Is there a way to engage in meaningful conversation about public life—politics, culture, economics, arts, whatever—online without having it all dissolve into hateful, unnecessarily intolerant troll fodder? The Internet doesn’t seem to think so.

People say astonishing things online. This is not news. What should give us pause is the destructive and transformative power the Internet has over the ways we communicate with each other and the ways in which we can participate in our culture from an online platform.

Anonymity

When talking about what makes people (probably regular, usually nice, compassionate people) turn into anger-breathing dragons in the comments sections of online articles, critics usually point to anonymity as the prevailing factor. There’s an obvious disconnect of both time and distance that makes it seem like our replies to someone aren’t actually going to a human being, but weirdly vanishing into a vacuum free of consequences and other people’s hurt feelings.

Psychology professor Art Markman explains that for people who don’t mind hurting other people’s feelings, the structure of online communication actually fosters rudeness because it allows people to speak in monologues, instead of having to stop and listen to other perspectives like we do in face to face conversations. Regrettably, online communication does not carry the prerequisite that you write in rhyming iambic pentameter, or maybe fewer people would write this way.

Online anonymity is becoming less real all the time, however. And anonymity doesn’t account for all of the trash talk that happens on social media, where arguers are easily identifiable. People feel oddly secure voicing intolerant or angry slurs. That security seems to come as much from a sense of self-importance—an entitlement to assert an opinion and have it prevail over all dissent—as from any sense of self-effacement that online invisibility might bestow.

Shared identity

Sherry Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, suggests that online interactions make us “content to treat each other as things” that can be discarded when they become inconvenient. The “things” that are other online presences are kept or discarded depending on the extent to which they bolster our sense of self.

What we value in online interactions isn’t the complexities of interpersonal relationships, but a concentrated, pared down sense of affect—we value what we perceive as a shared experience, thought or feeling. We consciously chase a feeling of belonging, of having our opinions and therefore ourselves validated. It’s a process that’s as dehumanizing to the people we like as the people we disagree with, although it’s obviously the people who are being disagreed with who are always on the business end of the sh*storm of online bullying.

Because human beings are so simplified and so intensified in their online lives, so stripped of complexities and so totally identified with the opinions they voice, online disagreements are at the same time debates about ideas and attacks on the “self.” We’ve all read debates that turn into personal attacks (after all, we’re all governed by politicians), but online debates are often just bypassed altogether and the person who is seen to represent an idea is rejected more or less forcefully.

This seems especially true when the ideas being debated are from discourses that have a long history of being conceived as having competing ideological camps, like gender, religion, race or right/leftist politics. In discussions about these things, any opinion is automatically aligned with whatever our current reductive understanding of the history of that argumentative position is. New ideas can be essentialized, fossilized and accepted or discarded without ever really having to think about the nuances of somebody’s position.

This is a huge problem because it means that everything people say conforms to our understanding of what a person’s position is. The least common thing in a discussion forum is a request for clarification, which means that we’re not learning. And the aggressive ways people respond to alternate opinions means that lots of people who just don’t want to deal with being subject to aggressive commentary will simply not participate. Our online public discourses are limited to people willing to be verbally aggressive and people who can take verbal aggression. So we all lose out.

Consumer identity

That the Internet has often been used as an arena to expand and shore up a stronger sense of self shouldn’t be surprising given its consumerist structure. There’s a commercialism to online interactions that isn’t confined to super irritating pop-up ads or to the revenue generating everyone does to stay visible in the sea of new companies, websites, blogs and platforms always vying for attention. We can’t spend any time online without our computers marketing to us. All forms of social media make money by inviting us to share in things we might like, catering to our interests and encouraging us to develop relationships with people who might share those interests.

Our identities are something we shop for online by seeking these things, interests and people out and by rejecting those things that don’t support our perceived sense of self. We’re groomed and encouraged by the consumerist nature of the Internet to feel entitled to self-indulgence. Perspectives that aren’t ours threaten the self by taking away our feeling of affect. We become the outsiders, not the centre of the Internet’s efforts. Because the only identity the Internet offers us is a consumer one, if we aren’t the target audience, we aren’t anything.

Cultural participation has to be a respectful engagement with other people’s thoughts or it isn’t real participation. It’s an engagement with the self. If we approach online involvement with the hope of hearing a perspective other than our own, we might get closer to realizing the potential the Internet has to offer: a) the finding out of new information (which has to be one of its purposes, otherwise why are there search functions?) and b) the finding of adorable panda videos. Enjoy!


image: coffee cup via shutterstock