“Why do online spaces often feel so fractious?” asks Helen Lewis in a thought-provoking opinion piece in The Guardian last week. It’s something I’ve been pondering for many years. It’s not just the internet, or even social media, nor is it our increasingly uncivil and impolite society: it’s the technology that seems to be dividing us. The medium. (Would this be considered McLuhanistic? *)
Online spaces were havens for trolls, for angry denunciations, personal attacks, threats and bullying for decades. I’ve been watching it happen since I started up my own BBS in the early 1980s. I saw it when I was a sysop who managed forums on CompuServe and later Delphi, and I’ve watched it grow on the internet.
It’s in large part because the technology we use online is not designed to interface well with the biology we have evolved over millions of years to communicate with. Technology doesn’t provide the crucial emotional connection that real, human communication offers.
Sure, you can feel emotions from online content, but one-sided reaction someone sitting at home having a morning coffee in their pajamas gets from looking at cute kittens or twerking videos is not communication. But on social media with comments flying about rapidly from everyone, you can easily lose sight of the context and become engaged in comment-swapping for its own sake.
Social scientists call this “context collapse” – the idea that everything we say on Facebook or Twitter is potentially addressed to everybody, ever. The fact that for the vast majority of the time, no one outside your mum and your friends will read it makes it all the more disorienting if your musings are wrenched out of their original context and held up for public discussion.
An opinion piece in The Star this month described the difficulties media face in trying to provide a public space for comment without having to apply heavy-handed control to keep the cyberbullies and trolls in check. It gets so confrontational at times it discourages people not just from participating, but from reading entirely:
The sad reality of online comments across the entire Internet is that they are too often abusive, inflammatory and ignorant. Where once I idealistically believed comments could be a force for good, allowing readers to connect and communicate about ideas, I have come to empathize more with those readers who would just as soon not see anonymous online comments. As one reader told me recently in expressing her dismay: “The trolls are dominating; feels too much like diving into a mud fight.”
What could be – should be – open, engaging discussion and exchange of ideas becomes merely a place for emotional, public masturbation. Being able to vent anonymously and say anything you damned well please without repercussion is the same reason internet porn is so popular among the emotionally challenged. No commitment, no emotional baggage, no messy post-sex conversations and “I’ll call you” lies. What actually happens to the people – the abuse of women in particular – in porn becomes irrelevant to the viewer because they’ve become toons in our online culture, like characters in an online game.
Same with posting angry comments on FB and Twitter: you can write them, slander or attack someone, drag them through the mud, lie, insult and castigate, then close your laptop and go to bed without having to deal with the emotional and psychological turmoil your comments leave in their wake. By the time you get up, next day, the posts will likely have vanished from your feed in the ongoing cascade of content that races by.