The Wild Ways of the Web

There’s a common and pervasive trope about online discourse – a person’s relative ability to uphold a level of anonymity may lead to uncivil, reckless, imprudent and unsubstantiated claims and arguments. And, amid the growth of the so-termed 21st-century election, arguably motivated by the typically immediate and unrestrained environment of the Internet, the conventional parameters of American political discourse may be systematically evolving.

Several tenets of American democracy and the republic are predicated on the idea of representation. In its most crude and ideological sense, representation regards presence and, historically, physical presence. Political endorsement and dissension were measured and monitored through public and physical discourse. Some of the most iconic and infamous instantiations of American political discourse were manifested corporeally through demonstrations, caucuses, and other avenues of congregation and presence. Social and political capital existed through one’s being able to profess one’s political beliefs and ideologies in the general public sphere.

But, is political discussion on the Web necessarily described by flaming[AD1]  and the promoting of a certain imprudent partisanship?

While differences in ideology and opinion occur on and off the Web, the hyperpersonal, cue-specific communities that constitute the innumerable corners and pockets of online discourse make it obstensibly easier for you to find those with whom you agree or relate. And, what’s more, this so-termed ‘feedback loop’ may be more than just repetition and reinforcement.

In fact, the man behind hyperpersonal theory himself believes that, sometimes, less is more.

Walther argues that the effectiveness of hyperpersonal communication lies in its ability to focus on the goal and intent of a message community: “Take away these interpersonal and social hindrances through ‘sociotechnical’ arrangements, and the resulting impersonal orientation to ideas via CMC increases process effectiveness.” (Walther 6)

Thus, the inherent hyperpersonal dynamic of Internet communication may lend itself to a more effective and more unadulterated political discursive environment. But, while much research, theorizing and deliberation have come about concerning the intricacies of an impersonal Web, less is known about the outcomes and ramifications of seemingly un-scrutinized political discourse within the idyllically cued realm of hyperpersonal communication.

And, when it comes to today’s political prose and debate, the niceties and perfunctory civility of face-to-face discourse may, indeed, stymie the effectiveness of political debate in such a hyper-partisan political environment. But there’s a catch.            Hyperpersonal communication brings together disparate individuals under the umbrella of a common goal. And, in its political instantiations, partisanship abounds. Inasmuch, even among those politically adept and politically involved, only those whose partisan ideology is central to both their lives and political involvement may find value in participating in hyperpersonal political discursive environments on the Web.

The ease with which one can find similarly minded people online may help thicken the battle lines of partisan political. And, the unrestrained speech of the Web (a result of hyperpersonal communication), seems to be a primary motivating factor in politics and political discourse online. Ultimately, however, in environments where real-world reputation is unimportant and where real-world identities may be undisclosed, there exists a carte blanche for political elites to perpetuate radical, essentializing and unchecked political ideologies with reckless abandon. But, as online political discourse becomes increasingly legitimated by the mainstream, a requisite for attribution may be restored.

Walther, J.B. (1996) “Computer-mediated communication: impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction.” Communication Research, 23(1), 3-43. Retrieved from http://crx.sagepub.com/content/23/1/3.short.