Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on internet message boards, chatrooms, or comment sections has, at some point:
- Had their political views compared to that of Hitler’s.
- Had their sexual orientation, sexual experience, or sexual prowess challenged or ridiculed.
- Suffered from threats of physical violence, both against themselves and their mothers.
- Had sarcastic cat pictures posted to make fun of them.
The internet has a way of bringing out the worst in people. You may think that the internet simply allows people to say what they were already thinking anyway. But I disagree. It goes further than that. It’s not that people were already thinking these things but never had the courage to say them in person.
There’s something about the internet that warps our perceptions of one another.
Case in point: in many cases, problems and disagreements that arise on the internet magically disappear in person.
For example, when I lived in Boston, I was a member of a private men’s group. We had maybe 100 members, a private message board, and would get together a few times a month.
As with any internet forum, dozen-page long arguments would erupt over inane subjects such as who should pay for dates or which government policies were causing economic problems. Sometimes these arguments would escalate to name-calling and insults, and even in some cases, people threatening to leave the group entirely because of the amount of “disrespect” that would get lobbed around.
Yet, inevitably, at the next meeting, we’d all end up in some restaurant sharing beers and laughs as if nothing happened. If the topic of the argument did arise in person, people would shrug it off and say it was no big deal. Or in some cases, they’d resolve the disagreement within minutes of speaking face-to-face.
If you think this problem is unique to groups of men, I invite you to spend an afternoon on some popular feminist (and apparently motherhood) websites and prepare to watch the accusations of fascist rape-apologist and traumatizing child-abuser fly.
For whatever reason, the internet tends to bring out everyone’s inner asshole.
I think everybody has had the experience of that almost blinding rage you get at reading something someone else wrote on your computer screen as you hit “Reply” and start typing furiously in response. It sucks. But there’s also something addictive about it. You can’t turn away. You can’t stop. And inevitably, that furious response you write—you click “Send” and beam with pride as you read it over again, you got them—that same response you’re so proud of is read by the other person and just creates another bout of blinding rage in them as they begin to furiously type back at you.
How the Internet Warps Perception
Why does this happen? Why do slight and insignificant differences in opinion become uncrossable ideological chasms online? What is it about this mode of communication that causes everyone else to sound so much like Hitler?
1. We Idealize the Other Person’s Viewpoints or Attitudes
Since I began blogging in 2007, I’ve been told that I’m a racist, sexist, fascist, communist, woman-hater, man-hater, liar with no conscience, scam artist, sexless virgin, misogynistic player, and too young to know anything about anything. Strangely, I’ve never been accused of being any of these things in my personal life.
The problem with the internet is that while information is easily conveyed, intention is not. If we’re reading something written by an anonymous person, whether we agree with them or not, we automatically make assumptions about their intentions. If we like what they say, we make the assumption that they already align with many of our values and worldview. If we don’t like what they say, then we make assumptions about their values and worldview and lump them in with stereotypes of groups with which we disagree.
It’s intellectually lazy, but a natural cognitive function. When we lack sufficient information about a person’s views, we stereotype them. And the very medium of the internet makes it so that we almost constantly lack sufficient information about people’s views.
2. Confrontation Has No Negative Social Consequences
If I disagree with somebody in real life, there are potential consequences to escalating that disagreement into a confrontation or into personal insults. For one, I could get my ass kicked. I could get thrown out of a venue. I could be embarrassed in front of all my peers or start a grudge match and risk future repercussions.
People say idiotic and offensive things on the internet simply for the reason that they can and it doesn’t matter. They’re effectively anonymous. And even when they’re not, it’s rare that anyone cares enough to follow up and enact social consequences for their crass statements.
Except for those rare and beautiful instances when there are social consequences, those same assholes straighten up as if they joined a monastery. Take for example this punk from England who harassed a professional boxer for months before magically straightening up and apologizing when the boxer found out where he lived and actually drove to his house to confront him. Or the boy who called an elderly female professor an “old dirty slut” and then immediately issued an apology when internet users forwarded his comments to his mother.
3. Everything Is Public
This one is counter-intuitive. You would think that communicating in a public medium would cause people to be more careful about what they say, but it causes the opposite.
Imagine you’re at a party and you have a disagreement with someone you’re talking to. Chances are it may be a bit annoying but not a huge deal. You two laugh about it and change the subject. Now imagine you have that same disagreement, except 60 people are standing around listening to every word each of you says. Chances are you will feel far more defensive of your views and will be far more likely to attack them for theirs.
Humans are wired to be sensitive not only to how we’re being perceived by others, but also to our reputations within certain social groups. When we have a disagreement in private, this does not threaten our social standing with anyone except the person we disagree with. But when we’re online, there’s an inherent publicity about it. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people can hop on and see someone trashing your ideas at any given moment. As a result, we’re far more likely to defend our turf and be aggressive about it.
Ever notice that private chats online are almost always civil and calm? Yet, big forum threads or comment sections turn into a complete shit show? Yup.
4. The Effects of Self-Selection
Comments, forums, and chatrooms all usually require that you register or take the time to type out your thoughts. As a result, the only people who tend to bother doing such a thing are people who feel particularly positive or negative about something. All of the people who feel neutral or only slightly lean one way or another get lost because sharing their opinion is not worth the investment of time and effort for them.
In this way, internet discourse self-selects for the most extreme viewpoints. And unfortunately, only being presented with the extreme viewpoints in any situation causes our views to diverge even further. The debate becomes defined by the extreme minorities at both poles while the silent majority in the middle either checks out entirely or gets sucked into one extreme viewpoint or the other.
Sound kind of like politics in the 21st century?
What Does This Mean for Culture?
Freud made the argument that for society to exist, man’s worst impulses—violence, selfishness, inappropriate sexuality—must be kept in check. The internet is possibly the first mechanism in human history that allows society to not only exist, but to thrive by removing the need for self-censorship. With no consequences and lower-quality communication, people are rewarded for the shock value of what they say as much as the content and meaning.
Although this opens up more possibilities for thought and communication and has led to rapid social changes all over the world, it brings new challenges with it as well.
Already, internet culture seems to be adapting. New social functions are being labeled and understood. Trolls pick fights unnecessarily. Memes are ways for people to share laughter about topics which are sometimes taken too seriously. Social media allows us to negotiate the meaning of a swarm of ideas in a short amount of time.
But at the same time, we’re all exposed to more dialogue and more people’s thoughts than at any other point in history. While it’s good that human communication has achieved infinite capacity, as individuals we must also adapt to these new realities. We must begin accepting responsibility for how we react to what we read. We have to accept that we will always be offended by somebody, in some way, and sometimes live with it.
That’s the hidden cost of the combination of free speech and limitless capacity for communication: more assholes.
And while the internet grants us all the right to communicate whatever we want as much as we want, we must armor ourselves with the ideals of humanity. We must teach ourselves to be a little more resilient, a little more patient, a little less judgmental. And understand that the nitwit asshole on the other side of the screen is sometimes the same person you’d be happy to have a beer with in person.