips with the news alongside unknown others. To share disbelief, grief, laughter and occasionally even joy, though it seems rare for celebration to occur without critique nowadays.

Humans of New York deserves special mention with the way it continues to foster a sense of a global humanity on Facebook. Not just the stories but the comments, which are often just as thoughtful and compelling. It's the perfect antidote to a feed full of outraged posts — though perhaps there is not enough outrage about the most urgent injustices.



Sheila PhamSheila Ngoc Pham is a writer, producer and radio maker. She currently teaches public health ethics at Macquarie University and is a PhD candidate at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation. She tweets as @birdpham

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