Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Real life in microcosm
Civility in internet discourse has been on OmegaMom's mind lately. Not that it's news, but people will do and say things online that they would never do IRL. Some cases in point: A way left-wing liberal blogger spews truly nasty invective on a conservative blogger's comment trail. CB's fans, perceiving real threats against the CB's kid, get up in arms, flood LB's blog with vituperation, contact the police and FBI, and flood LB's employer's email inbox. LB resigns her position. A happy group of bloggers is disrupted when one of them jokingly decides to hold a closed election on spoof titles (Best Whining Post, Most Openly Needy Blogger, etc.) on a private blog. Things quickly get out of hand, meaner and nastier awards are proposed and bloggers nominated to win, friends find out, and long-time internet friendships go kablooey. A woman posts vents (balanced by lots of good things) about her husband on a private email list. Over the course of half a year, things get worse and worse at home, and she is saddened and befuddled by it. Then, in the midst of a spat at home, she discovers the reason: someone on the private email list has been anonymously forwarding each and every one of her vents to her husband's email. Burned, she leaves the list, and the list is in turmoil as "the mole" is searched for. Private boards go belly-up and accusations flare--everyone's a villain, and everything said by everyone gets dissected, trisected, and analyzed to a fare-thee-well. Each of these things is reflected in real life: at a cocktail party, the liberal blogger might have snarled about the conservative blogger (but never to the extent she did in her comments--trust me, she went way beyond the pale!); the blogging circle or the private board, if they had been a circle of real-life friends, might have had scenes where some of the friends got together alone and bitched about the others; the woman on the email list might have griped with coworkers, only to have a bitchy coworker tell her husband everything. It's just that (a) there are more conversations on the internet, so more likelihood that something mean will get said; (b) for some reason, there's a tendency to "bare more" in certain spaces on the internet, so there's more fodder for things to go wrong; (c) you have history on the internet--copies of emails, archives of boards, blog archives that go way back with associated comment trails, so that specific instances can be dug up over and over and over again, reproducing the irritation/shock/hurt/anger that they originally produced; (d) there's no emotional context in typed text, so what could be said with nuance comes across bold and brash and in-your-face; and (e) there's a certain anonymity, a facelessness...if you hurt someone on the internet, you don't see their emotional reaction, their drawing back, the pain in their eyes--all of which would stop you (usually) if you were face-to-face with them and saying the same things. Andrew Brown, writing on the UK Guardian's Comment Is Free blog, asks the question, Why are people arseholes online? He ends up with the idea that people want to be like modern-day journalists, and that modern-day journalists are mean and nasty because it garners readership. I'm not sure I agree. Internet discourse can appear to be very intimate, very one-on-one. You learn a lot about people through blog posts, email posts, board posts. It's almost a pressure-cooker atmosphere, or, in some cases, like a honeymoon: Oh! You think x, y, and z? So do I! Wow! And intimacy breeds revelation: You pick your toenails?! Ewwwww. You pee in the shower?! Ewwwww. You think the death penalty is okay in certain situations?! Ewww. You think sex education is necessary?! Ewwwww. You fart?! Ewwww. You get my drift. And just like real life, people who know a lot about each other from online situations can truly hurt one another. They know just what buttons to push. They know just how to poke at insecurities. They store up irritations and frustrations, both from real life (work, politics, homelife) and online life, to the point where, when one last irritation hits a sore spot, BOOM, suddenly everything comes spilling out. Divorces are nasty because the people involved know each other so well. Some internet discourse can be nasty for the same reason. Then there are the public boards where people can just spew. Anyone who wants to can sign up on, say, MSNBC or CNN's comment boards. Any time you want a dip in vileness, just cruise some of those boards. People just seem to let themselves go, totally, given the anonymity. You can sign up with any name, and start jabbering on any subject you want--and people who sit at home shouting commentary at the TV news suddenly have a bully pulpit to share their views, no matter how ignorant or racist or informed or compassionate. It just seems that the ignorant-to-informed ratio, the hating-versus-compassionate ratio are very high. There's a reason why face-to-face interactions are governed by society's norms. Play nice. Don't hit. Share your toys. Take turns. Because if you don't follow those norms in real life, the end result is likely to be ugly. The same holds true for the internet.