Recipient Responsibility in Netiquette


I do not tend to think about netiquette a lot. As with privacy, I always feel that etiquette on the web should be debated by a bunch of gray conservatives; or at least by people who are much wiser and more decent than I am.  But, when I finally started thinking about it, I figured the wise bunch were missing a vital point. So I decided to help them out. The point is this: language use, even on the web, is a form of coordinated action. In this post I will explain what I mean by coordinated action, why this view on language use is so important and how it affects netiquette. I will argue that language use works if both sender and recipient share a responsibility, and why, in the daily practice of internet use, I feel it is the recipients who need to step up – and be more, well, decent.

Decent, however is not a word you would use for sender which planted the seeds for this post. This boy, a  student, said  something really nasty about one of my colleagues on Facebook. I never learned his exact words, so for the sake of argument: let’s assume it was beyond all limits, it was not something he would say to a teacher in real life and certainly not something he should have said at all. Most Facebook post go by fairly unnoticed, but attention sticks to the outliers. This particular post was picked up by a social media scanner that my institute uses to oversee what people say about us online. Next, because of the aggressive tone of the message it was forwarded to the director of my department. He felt the incident was serious enough to write all students (and staff) an e-mail, alerting them to basic netiquette rules and the social media code of conduct of the institute. This is how I learned about what happened. Now, I tend to be quite liberal about what you can say online, but in this case it was easy to put myself in my colleagues feet as well – this aggression could just as well been directed to me. So it took me a long time to figure out whether I had more sympathy with the student in question or with my director pressing students in general to be more sensitive about the type of information they put ‘on a public website’.  In the end I decided the student deserved my sympathy most.

To me, more than a generation gap between the n-geners and the older generation this little Facebook incident is an example of a widespread confusion about the way human communication works. Most people see communication as a transfer of information. There is a sender who encodes his communicative intention into a message which is transferred through a channel and decoded by a receiver. If something goes wrong it is because of noise, which could be an encoding or decoding problem – or it could be a property of the channel. You can look at communication this way, but there is an alternative view which is often much more suitable: Herbert Clark’s theory of language use as joint action.

In a nutshell, Herbert Clark’s theory claims that using language is like dancing the Tango. For it to work, both partners have to play a part, in close coordination with each other. Dancers place their bodies and feet in response to their partners moves, to move the dance forward and similarly speakers and listeners work closely together to advance their conversations. To see how, it could be useful to discuss the actionladders for speakers and listeners briefly.

Speaker.                        Listeners.

Produce sounds           Attend to sounds

Give a signal                 Recognize signal

Meaning                        Understand

Propose                           Uptake

These action ladders are a layered protocol for human communication, but what is special about Clarks view is that he shows speakers and listeners have to cooperate and coordinate on all levels of the action ladder simultaneously. If I propose to my wife “Let’s go for a walk” we need to coordinate on four levels. I need to get her to attend to the sounds I am making (1), make her recognize that I am trying to tell her something (2), pick words that she can understand (3) and put it into words which make her consider my proposal (4). At all four levels we both need to play our part and monitor each other to see if we are still on track. We do it effortlessly every day, but using language is a very intricate and coöperative performance.

The model also applies to written communication. Clark sees face-to-face communication as the basic form, but he believes mail, chat and traffic signs are forms of joint action too. When I try to write a letter to a distant girlfriend, I weigh my words so she will understand them rightly. Often I wished she was there to give me direct feedback. Online chat often goes awkward, because temporality is messed up, but we can set things straight easily. WIthin our country we agree in the meaning of traffic signs, and teach them to all drivers, so they can communicate without words when they are on the road. In case of an accident any misunderstanding of the socially agreed meaning of these signs is taken very seriously. All these forms show human coordination, although it may be indirect and the forms may be more static than in everyday conversation.

All this coordination would not be possible without a lot of background knowledge, which Clark calls “common ground”. Possibly the most important contribution of his theory to our understanding of human communication is that he shows how we build up this common ground over time by talking to each other. For example, if my mother tells me: “the doctor thinks I am in good shape”, I know she is talking about the professional opinion of her physician and not her sexual appeal for to doctor across the street. This has to do with my background: I didn’t misinterpret her words because I knew she went for a checkup. But my mother knew, I knew about her doctors visit, because see told me about it yesterday. This is language coordination at work, before my mother picked her words, she considered what my background would be and she did not have to be afraid for any misunderstandings.

What does this mean for netiquette and the role of the recipient? The difference between an information centric model – the sender, receiver noise model – and a coordination centric model, such as Clark’s common ground theory, becomes obvious when a post is read by someone who is not part of the originally intended audience. The director of my institute in the example I gave earlier for example.

In the traditional information centric view recipients just need to decode messages they have access to. This means, that if you put something on a public website, whole world is entitled to read, interpret and have an opinion about it. Access defines the audience: it is the sender who takes all responsibility, including managing access, the receiver has a free lunch.  In a coordination centric view, we admit that speakers or senders are trying to coordinate meaning and understanding with a specific group. The language in this group is defined by the common ground they created, thus by the conversational history they share. It is no longer enough for the receiver to have access to the information of the sender: if he is not part of the intended audience, he does not have the conversation history, so he cannot understand and appreciate the true meaning of the post. This doesn’t have to mean, listening in is always inappropriate, bad or evil, but it seems reasonable to ask the uninvited receiver to suspend his judgment until he has verified the true intentions of the speaker.

When the n-gener considers his Facebook page to be his own private channel on which he can say whatever he likes, he is not making a controversial cultural statement or showing a bad understanding of this technology or his privacy settings. No, he is stating an empirical fact: for all post he has written so far, he only has gotten responses from an ingroup of friends. It is reasonable to assume they will be the only ones to respond when he is angry and decides to put it in words he should not have used in the first place. In turn, my colleagues (including the director of my institute) and me are justified if they believe these words are inappropriate considering our own background knowledge. But if we want to do something about it, we need to invest in normal online human relationships with these students: we need to make proper friends or follow them, we need to make ourselves known, we need to engage regularly, not only if we dislike what is being said, so that we build up a discourse and earned respect if we disapprove of something. If we learn about inappropriate posts using a scanner, and start picking on decontextualized outliers, it would be decent to be extremely modest. Let try private messages of the sort: “sorry for spying on you, my scanner told me you said such and such, what did you really mean by that comment?”

Reading More.

I have written about a coordination view on language use in my last post: A Case for Privacy Coordination. Also I briefly discussed Herbert Clark’s theories about language as coordinated action in my post: Does Twitter have a Tempo?. I wrote about n-geners in my post Evaluating the Net-Gen Argument.

Of course Herbert Clark’s comprehensive book “Using Language” provides the ultimate background to these ideas.


3 Responses to “Recipient Responsibility in Netiquette”

  1. Interesting and smart point of view!

  1. 1 Reading Dhiraj Murthy’s Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age « @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog
  2. 2 Avenues for Awareness | @koenvanturnhout MacroBlog

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