Have you ever wondered why there are so many nasty people on the Internet? If so, you're not alone. Depending on how long you've been using the web, and how active you are, you may have noticed a bizarre, underlying trend in the people you encounter in cyberspace. I certainly have. Over the past several years, I've seen and experienced it all. Name-calling, insults, hate speech, threats, trolling, fierce arguments, and more, which are all among the many things that are said daily in chat rooms, BBSs, forums, comment sections, and networking sites. Hopefully, if you've been the subject of such things, it has been limited to the Internet. In my experience, I've found that people become different people when they use the Internet. Why is this?
If I had to choose one thing that I thought invariably brought out the worst in people, I would choose the characteristic of anonymity. This happens when people are allowed to communicate to others in an unusual way, without having to face the immediate consequences of their words. There's a degree of anonymity in most situations, which can make it easy to misunderstand or misjudge people. Have you ever noticed how it's harder to interpret someone's feelings while talking to them on the phone than in person, because you can't see their facial expressions? This is an example of such a situation.
I think the greatest example of anonymity, though, is the Internet. Here, not only can people not see your face, but they can't hear you words either. On the Internet, it's difficult to make assumptions about people, because you know so little about them. In person, we typically judge people by their appearance, their setting, the sound of their voice, etc. It's impossible not to make these judgments, as we have a natural inclination to do so, and much of it happens subconsciously. It's a survival mechanism; if you were to be startled by someone running at you with a knife, your natural instinct would be to remove yourself from that potential danger. It is the same with people, as we make judgment instantly, without even thinking about it. Upon seeing someone for the first time, within a split second, we make judgments about that person. Who are they? What do they want? Where did they come from? Do they want something from me? Do I want to see this person? Do they look nice? Do they look smart? How old are they? Do I like this person? And the list continues. The same happens when we first hear his or her voice. What do they sound like? Are they angry? Are they happy to see me? How tired are they? Do they sound nice? Do I like the sound of their voice? What do they want from me, and how should I reply? We answer these questions by interpreting how people express themselves, both visually and vocally.
When you take away a person's ability to represent him/herself realistically, through their voice and physical presence, you also take away that person's ability to express his/her personality accurately. This is what happens in chat rooms, where people are represented by avatars and chat bubbles. At times this can be extremely frustrating. Other times it can be a blessing. The ability to decorate an avatar, for example, might liberate someone without the money to buy the real clothing he/she wants. To those who are shy or unpopular, the Internet can offer an escape from a painful or boring social life. The ability to interact with people, hiding behind avatars and text bubbles, while sitting thousands of miles apart, is truly extraordinary.
The ability to disguise one's personality, however useful it might be, can also be a curse. I, like many, have been the subject of a great deal of cyber harassment, on the basis of many different things. This is because of a general lack of consequences. On the Internet, there is a seemingly infinite number of second chances. Unlike real person-to-person conversations, on the Internet you lack the ability to experience people's real reactions. You don't get the see their sadness or anger, hear their frustration, or feel their pain the same way you can in person. This is an incredible shame. When people could be using the Internet to increase their knowledge of various subjects, further their understanding of various peoples, and discover more about the world around them, instead, they squander the opportunity. Instead of being productive and sincere, people take advantage of others for their own entertainment.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not the type of person you'd see on a satirical "Internetz is srs bizniss" graphic. I'll freely admit that I'm guilty of taking advantage of those who I thought were too self-important on the Internet, but my point remains the same. There's an appropriate place and time for everything, and all sorts of people regularly overstep those boundaries. The good news is that Whyville is usually pretty mild and light-hearted. The bad news is that the rest of cyber-space isn't as friendly. It's not a challenge to find people, who you might characterize as being successful, mature, responsible, and intelligent in person as being rude, insincere, hateful, and ignorant on the Internet.
Why people are inclined to be nasty in the first place remains a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it is because people need to vent. As we live day to day, nearly everything we do is regulated by things beyond our control. We wake up early, go places we don't want to go, do things we don't want to do, suck up to people we don't like, and so on, all because we feel we have to. Life, then, requires a great deal of emotional discipline, which can be immensely frustrating as we bottle up our emotions. To many, the Internet seems like the only place to vent these frustrations.
There may also be a degree of thrill involved when people behave poorly. It's the same reasoning teenagers have when they go mailbox smashing. It's because they're stupid, and as a result find it thrilling to be rebellious. There's still a problem, though. My theory is that many people, particularly adults (who unlike our generation weren't raised with the Internet), are still in a honeymoon period with the today's level of interconnectivity. Some people find the initial lawlessness of the Internet so thrilling that they don't realize that it's pointless. Because there are no consequences, there is no thrill; it is simply an illusion of rebelliousness.
I honestly can't say I've been bullied on the Internet, at least for a long time anyway. Perhaps that is simply because my perspective has changed. I generally try to avoid confrontations, and in the rare even that there is one, I brush it off. As important as it is to be civil and respectful on the Internet, you can't expect people to act that way in return. If you want to avoid having your feelings hurt, you also have to account for the difficulty people face in communicating on the Internet. If something does offend you, ignore it anyway. As prominent religious leader Brigham Young once stated, "He who takes offense when offense was not intended is a fool, yet he who takes offense when offense is intended is an even greater fool for he has succumbed to the will of his adversary."
I just want to conclude by saying the Internet is an extraordinary tool. It provides endless opportunities and has potential that our generation will continue to discover for years to come. The usefulness of the Internet, however, can be trumped when people abuse it. Many online newspapers are facing the problem of trolling, bigotry, and ever-present negativity in their commenting sections. Many have considered removing their forums altogether. Is this what we are as a society? A group of people that cannot get along or cooperate without authoritative intervention? Hopefully we're not. Fortunately you can be an exception. Be positive, respectful, and slow-to-judge. Don't take every opportunity you have to make a snide remark, witty comment, or hilarious insult. It might be tempting, but there's no point. Always look for the good you see in the people you encounter, and the things you read. Contribute to discussions with potential and purpose. People who are negative reinforce trolls, and hysteria is reinforced by ignorance. People feed off of each other on the Internet, so be a positive example.