The horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School have set people across the nation on edge. People are shocked, grieving, angry, confused, frightened, and more. People are reaching out to one another. In person (on the street, in coffee houses) and on social media (Facebook, Twitter, blog comment threads) people are conversing.

As a proponent of dialogue throughout my career, in some ways this is heartening. We don’t engage in serious conversation about public issues nearly enough. Still, it is dispiriting to think it takes a national tragedy of such magnitude to get us talking.

scream and shout

Scream and Shout, by Flickr user mdanys

More troubling, though, is to observe how difficult it seems to be for people to be civil to one another. I see thread after thread (especially on Facebook) devolve into name calling. This is not new, of course. It comes with the territory online — people are not really themselves online. Or, rather: they are themselves without the filters we usually have to enable us to operate in polite company. I will say something online that I would not say to your face.

This is a challenge those of us who try to hold open spaces for people to talk about difficult issues often face. Over the past few days, I found myself reliving my time as publisher of the local news site, Rockville Central — which my friend Cynthia Cotte Griffiths and I ran in order to provide a space for dialogue. One of the reasons that we shut it down after a number of successful years was the sheer nervous energy we had to expend maintaining the norms and decorum. On Facebook, I have experienced the same anxiety as I watch personal friends who don’t know one another go at it on threads I established. Then, sometimes, when I ask them to be civil, they attack me in turn.

I like to believe that, as a society, we have not yet adapted to social media as a medium of conversation. We behave in very crude ways to one another because we haven’t collectively figured out what the rules are.

However, I often fear I am wrong — that, in fact, we have figured out what the rules are and, in general, they are anything goes.

Photo credit: Flickr user mdanys.