The Internet: It's Pretty Much As Mean As All Of Us

tying today up in a NICE NEAT BOWThe New York Times takes some time out to haul out the always-salient question “What Is Wrong With People On The Internet?” today, this time in a Styles piece by Taffy Broedesser-Akner that looks at the more vicious reactions she received to a Salon article she had penned on the PTSD she dealt with after the particularly violent birth of her son. The Salon story eventually resulted in pseudonymous Internet people taking time out of their days to tell her things like “Do us all a favor — don’t have any more kids.” Yeesh. So much for The New Niceness!

Akner was “confused” by the mean comments, the ones that were doing little more than the e-equivalent of peeing in her pool. Or as she put it: “What confounds me is why online commenters are so gratuitously nasty; why, when given the opportunity to have an educated disagreement with an author or other readers, they use the space allotted to spew venom instead of presenting a well-reasoned argument.” Well, OK, this is a Styles piece, so there’s bound to be a bit of Unfrozen Cavewoman Writer attitude lurking within. But: Really?

Having spent a gigantic chunk of my life online (More than half my life! And I’m 34! What am I doing?), I can say with a fair amount of confidence that the answers are actually not all that confusing! Akner’s shock at people taking a cheap shortcut instead of typing out reasoned dissent is especially odd for someone who’s worked on the Internet for as long as she has — of course people who are reading online as a leisure activity are going to trend toward the glib and easy instead of the well-reasoned argument, even if the article being responded to describes an experience that’s absolutely horrifying. Generations of “wisecracking kid who always gets the laugh” characters being TV-sitcom staples is but one reason; there are also matters of time, of brainspace, and of just feeling like being an asshole. It happens to all of us!

About the “being an asshole” bit: We are in a place, and have been for quite some time, where schadenfreude is the name of so many pop-cultural games; the crappy facts of life that persist for so many people mean that the one-upmanship-through-putdowns game is ever-more-appealing. Hence the explosion in “oh my God Becky look at her butt” gossip sites, which when taken as a putrid whole make comments like the one quoted above look positively civil (not to mention extremely erudite and witty).

Tied into that is also the always-present nature of how content sites like the eternally struggling Salon make money — namely, by getting pageviews, whether it’s via overpagination or allowing anyone who gives a valid e-mail address carte blanche to comment until they get flagged down by enough irritated passerby. Sometimes, aiming for civility just isn’t worth the line-item on the budget, even if the resulting rancor has an overall effect of tainting everything around it!

And don’t think that even the most obtuse commenters aren’t at least dimly aware of their clicks’ power. Akner spoke with self-proclaimed cyberexpert Jeff Jarvis about The Deal With People Being Nasty, and he brought up the whole idea of hierarchies:

“We give people this article all nice and wrapped up in a bow, and we expect them to be happy to read it. Now, with comments sections, we have to talk about when we let people into this process and how. This notion that we’re done, now you can talk, is inherently insulting.”

As someone who has actually gotten annoyed at Jarvis’ immense capacity for issuing Grand Proclamations and who has voiced my ire right on the public Internet, I think I’m pretty qualified to note that this sort of capacity for insult ties right into the whole discussion of unpaid syndication from earlier today. Who gives one person the “license” to opine for money and the others the opportunity to maybe get extra attention via a “featured commenter” badge? It all amounts to Letting Them Eat Clicks, and it’s a vicious cycle that will probably blow up even more as budgets shrink.

Akner also brings up the old saw of pseudonymity/anonymity online, and whether or not it makes people more willing to go there as far as meanness. The answer is probably yes and no, although the capacity for meanness can be heightened when more personal details come into play. (Which might be why the reactions to Akner’s piece — and her reactions to those reactions — were so personally searing to her!) My online experience has evolved from CompuServe to Usenet to BBSes to Web-based forums to blogs to whatever Tumblr’s dashboard is. In that time I’ve mostly been shielded from out-and-out “u suck” nastiness directed my way; I’ve also developed a pretty thick skin and an intolerance for dealing with people who can only muster not-very-witty quips in their own defense. (Which is why those of you who wanted to make the jokes about thickness developing on me in other places can save them, because I already made them for you.)

In fact, the one time in the past 10 years that someone has been so brutally mean to me that I was upset enough to talk (and talk) to my therapist about it? The person’s identity was right there on the screen, in an almost-taunting way. And the worst rancor I’ve ever witnessed has been levied by people who knew each other way too well. In one online community where I hung my hat for many years, where everyone was identified by name from their first post, February was historically the time for online blowups; the theory was that the month’s nasty brutality, weather-wise, led to people staying inside too much, and hanging around their computers too much, and endlessly ruminating on the things that other housebound, modem-tethered people were saying. (At least the month was also short.)

There’s been a lot of talk around certain watercoolers about “The New Niceness,” which many people have seized on as a sort of organizing principle for the Internet going forward. But venture outside of a few safe spaces where people are pretty content with their jobs and their lives on the whole (and where they are probably saving their Old Not-Niceness for backchannel communiqués) and you’ll realize that as an idea this is sort of bull, if only because, surprise, even the seemingly nicest people are just not nice all the time. And nor are the most unpleasant sons of bitches out there mean and nasty all the time! But it’s the capacity for online communication to amplify and inflate that tends to turn the best and worst aspects of human behavior into announcements written in 140-point type and plastered over every nearby bit of Internet for all of us to see, and oftentimes cringe at.