A Theory of Net Rudeness
The question has arisen repeatedly over the years: Why are people more rude on the Net than in person?
The question itself is a problem. Are people actually that much worse in their online personas than in real life? There is anecdotal evidence of it, in that a great many people are known to act better (more civil) face to face than online. Some have noted in the past it’s the same with driving, where people are far less restrained behind the wheel of a vehicle than during the rest of their waking hours. However, there are varying portions of any given population who aren’t drivers, and aren’t online.
Methinks therein lies the source of the problem. First, we are dealing with the sort of folks who spend any significant time online, and among those, people who bother to interact with others in such as a way as to be evaluated for rudeness. That’s a pretty narrow slice of humanity.
Next, it’s probably a good idea to filter out subjective response. That is, the medium lends itself to variable interpretations. Without all those normal cues we expect from meat space — tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. — it’s hard to tell for sure. Can you detect subtle sarcasm unless you happen to know the writer well?
So if we winnow out all that chaff, we find there is still a surprisingly large number of obviously pugnacious personal remarks between perfect strangers living in different parts of the world. The WSJ article notes friendships are broken which weren’t built online. The single greatest factor is what sort of person gets involved in these flame wars in the first place. The Net did not come out of nowhere; it was built up and made into something useful by a certain group of folks who are very different from your average Joe. More than one wag has noted these folks are so very good at computers because they weren’t that good with people in the first place. Computer nerds created a meeting place of sorts and gave it a pretty odd flavor.
The rest of us simply came along and picked up on the underlying rudeness. The real issue here is most people lack sufficient character to differentiate themselves. They just try to fit into the herd, perhaps picking a slight variation, but still embracing something they found at hand which appealed to them. Along with this are a raft of unspoken assumptions about the nature of the medium itself, and you get a herd of commentators with an inflated sense of privilege they would never dream of holding anywhere else. As time goes on, it naturally gets worse with each new opportunity, as people tend to push the envelope as a basic human trait.
What the WSJ offers is hardly a new answer, the shallow assessment it’s simply anonymity. Anonymity has little to do with Facebook fights. This false answer becomes the Nanny State’s favorite excuse, of course, to justify draconian controls on the Net and privacy invasions. I charge the author, Elizabeth Bernstein, with intellectual dishonesty (how rude!), if not from herself, echoing that handed to her. It’s shallow reasoning offered from the plutocrats who actually hold us all in contempt. These plutocrats actually want us to act that way; it’s the results of the shallow culture they’ve been striving to create so we are more easily controlled.
Rudeness is built into the mere existence of the Net. Survivors will simply grow a thick skin, and everyone else needs to find another place to hang out. Really, just let them fight it out because it’s not that important. Give it a short time and the marketers will create yet another new social media opportunity for the whiny bunch to waste their time spilling way too much information about themselves, to the marketers’ glee, and life will continue as before in its long decline. Civility was dying before the Net came into existence, and had a lot to do with the interest in such things in the first place. We can be sure global networking will continue, but it will be hijacked more and more, until the original underlying network is dead.
Enjoy it while you can, because the Net carries the seeds of its own destruction.