Is it possible for meaningful dialogue to occur over the internet? I ask myself this question over and over when I see the comment threads on prominent feminist blogs such as Feministe and Feministing. There are often huge flare-ups in the comments around topics of race, privilege, and other such incendiary issues, with people going at each other’s virtual throats. It pains me to see the extent to which many people race to share their own story without making an attempt to understand the perspective expressed in the other comments. It equally pains me to see the ways in which many people express themselves, using hurtful, accusatory, and divisive language – “you” statements dominate by far over “I” statements. On both ends, the comment discussion lacks crucial elements of dialogue, where individuals make an effort both to listen and to express themselves in ways that are respectful of others. I find myself wondering how productive the online, forum-style form of communication really is. An often-lauded benefit of the internet is the way in which it brings diverse people in contact who would otherwise never meet. However, if the way they are meeting is through divisive comment threads on blog posts, is that benefit lost?
I do believe that the most effective dialogue must occur in person. Body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice are all important parts of communication between individuals that help us empathize and achieve understanding. On the internet, we have only words. Skilled writers can achieve great things with only words, but the majority of content on the internet is not from skilled writers. Putting intense emotions and deeply-held assumptions into words is difficult enough as it is, but without the aid of non-verbal cues, it becomes that much harder. Dialogue also requires making oneself vulnerable. In some cases, the anonymity of the internet may allow someone to share something they would not otherwise. But in other cases, the knowledge that anyone in the whole world may read what you write can feel even more threatening.
However, I do not think that productive dialogue is completely impossible on the internet. Sharing stories is an important part of dialogue that does not require immediate response from others. The asynchronous aspect of the internet allows individuals more time to reflect on what they have read before responding – although many people do not seem to do enough thinking before responding, at least the potential is there. In general, I think that for dialogue to be truly effective on the internet someone needs to set the intention for it and explicitly invite the participants to interact in a dialogue format. This act of creating space for dialogue to happen is no different from what is needed for productive in-person dialogues. Most people have little experience with communicating in the ways required by dialogue, and therefore most conversations, either in-person or over the internet, do not take the form of dialogue.
In the end, we all make a choice about how we respond to the words we hear from others, either verbal or written. No matter what the context online, whether or not dialogue is a specific intention of the website, blog, or forum, we can each set an intention with ourselves, to read each others’ words with an openness of mind and heart, holding the intent of gaining a better understanding of each other and ourselves as human beings.