Mean People Suck

Once upon a time, the nom-de-plume was a rarely used device. Today, it’s practically the norm. Back in February, I posted On Anonymity, clarifying some stuff about my general dislike of handles and nicks, and the general trend toward people writing as other than themselves, not standing personally behind their own words.

Anonymity has its advantages. In some respects, it’s one of the net’s strengths. Anonymity enables people in politically oppressive environments to speak freely. And a 14-year-old girl would probably be foolish to use her real name online. But what about everyone else?

Seems like there’s a lot of talk recently about the declining quality of online conversation. Reasonable people with provocative things to say talk about how every time they try to post something thoughtful, they get torn a new one by readers. I certainly post a lot less controversial stuff here than I used to; finally got tired of the sh*tstorms (though few people comment anonymously here).

And then there’s the GIFT Theory (not safe for work).

Listening to the Gillmor Gang tonight on the way home from work, was struck by something unusual: These guys usually disagree on everything. But for a rare change they were unified — all of them just sick to the gills with a zoo of buffoons out there who can’t express opinions civilly, or whose first priority is to knock a thoughtful writer down. They even talked about wanting to set up systems not just to register commenters, but to enforce verification of real names for anyone who wants to comment.

Later in the evening, a similar thread came up on the O’Reilly Mac Blogger’s internal mailing list – writers fed up with endless snarking and small-minded mean-ness from readers lacking the grapes even to use their real names.

There are several things going on here: The decline of politeness in general, an increasingly fragmented and direct public, and fallout from widespread anonymity. I think anonymity is a bigger factor than is given credit for. Compare: How do you express anger to a stranger when you’re driving your car? Would you express yourself the same way to a stranger standing next to you in the checkout line at the grocery store? If not, why not? The distance, the anonymity, does something to people. And it isn’t a pleasant something.

Music: Agustín Lara :: Piensa en mi

6 Replies to “Mean People Suck”

  1. Scott, This is a great thought. I wounder how much of this is related to the pervasiveness of ‘bully culture’ of the current right-of-right government. I now see (from foreign shores) that the left now seems to be more angry and more shrill, in addition to being more active. (In the Conneticut case, support for the Iraq war has become the left’s litmus test of acceptability for candidates.) But I do think there is a correlation between the personal climate and the political one.

  2. I’m rude to everyone on the Net because I understand that the Net is nothing more than a gigantic networked collection of robots, most of which are located in a giant former Soviet tank factory in Croatia, pounding their metal fingers senselessly against old IBM keyboards hooked up to creaking, coffee-stained 486 PCs. Every now and then one of those robots manages to spew out something that approaches coherence or humor but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is intelligent, per se; it’s just that the stream of randomness has manages to toss up something we can read. So I feel completely comfortable being rude on any blog, since I know the recipient is nothing more than a senseless sack of bolts.

  3. I’ve never liked most dicussions provoked by anonymity on the internet. Cases in point: digg and slashdot. Worthless.

    A while back I saw an episode of M*A*S*H (written by Alan Alda, I think) where one of the subplots is an American pilot that walks into camp after bailing out of his plane. The pilot is cheery and ignorant: he loves the war, flying, dropping bombs, his 9-5 job (he goes home to his wife in Okinawa at the end of every mission). He can’t understand how anyone would want to fight a war from anywhere other than at 50,000 feet. Later, Hawkeye conviently leads the pilot into the OR where a little Korean girl is being treated. The pilot goes crazy, finally realizing what it is his bombs do to people (including children) on the ground, and wants to know who’s bombs did it, Korean or American. Hawkeye replies, “does it really matter?”

    It’s a great episode in general, that particular scene is priceless and wonderful. I wish I could do it better justice in my description.

    I suppose my point in talking about M*A*S*H is that the internet lowers the threshold for a kind of anonymity that encourages harmful ignorance that is engendered by detachment from consequences from our actions. The car and the bomber are other examples.

    There are many struggles in this life and maintaining a respectful tone to our neighbors is perhaps the biggest struggle that we fail at continuously at all levels of group-participation.

  4. Gilbert – The bomb-dropping analogy is perhaps the perfect analogy for the phenomenon we’re talking about here.

  5. Scot,

    Haven’t visited your blog for a while – but the weird part is that these are exactly the same thoughts I’ve been having all week in my typical ‘net wanderings. I don’t post in most places now… sometimes I begin a thoughtful reply to something, only to stop mid-paragraph as my brain gives me a reality check… “who’s gonna read that and care anyway… it just gets lost in the flotsam and jetsam”. So I cancel my reply.

    I’ve left heaps of forums just because they’re full of, as you so aptly note, mean people. I make it a rule to say nothing online in email or posts that I wouldn’t say face to face. And I just couldn’t be bothered even trying to say something anymore. The signal to noise ratio is far too low. We may be able to filter out spam emails… but how about comments with the same or lesser value as spam written by real people but with nothing at all to contribute but nastiness.

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