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Internet Making World More Honest?

Interesting essay by Clive Thompson in NY Times Magazine arguing that the Internet generally makes people more honest:

    a Cornell professor recently claimed to have established the truth of a curious proposition: We fib less frequently when we’re online than when we’re talking in person. Jeffrey Hancock asked 30 of his undergraduates to record all of their communications — and all of their lies — over the course of a week. When he tallied the results, he found that the students had mishandled the truth in about one-quarter of all face-to-face conversations, and in a whopping 37 percent of phone calls. But when they went into cyberspace, they turned into Boy Scouts: only 1 in 5 instant-messaging chats contained a lie, and barely 14 percent of e-mail messages were dishonest.

    Obviously, you can’t make sweeping generalizations about society on the basis of college students’ behavior. (And there’s also something rather odd about asking people to be honest about how often they lie.) But still, Hancock’s results were intriguing, not least because they upend some of our primary expectations about life on the Net.

    ….The digital age is tough on its liars, as a seemingly endless parade of executives are learning to their chagrin. Today’s titans of industry are laid low not by ruthless competitors but by prosecutors gleefully waving transcripts of old e-mail, filled with suggestions of subterfuge. Even Microsoft was tripped up by old e-mail messages, and you would figure its employees would know better. This isn’t a problem for only corporate barons. We all read the headlines; we know that in cyberspace our words never die, because machines don’t forget. ”It’s a cut-and-paste culture,” as Hancock put it (though he told me that on the phone, so who knows? There’s only a 63 percent chance he really meant it).

    Indeed, the axiom that machines never forget is built into the very format of e-mail — consider that many e-mail programs automatically ”quote” your words when someone replies to your message. Every day, my incoming

    e-mail reminds me of the very words I wrote yesterday, last week or even months ago. It’s as if the gotcha politics of Washington were being brought to bear on our everyday lives.

I.e, Ken Layne’s famous challenge to the mainstream media and the world at large: “We will fact check your ass.”

    it’s not only the fear of electronic exposure that drives us to tell the truth. There’s something about the Internet that encourages us to spill our guts, often in rather outrageous ways. Psychologists have noticed for years that going online seems to have a catalytic effect on people’s personalities. The most quiet and reserved people may become deranged loudmouths when they sit behind the keyboard, staying up until dawn and conducting angry debates on discussion boards with total strangers. You can usually spot the newbies in any discussion group because they’re the ones WRITING IN ALL CAPS — they’re tripped out on the Internet’s heady combination of geographic distance and pseudo-invisibility.

    One group of psychologists found that heated arguments — so-called flame-war fights, admittedly a rather fuzzy category — were far more common in online discussion boards than in comparable face-to-face communications.

This certainly would appear to confirm Mac Diva’s point about introvert’s feeling more comfortable on the Internet – who knows what some of our more spirited and even contentious commenters are like in real life?

    it has become a vast arena for collective therapy — for a mass outpouring of what we’re thinking and feeling. I spend about an hour every day visiting blogs, those lippy Web sites where everyone wants to be a pundit and a memoirist. (Then I spend another hour writing my own blog and adding to the cacophony.) Stripped of our bodies, it seems, we become creatures of pure opinion.

    Our impulse to confess via cyberspace inverts much of what we think about honesty. It used to be that if you wanted to know someone — to really know and trust them — you arranged a face-to-face meeting. Our culture still fetishizes physical contact, the shaking of hands, the lubricating chitchat.

    ….As more and more of our daily life moves online, we could find ourselves living in an increasingly honest world, or at least one in which lies have ever more serious consequences. Bush himself can’t put old statements about W.M.D. behind him partly because so many people are forwarding his old speeches around on e-mail or posting them on Web sites. With its unforgiving machine memory, the Internet might turn out to be the unlikely conscience of the world.

Part of my fascination with writing on the Internet, with blogging, is that I am creating a document of my life in the context of world events, popular culture, etc., on a daily basis in a public setting. Yet the abstraction of sitting anywhere a computer will go, alone with one’s thoughts, interacting directly with only a machine, makes it easy to believe that one is really only talking to oneself, with some kind of invisible gallery looking on.

I am all for the honestly aspect of the Internet, but that which makes us open and honest, uninhibited even, also contributes to the virulence of our disputes. We would do well to remind ourselves that there are real people beyond the words and symbols we see on out computer screens.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted,, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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