Monday, December 31, 2007

Interpersonal Internet Communication or the Good Thing about Flame Wars

I studied interpersonal communication in grad school along with mass communication and communication theory, the three majors areas of study in my major. One of the tenets of interpersonal communication is feedback. Interpersonal communication is a two way street. We say something and a listener responds to it. But there are steps along the way. The listener has to first hear and listen to what is said, then process the information, and this gets into perception and a number of other big words. All that is more communication theory, my weakest area. I was most interested in mass communication having been a filmmaker.

On internet message boards we have flame wars, the heated arguments that get out of hand between people who post messages and disagree, sometimes on the most trivial points. To me this is interpersonal communication. Yet it's mass communication. Well which is it? This question, I think, could be at the heart of why we have flame wars. When we read stuff in a magazine, newspaper, or see it on TV, we come to believe whatever it is is mostly true or at least has been well researched by the writer. When we read stuff on a message board posted by anyone who happens to me a member, we should expect their words to be any more researched thane we would the words exchanged at a dinner conversation with an acquaintance we've met for the first time. Yet, I think board readers expect what they read to be reliable and when they detect that this isn't so they lash out with name calling or citing references to belittle the message poster.

People wouldn't do that at a dinner table. For one thing they have to face the respondent in person, as well an anyone else present. But this is also true on a message board. The people reading just aren't in person. So somehow we feel we can get away with making verbal attacks that we'd never do in person.

But what I really want to get at is the whole feedback cycle of interpersonal communication. It is a cycle. Person A says something to person B who processes the information and then responds with feedback to person A. Person A may then respond with a updated version of their original statement revised perhaps upon being enlightened by feedback from person B. Or person A may rephrase their statement to better clarify for person B what it is they meant.

The whole cycle breaks down in flame wars because we have person B telling person A how it is, not giving person A a chance to process their feedback and perhaps revise the original statement. We might have person A come back with a restatement to clarify their meaning and then person B will respond with charges of person A being a liar or phony because they change their meaning to fit the responses. Well that's what interpersonal communication is. If you can't understand this the don't ever bother getting married. It won't work out.

Something else I learned in class was that the concept of 'not' is exclusively human. That is to say animals and other creatures can't understand 'not'. They do know what not being hungry is. They don't know what not being loved is. They may want. But that is a positive concept. Only humans can put together that when you want something it means there is 'not' something there. What does this have to do with interpersonal communication?

Well, especially on message board debates, you get people taking stands and saying what something is while someone else says what it is not. So the 'not' concept is alive and thriving in debates and certainly on internet message boards, and this is a good thing. Debate is a great thing. It's a human thing. It's a freedom of speech thing. A freedom people have died for. So we should welcome debates and those who have their 'not' points of views. Flame wars are not pretty. But they are a symptom of a healthy society and we should condemn them and be too quick to ban people for getting into them. The internet is a new thing and we aren't used to it or fully understand what it is.

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