Online Communications & Trust

Moderated by Jon Linden, John DeBruyn, and Gini Nelson

Despite widespread examples of disingenuous behavior by people on the Internet, there are certain forums that seem to be able to count on people being trustworthy.  One such forum which is utilized frequently and has the character of being mostly trustworthy is when the Internet is used to resolve disputes, i.e. ODR – Online Dispute Resolution.  One would ask the question, “Why should people act differently in this forum than they do in any other Internet based forum?”  The answer to that question is relatively simple.  When the internet is being used for ODR, the Internet is acting purely as a convenience to the parties involved.  ODR makes it possible for these people to create an environment which is flexible in many ways, particularly in the areas of Time  and Space/Distance.  In ODR, the internet is being used to facilitate the ability of two or more parties who are separated by one of both of Time (therefore, they are in a different Time Zone) and Space (therefore, they are significant distances away from each other.)  There is an ongoing dispute and all the parties to the dispute would like to resolve it in some manner.  Therefore, they are being given the option to utilize the Internet to resolve the dispute in a manner that will allow all parties to participate, but they can do so without leaving their home or office.  They are motivated to resolve the dispute because the parties have a vested interest in the resolution, or they need something that will be provided as a condition of the resolution.  Clearly then, the parties can be trusted in direct proportion to their need for there to be a resolution.  Assuming their need is high, even if it is just a matter of their Reputation, often this reason is a large enough reason for them to be trustworthy in keeping their agreement.

Moderator Bios:

 

Jon Linden is an independent Mediator and Facilitator.  He is also a Certified Paralegal.  Mr. Linden works as a contract Mediator for the NJ Superior Court System/Civil Division and has been working for the NJ Court System for 27 years.  In addition, Mr. Linden worked as a contract Mediator for the US EEOC for 10 years.  He has been an instructor for numerous Mediation classes, including his own, the US EEOC’s, and the NJ Court System for the County of Union, NJ.  Mr. Linden also was a Mediator for SquareTrade and worked to resolve purchase disputes which occurred on E-Bay.  Mr. Linden has written extensively on Mediation and many of his articles are posted on his website at www.mediate.com/proactive.

Gini Nelson, J.D., M.A., (http://gininelson.com)  has been practicing law for 30 years. Her practice includes mediation, including online mediation and consultation.  As an early adopter of social media tools, she started her first blog, Engaging Conflicts in 2006.  She has participated in several, earlier Cyberweeks.

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Hi Mamadou,

I am an enthusiastic reader of books by Alexander McCall Smith who talks about Botswana, Africa. In his books, he emphasizes that the older generation is extremely polite and respectful. But there is constant discussion about how the younger generation is primarily interested in only money, women and personal material possessions. Certainly we see the degradation of politeness and appropriateness here in the USA. And often it is associated with the younger generation, which I keep trying to believe I am part of, but at the age of 57, I am not really sure I can say I am part of the younger generation anymore, except in my own mind. Thank you.

Hey everyone, that's a heck of way to start a Monday! I agree with many of the points above, many newspapers for example have been getting rid of comments or moving to a comment system that "forces" commenters to put in their name (using FB logins, etc.) so that they can start removing various "troll" comments.  It definitely doesn't end all the crazy comments, but some good site guidelines and properly monitored can be extremely helpful.  

I'm not sure that online communications is necessarily eroding our ability to build trust online though.  While there are definitely opportunities for it to happen, I've also seen and experienced the opposite.  I think in many ways, online communication starts to build initial "judgement" on whether or not we can trust someone.  Because of the online footprint that most people have, it's fairly easy to track that person if they are being consistent with their message or if they are just blowing smoke.  I think when it comes to anonymity, people are a little more wary because of a lack of footprint.  People definitely have more opportunities now to hold people accountable (like this person for example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com).  

For me when I'm striking up conversations with people, one thing I look for is consistency in their message and (I think at least) that's one of the things that helps me to build trust with others as well (both online and offline).  

Happy Cyberweek to you all. I'm enjoying and feeling stimulated by this thread so far. I like where Orna is pointing our attention, at the trust building that occurs via good process, procedural justice if you will. Colin's comments regarding the basic impact of anonymity is also right on, and it makes me think services like Discus (sp?) that carry identity across comment spaces is going to grow, if only as a shelter from the troll storm.

To radically pivot in a new direction, let me say that it seems to me that the elephant (who is named Big Brother) in the room is the revelations that NSA scooping up all our communication and the new normal that nothing is private in our electronic communications. Does this broader psychic shift have implications for bad actors? Perhaps it will drive hostile behavior into darker password protected or TOR anonymized spaces? Will we feel more like global cyber teammates because we now have a common enemy? Or will we go further into the filter bubble and only open encrypted channels for real communication with a small circle of "friends"? 

