MLA 2012: Thar Be Sharks About

YAR! Thar Be Sharks About! Understanding the Role of Libraries in Online Discourse, Civility and Anonymity

Jan Dawson – Project Manager, Ask Ontario
Julie Strange – Statewide Coordinator, AskUsNow

Jan is being Skyped in. Also VP of Toronto Roller Derby!


  • Show of hands: Is the world less civil than 5-10 years ago? Most of us think so. Would those situations have been different if the mode of communication was different? Yes.
  • Theme – seems like people don’t think about how what they do impacts others. And also that anything anyone does is fair game for public scrutiny.
  • Giant spike in searches and mentions of bullying online & in the news in the last two years.
  • Focus has shifted away from community and to individual. We’ve created boxes where we live unaffected by everyone else. We can cherrypick or conversations and communities via all these devices we have. Once it gets weird – we leave. Don’t have to politely extract yourself.
  • UMichigan looked at 30 years of surveys on college students. They’re 40% less empathetic than counterparts 30 years ago. Most significant drop after 2000. Internet was becoming more and more a part of our lives around that time.
  • Tech has always changed the way we do things, but it’s also shifted how we view our interactions.
  • MIT psych researcher who’s been looking at this for 30 years. Online interaction is viewed as a break from our real lives. What we’re doing online isn’t real life and doesn’t count. IRL we refrain from inappropriate things. Until recently anonymity prevailed online, but now that’s changing.
  • People who can do things without being ID’d feel they can get away with a lot more. Think there are no consequences, but there are. They’re changing quickly, too.
  • Depersonalization – view someone as less than a person.  Results in “unrealistic expectations & lack of civility.” We know how to interact with each other when we can see each other. When you’re just looking at a screen you don’t get the feedback you need.
  • Combat perils of anonymity – force use of real names online. VP of Public Policy @ FB: name use leads to “greater accountability and a safer & more trusted environment.”
  • Not the same in the library. Most online reference products haven’t started to reflect new norms from online world. You can come into AskUsNow anonymously. Many don’t even require real names for librarians. Don’t require or ask for a headshot. So, totally in a vacuum and only have the text to go on.
  • When people aren’t presented with a full picture, we construct our own. Easier to pretend there’s no one on the other side, though. When you can do that, easier to not hold yourself accountable.
  • We’re good at reading each other IRL, and modifying behavior as needed – really hard to do that online.
  • Empathy is more of an involuntary, automatic response. We forget we’re not just our thoughts when we’re online.
  • Sherry Turkel TED Talk from a couple of weeks ago. Kid who texts as his primary mode of communication. Told her “some day, certainly not know, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”
  • There’s value in anonymity – dissidents can speak up safely. Domestic violence victims can join online survivor groups. LGBT folks can seek assistance. etc etc etc If you can be identified you’re less likely to seek the help and info you need.
  • VR – you can ask questions you couldn’t ask if I could see you or hear you. But at the same time it can be cast off as a prank when the question seems like it’s not legit. We’ve gotta be understandable, professional and engaging unless it’s completely obvious they’re being a jerk. There is often a legit question that’s a little buried – you get tested with something ridiculous first.
  • Teenagers are jerks, why? Brains are defective! Literally! They don’t have the right pieces to make good decisions. Frontal lobes aren’t fully connected until early 20s. Connections are sluggish until then.
  • How to interact with people you can’t see? Be human! (Scripts are not great, you sound robotic.) Set expectations. (This is really hard to answer for you online, etc.) Don’t judge the words you see. (Shoot! I’m ready vs Shoot! ugh) Ask for clarification. Make sure you explain why you’re asking. Use your name! Use theirs! Involve them in your process – VR is a team effort. (Get them to do stuff.) Call them on bad behavior. Give clear & easy instructions. (Very important for teens.) Refocus when needed. (Short attention span – all of us, not just teens.) Keep them updated on what you’re doing. (They can’t see that you haven’t just walked away.) Be honest. Be positive and engaged. Ask for cooperation. (You’re not the sage on the stage for this. While I do this, you do this.) Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.

Jan [[Audio was really choppy for much of her presentation 😦 ]]

  • The psych behind the behavior.
  • Her service is for all of Ontario. 21 PLs and 12 college libs involved in VR.
  • College sector rarely sees inappropriate behavior. But, saw a spike in bad behavior 1% from 2009 – 2010. Was up to 7%. Now down to <1%!
  • Inappropriate IRL then inappropriate for chat. Goofing around (silly ?s), rude, offensive, abusive.
  • Inappropriate behavior task force came up with some training & guidelines to empower staff to deal with it.
  • Common scenarios: hurry up! (visitor is rushed), sucker punch (insulting remark when they sign off), class bombs (students rush the service & goof around), bored tire kickers (just playing around, trying to waste time).
  • But, with VR it’s fairly impossible to tell what someone means. Culture & age play into it, maybe they don’t mean to be rude.
  • Staff is encouraged to give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
  • Kuhlthau’s model of Info Search Process.
  • Models for how to handle these common scenarios. Always came down to being honest & kind.
  • General – staff have some canned messages to respond more quickly to questions. Can temper responses to different behaviors & quickly change the course of the convo. Have three levels for each type, so people get two chances before their chat is frozen & flagged as abusive. They’re informed the incident is being reported. If they are trying to come back that day, they get a message that says they’re blocked for the day. (Really session based or 20 minutes of inactivity on the page.)
  • Added a boilerplate message around the buttons that talks about policy of mutual respect. Also have a staff portal.
  • Some are investigated for permanent blocking (IP based).
  • Have a staff portal for all of the policies & info, discussion area. But also for appropriate behavior and awesome stuff!
  • Don’t pre-judge the question. Think about F2F protocol. Be honest & kind. Support your colleagues. Don’t take it personally. Remember the good stuff.