Must the Internet Be So Nasty?

It occurs to me, judging from the nature of discourse on social media platforms, that as a culture, we have become progressively ruder to one another.  Even absent the anonymity of Internet bulletin boards where people are likely to troll, platforms like Facebook—actually, Facebook in particular—have become a venue for people to spew ugliness, sometimes even to their “friends.”  This being an election year here in the U. S. of A., I expect things to get even worse this year than they have been to date.

This all got me to wondering why written discourse that creates a permanent record is so much less civil than, say, conversation at a bar.  Here are some theories I’ve developed:

Silence is absence.  Think about how many times in the real world you’ve had a delightful evening listening to other people discuss a topic while saying very little yourself.  Even by sitting silently, you were present in the conversation, and your presence was noted by others.  In social media, silence is absence.  Let’s be truthful here: for those of us who see social media even obliquely as a means develop some form of a “platform” for attracting attention, lurking is the same as invisibility, and invisibility accomplishes nothing.  Thus, I think there’s a certain pressure to post in places where one’s opinion is not necessarily valued.

Everyone’s invited to everything.  In the bar, if a friend and I are having a political discussion at a side table, it would be considered rude for a stranger who knows me only from my book jacket to pull up a chair and say, “Gilstrap, I think you’re full of crap” (though I’ve been told that I frequently am).  Notwithstanding the fact that the discussion is being held in a public place, it would be considered private until outsiders were invited to participate—or until we were asked to leave by the proprietor because we were spinning up the drunks.

On Facebook, one’s posts, or one’s responses to others’ posts are an open invitation for global participation, sometimes by thoughtful people on the other side of an issue, and sometimes by ill-informed bomb throwers who have the power to hijack a friendly discussion and turn it ugly.

Posted words live forever.  On the few occasions when I find myself knee-deep in a flame war, it usually has something to do with the permanence of the discourse.  In a bar, an encounter with a moron ends the instant I walk away.  Whatever’s been said is gone to the ether.  On Facebook, though, failure to rebut is tantamount to conceding the point, and that’s a cycle that ends only through exhaustion.  Along the same line, if someone in the bar crosses the line toward insult, it’s easy just to change the subject and pretend that the ugly things were never said.  That is singularly impossible on the Internet.

The presumption that all opinions are equal.  Bear with me here, because as I typed those words, I felt the ice crack a little beneath my feet.  I’m not suggesting that people are not inherently equal, but rather that their expertise in any given field is not.  If I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between two Ph.D. climatologists who disagree on the finer points of climate change, I’m not likely to chime in with what I heard that morning from Al Roker.  Fact is, no one has the band width to understand the finer points of every topic, and few have the intellectual integrity to research the details of even those things about which they feel passionate.  Still, in the social media world, one need only quote some partisan know-nothing a 24-hour news channel to claim expertise.

Bringing it close to home, I’m delighted to listen to and spar against passionate opinions that differ from my own on the state of the publishing industry from someone who has actually been involved in it.  I’m less inclined to engage with people who have never been published, yet parrot as fact things that they have read in other people’s blogs.

People prefer the echo chamber to actual discourse.  Pick any side on any issue, and there’s a Facebook group you can follow that will say and repeat exactly what you want to hear.  And if someone wanders in and takes a different side, that group will be your posse to help you run him out of town.  The echo chamber will demonize those who hold the opposite opinion, and empower the chamber-shouters to draw generalities about large swaths of fellow human beings who individually exhibit few if any of the attributes assigned to them by the chamber.  Within the echo chamber, it becomes acceptable to presume the basest, most despicable motivations for those who hold an opinion different than yours.

Which brings me to the last point I want to make in this post:

Almost every issue is way more complicated than most people presume.  And because the issues are complicated, we fall back to facile platitudes and we staunchly defend them.  We’ve all witnessed this in one form or another: All Democrats are presumed to be X, and all Republicans are presumed to be Y.  If you’re opposed to A, then you must be a B.  Intellectually honest people know that that kind of homogeneity does not exist in any crowd, yet it’s easy to ignore that reality because it fuels popularity in the echo chamber.  Once we begin to demonize those who disagree, and as a result affix to them labels that we know apply to only a precious few, we have begun a discriminatory journey that undermines our own humanity.

What do y’all think?  Is there a way to make social media more civil?


7 thoughts on “Must the Internet Be So Nasty?

  • Carla Norton

    Very good points, all. I especially like your comments about silence equally absence, and your analogy about sitting at a table, having a chat. Depending on the topic, social media is often more like speaking on a stage before an audience–some armed with tomatoes, others with garlands. A few loud individuals only mount the stage with the purpose of doing battle. My strategy is to keep quiet rather than engage in any nasty exchange, yet I try to be generous with praise when praise is due. Your post, for example, is very nicely done.

  • Karen Dionne

    Great points, John. This is perhaps an oversimplification, but when my children were younger and we were trying to teach them how to get along with each other, we told them that before they spoke (or in the case of social media, “wrote”), they should ask themselves three questions:

    1. Is it true?
    2. Is it kind?
    3. Is it necessary?

    I still try to follow that general outline today – especially in social media, where every word written is permanent!

    • John Gilstrap Post author

      Karen, I find that numbers one and two on your list are often at odds with each other.

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