Coincidentally with the latest salvo in the, um, conversation between Mark and Glenn Reynolds, the NYT published this essay discerning and discussing a tendency for people using email and chat to be much more careless of how they come across than they would be in person. Goleman describes a so-called “online disinhibition effect” attributed by a psychologist he cites to “the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure.”

If only solipsistically, I’m sure the phenomenon is real, having written emails I wish I had edited for tone, and having seen lots of examples of remarkably un-self-aware flaming. But I’m not sure Goleman has it right. For example, people have written paper letters, alone and unsupervised at a desk, for quite a long time, with even longer delays in getting feedback from a correspondent, and I don’t recall an epistolary disinhibitory effect. Actually quite the reverse: I’m sure I’ve yelled at people in person much more than I ever did via typewriter or pen. Furthermore, a telephone obstructs all the visual signals and (low bandwidth) a lot of subtle auditory ones, but does it encourage more rash discourse than face-to-face conversation? Possibly; I think I get impatient and rude to telemarketers and people in call centers more than I would if they were at my door or we were sitting across a desk…

If any of my students are reading this, (1) Stop goofing off and do your homework! (2) you’re invited to let me know whether I’m least sensitive or polite writing comments on your work as annotations on a file, on paper with a pen, or discussing it in person. If I get any interesting results I’ll post an update. Of course anything you write will also be self-referential wheels-within-wheels/Russian doll evidence about your inhibitory status…the mind reels.

As compared to face-to-face conversation, the distinctive quality of on-line and telephone discourse would seem to operate in the reptilian brain zone, where we instinctively recognize that in the latter case, we don’t risk a literal punch in the snoot at least until after the other party has had a chance to cool down. This physical security also applies to paper letters, of course, but there I suspect we’re inhibited by a strong sense of the permanence of the document, while with email and posts, we’re caught in a middle zone between completely ephemeral speech and “real” writing. I have to remind myself when writing emails, not that I ever have anything really scandalous or lurid to not say, that they live forever, even though I can’t exactly imagine what they look like as bits on the great disk in the sky; when you send a letter, it’s in your brain as a real piece of paper in a drawer somewhere.

When we were evolving our communication machinery, all discourse was ephemeral and in-person, and people had to go to some trouble to create permanent records by piling up big stones and scratching pictures in cave walls. Over centuries, we’ve evolved (as a social organism, in shared conventional memory) a status and conventional attitude to paper writing, but e-correspondence of all kinds is so new that we tend to flop back and forth between different orientations to it and haven’t yet established a stable set of rules. For example, I get some emails formatted like letters, with “Dear Prof. O’Hare” and “Very truly yours”, and some like those I usually send, with only body text; and of course the writing style is much more variable than letters (personal or business) ever used to be. Figuring out what to do, acting willy-nilly as a de facto Committee of the Whole for Public Order, is further complicated by the tricks email can do (like links) and the ones it can’t reliably get right (when I write emails in a language other than English, the copyback often replaces all the accented characters with little blocks of ascii garbage that look like comic book cursing, and I’m never sure what my original looked like when received).

How long will it take for us to converge on a standard form, including tone, style and visual arrangement, for e-discourse, that will permit departures from it to be semiotic and properly interpreted? I hope not centuries or even decades.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.