Technology can improve lives and provides boundless communication possibilities. It brings people together when physical distance would keep us apart. The opportunities for friendships, education, and employment abound because of endless technological advancements.
However, there is a downside. Technology makes private reactions instantly public, creating a challenge to civility.
In 2020, Microsoft reported that digital civility is at the lowest level in four years. “Microsoft’s Digital Civility Index stands at 70%, the highest reading of perceived online incivility since the survey began in 2016, and the first time the DCI has reached the 70th percentile. Moreover, the equally troubling trends of emotional and psychological pain—and negative consequences that follow online-risk exposure—both also increased significantly.”
A recent personal experience with online incivility came about when I entered a live-streaming news event. The app allows for anyone to post immediate, hair-raising reactions in emoji’s and comments as well. An angry emoji often accompanies a venomous comment. Comments consume two-thirds of the app screen and subsumed the live news report.
During this same live-stream event, I offered a compliment regarding the person speaking. I received an instant notification from a person I don’t know who had placed negative emojis and negative comments about my positive comment—on my social media page. I checked this person’s social media and he seemed as if he would be a nice enough fellow, yet he felt compelled to “dis” my positive comment with negativity. Not very civil.
Technology is neutral. Whatever good or bad, positive or negative, form it takes is created by how we engage it.
The problem with digital technology is that there is little accountability or incentive to encourage empathy. And no disincentives for bad behavior.
Without an accountability structure, there is no opportunity to learn empathy, as there is no reason to have to put yourself in another person’s shoes. Absent is in-person, face-to-face, having to look someone in the eye and be response-able. You really can be more or less anonymous and face no consequences, no feedback.
Will this hurt civility in our society? It certainly could. Empathy is at the core of civility, and without empathy we can never know how we might help someone or understand beyond our narrow bubbles of perception what another person is like or what they might need.
A person wrote to me asking why I make such a big deal out of etiquette. He commented that he likes getting things off his chest and what he says doesn’t hurt anyone—no, he continued—if anything his comments might stop them long enough to think. I responded, “Maybe your negativity hurts you. Maybe you are de-humanizing yourself.” He didn’t write back.
Being human requires being aware of the effects and impact you have on another human. Otherwise, there is no consideration. Feedback and consequences give us the opportunity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
If we can’t imagine what it is like in those shoes, then we can’t develop empathy. Without empathy, we are more likely to create a situation where a person might be hurt.
At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves what kind of a person we’ve been. Would we want those we love to know that we hadn’t intended to be civil, to be respectful?
Practice this digital civility challenge daily:
There is always promise for the future. But, really, it’s up to each of us as individuals to be the best we can be. Humans can choose to be etiquette-ful. This quality can never be legislated.
Will you choose to be respectful and kind today?