It’s very interesting the way that different people treat their voice on the Internet. Take, for example, WordPress. There are many thousands of blogs hosted through this service. If you open up a new window and glance through the ‘Freshly Pressed’ section of WordPress, or even search by topics, you’ll be hard pressed to find something that goes out of its way to specifically be hurtful and argumentative. Do they exist in the massive jungle of blogs? Probably, but they’re not immediately apparent to a casual visitor.
Now, contrast this with any discussion forum with a less-than-Inquisitorial level of moderator control. Within 3 comments, you will find someone making a flippant one or two word comment specifically designed to be amusing but not helpful. Within 10, you will find at least one comment making ad hominem attacks at either the author of the article or the person who crafted the thoughtful, well-written original post. By 20-30 comments, it is very likely that the 2 or 3 intelligent points of discussion have been shouted down by opinionated people who have nothing to contribute except dubious facts and expressions of how stupid the other posters/authors are being.
The question I always ask myself is: what’s the difference? Why are there so many people who blog civilly and discuss in the same manner even when disagreeing, when people can’t be bothered to be decent in the leaving of a 10 word comment on a discussion forum?
I think the answer (or at least a possible explanation) lies in another form of electronic interaction – Twitter.
Twitter gives you 140 characters (maximum) to make your point. Many of the issues that people like and need to talk about are complex and feature many opposing points of view. The 140 characters of each Twitter message necessitate two things: 1) a long and broken-up chain of connected Tweets to make a point; and 2) small statements that have absolutely zero context and no ability to convey tone. This I believe exemplifies the problem of online interaction.
With Twitter, the objective is actually to NOT contribute. Twitter’s purpose is not to let information be shared in a way that promotes meaningful discussion. Twitter is the electronic version of flashing one’s tailfeathers. It’s a digital neon sign saying, “Hey, world! Look at me!” With the ability to track followers by name and the ease of use that Twitter displays, it’s an attention contest, where winners are measured in “Number of people reading your Tweets who couldn’t care less about you as a person!” (Okay, that last statement is a BIT facetious – but I think it has certain merit)
We didn’t know what we were getting into when the Internet first hit it big (publicly speaking). Many people far more knowledgeable than I have compared the Internet to the Wild West, where there has been no law for the longest time. We were forced to evolve our online social code of conduct in a totally context-less environment, and now are living with the results. And with the rise of the social media empires, the result tends to be attention-mongering.
So we come back to the initial question, but with new qualifiers: if attention is being sought by so many, why then is the negative attention of a flame war more common than the positive attention of connecting with other bloggers/posters who either agree with you or can have civil discussions?
For me, I believe it comes down to human nature and laziness. People hate to be wrong. Understandable to a certain extent – you don’t want to be believing lies or be uneducated. But the problem is that on the Internet, without borders, barriers, or general rules of conduct like a Constitution, you have the ability to ONLY affirm your biases unless you choose to go somewhere where they may be shaken. This leads to a perception that since you can find something to agree with you, you must be right. After that, any effort that you would need to put in in order to disprove what you believe is just too much work (hence the laziness). And so it is that on the Internet people become full of self-righteousness and convinced of their own presumptions, and feel the need to shout down anyone who tries to shatter their careful illusions.
This is different when you start blogging. Blogging requires you to have some sort of hosting service and makes you available to many millions of people, all of whom have access to the same resources for creation that you do. If you are going to trumpet a bias, you will either be ignored or out-written by more competent and professional authors. Hence, the retreat to anonymous discussion forums, where you can flame and whine to your heart’s content with no real fear of anyone inflicting permanent Internet logic defeat on you for all to see, because the topic will die away soon and all the posters will move on to the next controversial article/tweet.
I see this all the time in classes. The sort of behaviour you see from trying to guide Grade 8 students in a discussion is exactly the same as the behaviour of your average everyday forum or Twitter argument. It’s as if the Internet frees us from our normal personae and allows us to just be socially inept children again, with no need to self-regulate or censor. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. I hope one day that racism and prejudice and hate will be just as punishable online as they are in real life, and that eventually the world as a whole will ‘grow up’ enough to realize that maybe spending hours of your time reverting to 13 years old online is not the best idea.
When that ‘growing up’ happens, I look forward to the discussions of the merits of social welfare versus a totally capitalist state without any of the acrimony that we see in the Internet today. You know. Just like it is in the real world today.
Okay, maybe a little bit of sarcasm.