Am I off track to say that having our collective trust betrayed by the wiretaps changes the game somehow?

I think that you are very much on track. I believe there are a large number of factors. I mostly have used ODR when all parties have something to gain. When that is the case, the parties have a good reason to be straightforward and good to their word or they will not receive the benefit of what they are negotiating/mediating to get.

With respect to the Government intervening invasively and inordinately into our lives, both public and private, I am hopeful, maybe even wishful would be more accurate, that people will force the government to reduce the frivolous use of surveillance under the guise of National Security and remember that we are supposed to be a free, Democratic Republic. But alas, along with the great benefits that computerization and the Internet have given us, it also has given the Government tools that they could never have imagined 20 years ago and the temptation for them to misuse them is perhaps just impossible for them to resist. Thank you for your post!

I believe that the single biggest reason why incivility is so rampant in internet communications is because online communications create a sense of distance. A sense of distance can arise almost any time that people are not physically next to one another, when facial expressions and other non-verbal communication is eliminated. When driving, it's easy both to be inconsiderate of others and to perceive the actions of others as inconsiderate. Try to think back to the last time you became frustrated with someone while driving. Then, try to think back to the last time you became frustrated with someone while walking down the sidewalk. When I walk down the sidewalk and someone bumps into me, usually the other person looks over and makes a gesture of some sort that shows he or she did not mean to. Simple nonverbal cues are responsible for the lack of tension in this situation. These nonverbal cues occur in face-to-face situations naturally. Cars and computers eliminate all of those important messages without us realizing it. The most effective online communications involve a conscious effort by both parties in making sure the other side does not misconstrue the message.

Hi James, Of course, you are absolutely correct. The distance allows for people to hide behind their computers and not look you in the eye. Alas, that is the trick, the skill if you will of the Mediator or the facilitator. It is very much to get beyond the distance, to allow the internet to compress time and space, yet to also use the written cues to pick up on incivility and rudeness and to then act in a manner that exposes the abuser for what he is doing. In some cases, it is not possible to do so, but I would suggest that even in your excellent example of people walking down the street, there are those individuals who will look you right in the face and cast obscenities right back at you. The more experience a Mediator/Facilitator has in the use of ODR, the more skillful they become in defusing inappropriate behavior and incivility over the wire. It can be done, albeit, it is not taught in Basic Mediation Skills. Nonetheless, depending on the tools available, the methods differ, but the techniques are similar to the way one would do it in a Face-to-Face situation. And, of course, the ultimate way to terminate that type of behavior is to use the privilege of all Mediators, the one privilege that they never want to use. But in some cases, the only privilege that will end the behavior. "The Mediator may terminate the Mediation for ANY REASON AT ANY TIME." Have I ever done this? YES. Did it advance the needs of the parties? NO, not the way I wanted it to be. However, it became the point at which the remaining party realized that Mediation was not going to work with that other party and despite the reluctance to resort to the Court system, the attitude of the offending party made it necessary for that avenue to be utilized.

But your point is extremely well taken and so perfectly apropos to this discussion that I think we would all benefit if we spent some time on how this can be done by a Mediator or Facilitator. Perhaps some other folks would like to comment on how they defuse this type of behavior when it occurs over the wire. I will let some of the others here respond to James' extraordinarily perfect question! Thank you James!

Hi All

I appreciate Mamadou's comments following a very great thread from the start.  I think that it is a mistake, however, to distinguish between online and off-line conversations. Though I agree that each conversational approach requires different skill sets, In the end it is always one person who is generating the thought. To take Colin's point about anonymity, I would suggest that when we see rudeness or impolite or impolitic behavior, we can make the case that the interaction comes from people who do not understand nor have the skills to communicate online. But, in truth, these people are who they are, and are simply using the online environment to communicate in a way that they would do face-to-face If they thought they could get away with it.

This gets me back to Mamadou's original point. The issue here is socialization and cultural norms.The lack of civility in online interaction is a reflection of the broader problem of incivility in society generally. And, finally, to Mamadou's conclusion -" "What it is important then is how we look at the others and how we would like them to look at us and the stake we consider during online discussions."

Hello all! I, too, must apologize for getting a later start than I would have wished -- I'm back at my desk after a week off.

Interesting discussion! I want to think more about the take-away points I'm most struck by:

  1. Colin's comment that, "maybe instead of just thinking about ways to gently humanize online interactions we should think more broadly about how to penalize bad behavior".  There are ALL kinds of people out there, and what helps one be civil and trustworthy will do nothing to inhibit anther's disruptive or destructive actions.
  2. Mamadou's comment about education/socialization/enculturation. Yes, and recognizing the fact of these impacts should help us from having a simplistic trust in anything.
  3. Jason's comment that includes the use of the internet for a process of what one might call "trust and verify" concerning consistency in a person's message.

Gini

Good evening.

