Everyone on the Internet is mean. Seriously, every single person who has ever booted up a computer is a total jerk, and that is the only plausible explanation for the vitriol of YouTube users, the violent comments hurled at feminist pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian, and just the general garbage spewed on Twitter all of the time. At least, that would be the easy explanation behind our culture’s predisposition to online flame wars. As it turns out, the answer to what makes us all so mean on the Internet, and what to do about it, is fairly nuanced, and a difficult problem to fix.
According to Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, not only are online comments horrifically aggressive, “at the end of it you can’t possibly feel like anybody heard you. Having a strong emotional experience that doesn’t resolve itself in any healthy way can’t be a good thing.”
I can tell you first hand that it’s not a good thing, and anyone who has almost broken their computer in rage at someone else’s online ignorance can attest to that. Unfortunately, the state of the Internet readily lends itself to pointless flame wars. According to Live Science, three factors contribute to these aggressive exchanges: first, commenters can choose to remain anonymous, absolving themselves and their comments of any accountability. Second, the target of their comments is at a distance to begin with, and let’s be honest, it’s way harder to say horrible things to someone in person. Lastly, it’s way easier to be a jerk by way of the written word, especially when you have the infinite time that commenting online allows you to stew over your argument and produce the dreaded walls of screaming text that only the most masochistic of us dare to read.
In fact, the very nature of the comment section turns pretty much all attempts at calm, rational discourse into a shouting match that involves no actual exchange of ideas. So, since our online user experience is pretty much rigged to promote this, what are we to do, Internet friends?
Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, seems to place part of the blame on the habitual anger of the mainstream media: “Unfortunately, mainstream media have made a fortune teaching people the wrong ways to talk to each other, offering up Jerry Springer, Crossfire, Bill O’Reilly. People understandably conclude rage is the political vernacular, that this is how public ideas are talked about.” He seems to think that improving the civility of the mainstream media will eventually trickle its way down to the Internet. That’s a nice idea, but it seems like an unlikely evolution in the near future.
Google, as we’ve reported before, is taking a different approach: by linking up YouTube user accounts with Google+ profiles, it seems that the Internet giant hopes to increase accountability with equal parts deterrence and public shaming, thereby ending the nebulous awfulness of video comment sections. Unfortunately, this approach seems dubious at best — it would seem that abusive users will just opt out of the account transition, and, as Mary Sue reader Tsabhira pointed out, it’s possible that “it’d just bring on a new level of jerkishness when people can now see (via your name and image) your gender, attractiveness, race, age, and sometimes religion and sexual persuasion too, and now use these things to up the attack ante.”
In reality, I don’t actually have an answer for this mess. My inclination is to advocate for more moderators, and consequently more banhammers, but I don’t think that changes the underlying culture of hatred and meanness that seems to plague our Internet age. The only people who have control over whether or not the Internet is cleaned up are, well, the jerks who are messing it up in the first place. So, here’s some friendly advice for us all: Let’s try not to be dicks to one another. Let’s remember that the robot overlords haven’t taken over yet and that there are actual human beings using these comment sections. I don’t mean this as one of those “let’s all be friends” cop-outs: not everyone online is in equal positions of power in society, and most hateful comment content stems from folks leveraging their societal privileges against disenfranchised people. Instead, let’s stop leveraging our power to hurt other people, and when the shit hits the fan, let’s try to be kind to those being hurt and offer words of support. When you see a marginalized group or person under attack, step up and help them.
It’s an imperfect solution, but I think it’s a start, and it’s a baby step I’m willing to take toward civil discourse with all of you, you beautiful Internet people, you.
(via Yahoo News.)