This post addresses the phenomenon of belligerence and lack of adherence to social mandates in internet communities. Why does this happen, and how can it change?
People are mostly good. That's something that I've heard a lot and I believe it is true. I think the average person out there is good, civil, willing to help out in a pinch. Jay Michaelson, a writer at the Huffington Post, suggests that we are prone to helping and caring for each other on an instinctive level, in common with many social animals, for the preservation of our species. That seems like a reasonable justification, even barring the more spiritual or religious explanation for an inherent goodness of heart.
I hold this belief further because I've been in plenty of situations in which I've seen the civility of strangers. I spent two years proselyting with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and as a missionary I had plenty of deliberate encounters with strangers. These encounters, as you can imagine, much more often than not ended very quickly with the stranger informing me that he or she was not interested in what I had to say. The remarkable thing, however, (though there were exceptional cases) was how often such refusals were associated with a "sorry" or some sort of well-wishing accompanied with a smile. These people had never met me before and had no particular reason to benefit from being nice, and yet they were nice all the same. I'll readily admit that personal anecdotes do little to prove an assertion, but I hold my opinion anyway.
While I do not wish to be overly sentimental, I believe that many of the exceptions, the mean people that I encountered would also be found in other circumstances to be very kind and helpful. The man who has a fiery temper on the road may still spend his weekends volunteering at the homeless shelter. And just as we don't know enough to see the immediate good in people, it may be that they who show the least sympathy simply falter because they don't consider the situations of those whom they wrong. This, in fact, is the major point on which I would like to focus.
It's easier to shout obscenities at that lady who cut you off than at that single mother below the poverty line who cut you off. It's easier to criticize the leader who promised solutions than the leader who encountered much bigger problems upon entering office. It's easier to ignore the dirty guy on the street than to ignore the man desperately overcoming alcoholism and trying to turn his life around on the street. It's easier to be mean to faces without identities than to faces with them. Anonymity diminishes civility.
Think about that in the context of the digital world of the internet. In no other situation can communication occur with greater or even comparable anonymity on anywhere near the scale. In the past, especially with the mass distribution of print, detachment of those communicating and those receiving communication had already begun, but it was a one-way road. Though people could write letters to authors, these letters were neither as faceless nor as easy to produce as a comment on the internet. Now, you can easily tell anyone what you think, often without ever revealing anything about yourself. Even using social media like Facebook, in which you must use your real name, you can expose your opinion to a wide variety of people without exposing almost anything else. As a result, it is easier to be uncivilized online than in any other forum or community. If it is easier to be mean to a face without a name then it is easier still to be mean to words without a face. Is it any wonder that trolls have become such a significant part of internet culture that we actually have a term for them?
If you think, as I suspected myself, that the "problem" I am presenting may be more an issue of perception than of what is actually happening, the scientific journal American Psychologist made reference to the effects of digital anonymity on adherence to social norms as early as 1984 (the link will only show you the abstract, but it is enough to see what the article is about). As the internet has become increasingly ubiquitous, the problem has been increasingly documented. In fact, it has a name: deindividuation. Here you will find a very interesting discussion of this phenomenon, defined in the article as what happens when social norms are withdrawn because identities are concealed (warning, some of the examples of uncivil use of web communication that are cited in the article contain vulgar language).
Deindividuation is not limited to internet use. Though it occurs at a much greater level in online communication for reasons previously discussed, the article explains that it is the same thing that happens when a driver gets road rage, when a responsible person at a football game yells obscenities at the referee, and when children pull pranks on Halloween. In fact, as you may have observed from the latter two of these examples, deindividuation is as much about anonymity of the self as it is about anonymity of the victim of the abuse; the belief that one need not face the consequences for his or her uncivil actions plays a major role. Does this suggest that people are not so inherently good as I have argued? Perhaps, or perhaps self-anonymity is connected with a perceived anonymity of the other. Just because you see the ref and know he is a person does not mean you see him as anything more than stripes. You don't know who he is outside of that set of circumstances. Whether the cause is the concealment of one's own identity or the concealment of the target's identity, however, is irrelevant. The fact remains that the problem happens and it is the result of anonymity.
I am not suggesting that anonymity in itself is wrong. One person wrote to the New York Times discussing this very problem and advocating the requirement of identification in internet forums. The barrage of letters that were then received in disagreement with this opinion pointed out well many of the benefits of anonymity: freedom to state a controversial opinion, freedom to seek help discretely in situations of abuse or bullying, and freedom to seek advice for potentially embarrassing problems, to name a few. One person wrote, "My [colleagues] and I are all for online civility, but we are not willing to sacrifice a robust public forum to achieve it." I agree with these people. Anonymity is not something that should be eliminated, whether or not it causes the problem of incivility.
Furthermore, it would be quite impossible to impose a requirement of identification online; that has been tried and it failed spectacularly. Blizzard, the popular computer game developer, attempted to require people posting in Blizzard forums to use their real names. This almost immediately resulted in the anonymous blogging of all sorts of personal data on Blizzard employees including the CEO, Robert Kotick. A mean and perhaps unjustifiable action, yes, but nevertheless a protest that was echoed by many seeking to protect their anonymity. Blizzard's announcement was retracted only days after they made it.
So what, then, will solve the problem of this lack of care for others on the internet? What will maintain civility? I'll let XKCD answer that:
Just think about who is on the other side! You aren't interacting with a bunch of words, you are interacting with a real person, with real beliefs and feelings and aspirations. That person may not have become enlightened enough to realize that you are as well, but that does not justify throwing away your own civility.
Yes, I am convinced that the only real solution lies in the self-improvement of the individual. I am not going to try to stop everyone from using obscenities, backbiting, criticizing, or anything else, nor could I or anyone else succeed at doing so. Perhaps the situation is futile, but perhaps not. If you could improve, then do it. Be a good influence, don't get caught up in petty arguments, don't "feed the trolls", and we will be one step closer to a more civil internet.