By Kristi McDuffie
The most arresting part of this video essay is its bridging of the tactile and the digital. Harlow illustrates her audio narrative by drawing pictures and showing materials in front of a still camera. The effect is marvelous in giving a tangible, visceral quality that counters that essay topic of desensitized and uncivil online communication. The video essay is largely a remixed consideration of a theory about solving online incivility through nonymity, and this visual presentation seems to underscore the personal connection that is lost through anonymous commenting online.
I primarily want to respond to the theory at the center of this piece. As I understand it through this essay, media scholar Douglas Rushkoff proposed that online incivility can be improved if people “be themselves” (which means using their true identities and not saying anything they would be ashamed of being quoted and shared online). While I understand its intent, and have seen online sites take this approach by requiring verified email addresses or social media logins, this proposal nonetheless strikes me as a utopic solution that oversimplifies human behavior and digital culture, a solution that is worthy of complication.
I would particularly like to complicate the notion of being oneself. I will stipulate that having identities online can make people more honest given potential embarrassment and consequences; in addition to public shaming, people have lost their jobs because of things they have posted online. Yet I don’t think that real identities are enough of a deterrent to solve incivility online. Incivility remains where handles show real people’s names or people login using social media accounts. And because much of this incivility is political, social, cultural, and personal, I think a great number of people would take ownership of their words whether anonymous or not. Consider, for example, the white supremacist and anti-immigration websites easily found online. Politicians and media pundits also make uncivil comments in the public sphere. Internet behavior is different than face-to-face, but it is still human behavior.
Rushkoff speaks to the humanity in this approach, but in a more positive way. According to the video essay, being oneself online can lead to more empathy and accountability. But what if people are actually being MORE of themselves (as in revealing their true feelings) online? I agree that some uncivil discourse can be reduced with true logins. I just think it’s societal rules and consequences that make people behave better, not because they are naturally more empathetic to other people. It makes me think of Derrick Bell, a well-known critical race theorist, and his idea of interest convergence. Bell states that white people agree to remedy racism against people of color (such as passing civil rights initiatives in the 1960s) when there are significant motivations and benefits for them to do so, not because it is the ethical and just thing to do. And I kind of feel this way about online anonymous commenters; if people become more civil because they post with their real identities, it is because they have motivation to do so, not necessarily because it is the moral thing to do.
While I am pontificating about the theory that underlies this audio essay, this is actually Rushkoff’s argument. Harlow’s video is an entertaining and educational remix of Rushkoff’s topic that uses digital media and tactile technologies to present the argument. Harlow’s explanations are straightforward and easy to understand in a way that would be useful to a variety of non-technical and non-academic audiences. As I said before, I particularly like the use of drawing on paper and video recording it to accompany the narrative because of the way it intersects new and traditional mediums and because of what it suggests is lost in a digitally mediated culture.