Ramblings about Personal Bias Online

One of the comments someone made about what they want to read here, was about what makes me “me.” During Speak Out with Your Geek Out, I talked about how I’m a hobby anthropologist. *flexes fingers*

Yep, breaking that hat out today. One of the biggest challenges with online communication is the sheer volume of information we’re inundated with. And there’s a lot of it. The second biggest challenge? Your personal bias. A while back, I used to do a lot of keyword research on the day job, and I found that singular versions of search terms were almost always more popular than the plural. I think this is because the computer is such a singular experience physically. You sit down to your computer. You type on your keyboard. You chat or Tweet or message or e-mail on your account. The actions you take are yours. The words you type are yours. You, you, you.

(Or rather… Me, me, me.)

There’s a lot of “me’s” in online communication, which is why it’s so easy to forget that personal bias is common, rampant, and to be expected. What gets me, is the expectation part of personal bias and the hypersensitivity that results from that. Getting back to the whole “the internet is a singular experience” mindset, think about how this translates to what actions people take. Why does someone get pissed off when another person stops following them on Twitter? Why are there crappy comments on YouTube! videos, news sites, etc.? Why are people so gullible with respect to internet rumors?

It all comes back to bias and what that person is reacting to. I’ve seen incredibly nice people spit vitriol online. I used to wonder why that was, until I realized that they may be incredibly nice “in person” but remove the face-to-face contact and something changes. What you’re left with? Is that person’s mind or psyche. If you’re in a crappy mood and nothing is going right, then that colors how you view the world. Same goes for online, too. Only, it may not be clear who we’re talking to. How old are they? What cultural background do they have? Are they in the city or the country?

Similar to creating unique characters, when you start attaching other factors to a voice online, that voice is removed from the choir and becomes a soloist. When the only thing you have to go on is their words (and vice versa) they’re still part of the choir because they’re tapping into what you like, what you don’t, what you believe, and what you’re skeptical about. In other words, your ability to empathize is diminished because you’re hearing the words in the way you want to hear them. What you’re missing, is the “who” that’s speaking those words.

My solution to eliminating personal bias online is to take a page from the instructions I got as a kid. Mind you, these directions were to avoid getting hit by a car, but I think the same applies here.

Stop. Look. And listen.

I feel that the way we communicate online will continue to suffer the more rapidly our access to communication increases. Can’t tell you how many e-mail signatures I’ve seen lately that say something to the effect of: “I’m on my Blackberry. Responses are short. Please don’t take it personally.”

To explain every nuance in communication is nothing short of exhausting. To react emotionally to every nuance in communication is, in my mind, a consequence of hypersensitivity. Today, I had someone take a joke seriously. So I said: maybe I should start color-coding my words? When those misinterpretations happen, I feel that we begin to stray toward obsessive thinking about our words. Recently, John covered that concept in Dork Tower and based on the responses, I know I’m not alone in this.

Quite frankly, I obsess enough over my stories. I don’t want to fixate on every turn of phrase I post online, because that’s an exercise in insanity. It happens, though. Especially when someone doesn’t stop, look or listen to the “me” behind the words.

There are topics I avoid because I know what my buttons are. I do get a little frustrated when people feel compelled to edit my social media updates. It blows my mind when you see people criticize or edit other people’s Tweets by saying: “You should have…” Or “Company A has to…” or flat out corrects typos, etc.

What they’re really saying? “I prefer that you…” Or “I feel that Company A should…”

Again, it circles back to that personal bias. One of the lessons I learned from my hundred day experiment, is that the more connected I am, the worse my personal bias gets unless I catch myself. I feel this is universal. Maybe we could all use an internet detox every now and then?

I don’t understand why, when people are unhappy with a company, they post about it online assuming that company will pay attention. Customer service departments do exist. Unfortunately, many companies have struggled with how to best communicate online. Instead of coming up with a plan before they dive in, they react to situations. While that may work for some, the end result is bad PR. I know a few companies think that bad PR is better than no PR at all because you’re no longer invisible.

Recently, I sent a letter to Lego asking them about their board games and why the mini-figs were so small. I explained that I preferred a larger size because I wanted to use the figs in my fantasy game as miniatures. And they responded back explaining that the size of the figs was intentionally designed to match the size of the game. They also said that they do review suggestions internally. Makes sense to me. Their site was easy-to-use and the feedback loop was great!

So in addition to Stop. Look. And listen. I’d also offer: Ask. Language is ever-changing and it’s proving to be the Tower of Babel. A lot of us are saying something and we all want to be heard. But even with all these words, how many of us really understand what is being said?

Anyway, thanks for listening. Not sure if I’ve got any answers, but the hobby anthropologist in me had a blast.

3 Responses to Ramblings about Personal Bias Online
  1. Sarah

    I think you missed one important distinction: sometimes people come across as grouchy online when they’re not actually grouchy. I don’t think my personality changes at all online, but I used to frequently be accused of being “mean” in email communications. The same words spoken in person would come across less harsh, because my tone of voice and body language and facial expressions influence how people hear the words, as you mention. Now I fill my comments on facebook with “LOLs” and emoticons to try and take the sting out of my words, since I know I tend to come across as harsh. Also: I only complain about companies I’ve had bad experiences with online if their customer support ignored to insulted me. I like knowing what companies my friends have had good or bad experiences with, so I try to share any experiences I’ve had. I do try to post a positive review for every negative one, because people tend to post their bad experiences because they’re angry, and never mention their good ones.

    • Monica Valentinelli

      Hmmm… I thought I implied the challenge with the difference between emotion and interpretation when I linked to the Dork Tower webcomic. Guess I wasn’t clear. Thanks for chiming in! 🙂

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Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

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