The science of Punching on
Recently, Jason Tin wrote a rather satisfying article about the imminent death of the internet due to it collapsing under the weight of its own vapid incivility. He’s right. And you’ve seen it, of course.
An online comment section can turn a group of people who pay their mortgages and love their kittens into petty, hateful stupid people braying non-sequiturs at each other like Tourettes’ donkeys. But, why?
Good question. Science, having nothing better to do, has come up with some rather intriguing answers. So if the internet is dead, then consider me the pathologist – the science wonk who goes picking around in its chest cavity with tweezers trying to determine what killed it.
The biggest factor, of course, is anonymity. Right now, this piece has my name and face on it, but you are reading it in complete privacy. Within moderated reason, of course, you can say quite literally anything you like and your identifiability remains precisely zero. To anyone else reading this, you are completely ‘deinvididuated’.
And when you read other commentary, if you feel the same way, there’s no reason to hold back. Go on, let it out – everyone else did!
Psychologists have been observing the behaviour of individuals who don’t feel like individuals for more than a century. It’s one of those historical truisms that a group of people is more dangerous, more disinhibited than any individual. In a group, people become faceless, a part of something else entirely, and it shows in their behaviour. There’s a reason it’s called a “lynch mob” and not a “lynch duet”.
A few years ago, a book called “Without Sanctuary” was published, which is a visual history of American lynching. Many of the photos are simply gruesome shots of dead bodies which remind us (hopefully) how far we’ve come in the last 80 years, but what is truly fascinating are the photos of faces in the crowd, after the rage has passed.
Some of the participants look genuinely delighted. Others are smiling, but very obviously terrified. Some just look appallingly guilty. The range of looks within a few meters spans the whole gamut of normal human emotion, but a minute ago they were a mob with a much more singular, and unpleasant, intent.
It works the other way, as well. One of the classic experiments from the 70s dumped a bunch of young strangers together in a totally dark room for an hour or more. They were much more likely to touch each other, interact meaningfully, or become sexually aroused than people in a well-lit room.
Furthermore, participants who were told they would all be introduced after the session reported being entirely less engaged in the whole experience. It seems the most intimate experiences occurred between strangers who knew they’d remain strangers.
Try getting that through an academic ethics committee today!
On a slightly less serious note, we have a more procedural barrier to maintaining our civility. Online communication completely lacks the normative barriers in conversation, the normal structure which allows an intricate dance of turn-taking, mutual understanding and inter-communication.
Even people who disagree with each other are engaged with each other, and only very occasionally does even the most heated argument degerate into rank abuse.
On the internet, however, instead of an appropriate juncture to talk we receive all the information we’re likely to get in one slab. Complicated points and different strands of discussion have to be read linearly, nothing can be corrected at the time. So many people react to the tone of something they read, react to it in its entirety.
The consequence of this is that replies in a conversation function more like graffiti than discourse – we simply end up making marks on objects that please us, regardless of where they’re supposed to go or their appropriateness. After all, a remark which is totally out of context is as easy to type as anything else.
That doesn’t work in real life. If you were walking down the street and asked someone where to get the 347 bus from, and they immediately barked at you “CLIMATE CHANGE IS FICTION!” it’s unlikely the conversation would continue, as this is far from normative behaviour and you still wouldn’t know where to get the bus.
The internet is still a new cultural phenomenon. We’re adapting to it very quickly, but there’s also still a long way to go. It’s an interesting question as to quite what having a representation of yourself in cyberspace actually means. Are they you? Or are they someone like you? Should they be expected to maintain your behaviours?
So, if you’re going to comment on this article or any other, here’s something to consider:
Are you happy saying something now that you couldn’t say in real life?
Take advantage of your anonymity now to tell us what you really think.
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