As I read through the thread and discussion a few things came to mind.

With regards to the anonymity of the Internet, I agree that this is a driver of the lack of civility.  As has been pointed out, it is probably the relative lack of anonymity that drives the civility in the ODR context.  What continues to amaze is the failure of people to appreciate that there is a growing lack of anonymity on the Internet.  We see this time and time again as people post comments, photos, etc. that are, at the very least, embarrassing.    At the risk of straying off topic a bit, I wonder whether, as this means of communication continues to develop, civility will creep back into the process.  Wishful thinking?

On the other hand, with regards to civility in the ODR context, I wonder if the relative civility is a function of some self-selection going on with the users.  After all we are dealing with people who have voluntarily decided to engage in the process, and who believe (apparently) that they have a vested interest in making the process work.  I wonder if, as ODR grows and the universe of people expands, whether the relative civility will deteriorate.  Will the process be subverted to the lowest common denominator of the participants, or will the process raise the level of discourse and interaction?

Hi all,

The conversation is very stimulating.  I wanted to respond to Joseph's recent comment:  "Will the process be subverted to the lowest common denominator of the participants, or will the process raise the level of discourse and interaction?"

I wonder what additional tools can be constructed and offered which promote a 'higher' common denominator?  What buttons, tabs, reminders, rules, etc. can help foster this?   For example, the simple presence of a question that comes on the screen when one attempts to submit a comment on a social media site or email listserve could say "Are you sure you want to send this?  Is it phrased the way you want it to be read in perpetuity?  Will your readers understand what you hope to convey?" or the like.  I agree with Mamadou that how we are socialized can make a huge difference.  I also imagine that software and other mechanisms (ie: rules, regulation, etc.) can foster the best in us or make it easy for us to forget our best selves and the ways we have been taught to treat others. 

Do others have examples of software structures that foster our best behavior that you have developed, used, seen or dreamed of?

Leah

I remember a study that showed increased rates of hand washing when there was just a picture of eyes looking at you. I wonder if there would be a similar effect online?  The video camera could also be used.

sam

Leah Wing said:

Hi all,

The conversation is very stimulating.  I wanted to respond to Joseph's recent comment:  "Will the process be subverted to the lowest common denominator of the participants, or will the process raise the level of discourse and interaction?"

I wonder what additional tools can be constructed and offered which promote a 'higher' common denominator?  What buttons, tabs, reminders, rules, etc. can help foster this?   For example, the simple presence of a question that comes on the screen when one attempts to submit a comment on a social media site or email listserve could say "Are you sure you want to send this?  Is it phrased the way you want it to be read in perpetuity?  Will your readers understand what you hope to convey?" or the like.  I agree with Mamadou that how we are socialized can make a huge difference.  I also imagine that software and other mechanisms (ie: rules, regulation, etc.) can foster the best in us or make it easy for us to forget our best selves and the ways we have been taught to treat others. 

Do others have examples of software structures that foster our best behavior that you have developed, used, seen or dreamed of?

Leah

For folks that don't know about the Respect Pledge we launched in Liverpool:

http://www.ebaychatter.com/the_chatter/2007/08/promoting-respe.html

'The following joint statement was adopted unanimously by everyone in attendance at the at the 5th International Forum on Online Dispute Resolution in Liverpool, England:


“While information and communications technologies (ICT) enable unprecedented interactions between individuals around the world, they also introduce some dynamics that can degrade dialogue.


ICT enables people to communicate immediately and anonymously, often without moderation, and in some circumstances this encourages behavior (such as threats or insults) that most individuals would never engage in face-to-face.


This behavior may make people feel unwelcome, disrespected, or harassed in their online interactions. Ultimately, individuals may be dissuaded by these dynamics from participating, which undermines the vibrancy of our global conversation.


As a result, we encourage individuals to:


• communicate online with respect
• listen carefully to others in order to understand their perspectives
• take responsibility for their words and actions
• keep criticism constructive
• respect diversity and be tolerant of differences


We embrace full and open communication and recognize the unique opportunity for expression in the online environment. We support freedom of speech and reject censorship. These principles are not intended to address what ideas can be expressed, but rather the tone with which communications take place.”


To support this statement, the National Center on Technology and Dispute Resolution at UMass-Amherst has launched this website, RespectPledge.org, which offers a Respectful Communication Pledge to which you can add your name. Instead of promoting a Code to be enforced by blog moderators, which has been criticized as censorship, this website offers a pledge that can be taken voluntarily by individuals.


Obviously, not everyone in the blogosphere will be interested in taking such a pledge. However, stating these principles clearly and giving individuals a way to publicly affirm them may help to promote and sustain a culture of respectful communication online.


We welcome feedback from pledge signers. Hopefully efforts like this one will help to plant the seeds of a more respectful and welcoming online culture in the years ahead.'

rah

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