Face-to-Face Is a Myth: Thoughts on Internet Communication

I had one of those pseudo-philosophical conversations with a coworker today, the kind where a 19-year-old laments the fact that “no one eats dinner together anymore” and “people don’t appreciate the little things.” Aside from doubts that my coworker is  qualified to make such claims, this seems like such a fake social problem to me, like Trouble in River City—something easy to moralize about instead of approaching the countless real problems a society could be worrying over.

This is how I often feel when people talk about online conversations, too.

“I really prefer to have this kind of conversation face-to-face.”
“Maybe this is a conversation we need to have in person.”

Have you ever noticed how often this kind of phrase is used to shut down a discussion that has extended into difficult territory? It deserves to be named at this point, to take its place alongside Godwin and Lewis as a Law of the Internet: If an online conversation gets tense, someone will suddenly remember that they only like to have serious discussions Face-to-Face. It’s such a disingenuous concern.

There are legitimate reasons why people are afraid to have serious conversations online. For one thing, it’s easy to misunderstand someone without body language and facial cues to provide context. And without the accountability of being in the same room together, yes, people will sometimes be more rude or insulting than they normally would.

But I disagree with the idea that real conversations should never take place online. In the first place, there are plenty of benefits to balance out the drawbacks.

You have time to think about what you’re going to say instead of just blurting out your every thought. If you’re like me, and have very strong emotional responses to things, writing also gives you time to calm down. A conversation will always be more productive when your response can come from rational thought, not overwhelming emotion. Most importantly, or close to it—when you’re online, you can research something before you comment on it. You can provide references for your arguments, so we can actually learn things instead of just disagreeing with each other repeatedly. You can check out Snopes before getting into an argument that didn’t even need to happen because the basis of it was totally made up.

A downside (for me), but a partial solution to the first problem I mentioned above, is emoticons. I have always hated emoticons, and I’ve had to get over that, because I need to do what I can to bridge the gap created by the lack of body language. If I say something tongue-in-cheek and people can’t see the smile on my face, I know from experience that they don’t always get the humor. Cheesy smiley faces can help with that.

In the second place, I think we need to stop being afraid of online conversations just as a matter of reality. The internet is not going anywhere. You do your banking online; that’s where most of us get our news and current events. Important things happen here now, and it’s time to get used to it.

The truth is that I think it’s an amazing opportunity. If these conversations weren’t happening on the internet, most of them wouldn’t be happening at all—because ‎”there is no place in real life where your grandma and your barista and your best friend and that guy you went on two OkCupid dates with are going to sit around and have a conversation about gay marriage” (from this post on Jezebel).

It’s a new social dynamic, and that makes things difficult. But it also gives us access to more of the world than we’ve ever had before. I have family and friends I never see in real life, college friends who live far away now, local friends whose schedules just rarely match up. Should we limit all online relationships to fail videos and cat memes? If online is the only way you can have a relationship with someone, does that mean you must keep that relationship completely superficial? Never talk about anything important, just because you can’t talk about it in person? Who would even have time for all these very serious formal gatherings that are apparently supposed to be happening?

Ultimately, I think what “I prefer face-to-face” often comes down to is just conflict avoidance. Sure, maybe you really do prefer to sit down in real life. But probably you didn’t bring that up at the beginning of the conversation; probably you have no intention of actually picking up this conversation the next time you see me. For most people, this phrase is just a way of bailing on a conversation that got complicated, trying to blame it on the internet rather than dealing with difficult issues. And I’d rather not do that.

These issues aren’t going away. The world is smaller than it used to be, and we can no longer expect to limit meaningful conversations to “real life” (we’re probably also approaching the time when people will realize that life on the internet is real, too).

We need to learn how to communicate better online. We need to learn to communicate better, period. That’s all there is to it.

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