A young poet, enough of a rising star to be profiled in the New York Times Magazine, posts a poem called “The Rape Joke.” It begins, “The rape joke is that you were 19 years old. The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.” It is about as intense and intimate as an online post can get. In the magazine article, the poet’s mother reads the poem, but it is the comment thread that makes the mother cry. "Do you see what these people were saying about you?” her mother asked. “Mom, it’s O.K.,” the writer, Patricia Lockwood, said. “It’s just the Internet."
Internet cruelty is nothing new. It might only surprise children and the uninitiated, who dip into the public sphere for the first time and are shocked by what comes back at them. But Lockwood’s response reveals a generational shift. Her mother calls the commentators “people.” Lockwood identifies them as “the Internet,” a strange hybrid of human and computer, innately vicious but also ubiquitous, phenomena to be ignored.
Others have a more difficult time ignoring it. After reaching out to her father’s mourning fans, Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda became a target of sadistic trolls — piling trauma upon trauma. She closed her Instagram account and shut down her Twitter feed. A budding journalist who had just had one of her first stories posted on her university newspaper’s website was so stunned by the comments that she decided to find another line of work. A young writer in New York City who was photographed trying to make ends meet by hauling his typewriter to the High Line and busking stories was savaged online. (He ended up writing an article about his ordeal called “I Am an Object of Internet Ridicule, Ask Me Anything.”) Journalist Amanda Hess, who wrote one of the most talked-about stories of this year on women and the Internet, relates getting this comment to one of her pieces: “Amanda, I’ll fucking rape you. How does that feel?”
The list of examples seems endless, and there doesn’t seem to be a single space online that is free from overblown antagonistic invective. Once, when speaking to an almost impossibly sweet colleague, I voiced some concerns about my son’s eating habits. She told me to post on an online forum for moms. Seemed like a good idea at the time. The flowing curlicues and sweet-pea-pink background of the site’s design must have lulled me into some kind of trance, so the vitriol that came back was a shock. Internet moms are angry, too, real angry. And they just hate you.
Although the initial promise of the Internet was that it was a noncommercial, alternative space where anyone could have a public forum, there is clearly something about the structure of the Internet and what happens to people when they are using a computer that taps into something deep, dark, completely judgmental and furious. The worry is that the fury will reshape our online world. Will the Internet become a nasty, brutish place where only the bullies can find a voice? Is there a chance for civility and free speech online?
"They are not a real person"
Despite its pervasiveness and research that has gone into the problem, the extent of online fury still tends to baffle people. The common response, that anonymity frees people up, doesn’t really explain away the hostility. Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of the book "Smart Thinking," says that the anger ratchets up because expressing frustration online is an inherently frustrating act. “It’s unsatisfying,” he says. “Think about it like this: If you have a really good meal, you don’t sit down and eat again right away. You kind of get over it. But what happens is that if there are particular topics that get people somewhat energized, and often in a negative way, if they then lash out at somebody online it doesn’t actually make the anger dissipate, and so they just keep at it and so you’ll get these little flame wars going on, people going back and forth and it escalates.”
Part of the problem, says Markman, is not necessarily that the people writing are some kind of cyborgian hybrid but that the targets of their anger seem inhuman. “You make the worst assumptions about the people you’re communicating with because they are far away and they are an abstraction. They are not a real person.”
And, Markman adds, while long posts that allow people to express anger through writing can be therapeutic, there’s nothing cathartic about the majority of the venting that takes place online. “I don’t think they feel all that calmer afterwards. I think they’re watching the thread hoping that someone will respond because it hasn’t dissipated.”
Hence, the troll, lurking to find a hot-button topic and make it someone else’s, too.
The lack of commitment involved in online commenting has significantly eroded the public dialogue about articles and issues, according to New York University journalism professor Charles Seife. The author of the recent book "Virtual Unreality" notes that, quite frequently, those who comment on news sites, magazine forums and Facebook article posts often haven’t even read beyond the headline.
“In the old days, people would write in to your editors. You had to, in the really old days, type it out, put a stamp on it, wait a few days, wait some more. By virtue of the slowness of the old version and the time between interchange, between tit for tat, you could think better of something. You could sleep on it.” You also wouldn’t get space in a news forum if you hadn’t seriously considered the topic at hand.
Now, Seife says, things are different: “The cycle is really short and it’s all done in the heat of moment.”
Nicholas Carr, the author of the book "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains," says that we don’t have “those cues that impose restraint on people. You don’t get that social feedback. And the feedback that you do get is the feedback that says I’m getting more attention by being nasty or being hostile so I’ll ramp it up even further and get more attention. There’s a distortion of social cues that can happen when your communication is mediated in that way.”
So, to use the old body language analogy, we’re lacking those cues and so we’re bending ourselves out of shape to elicit extreme responses. That way, we know where we stand.
“You’re not getting the rich feedback that you would be getting if you were with a person or a set of people. When we’re communicating we use all of our senses. Eyes, voice, all of which gets stripped away when you’re simply posting text back and forth online,” Carr continues. In his forthcoming book, "The Glass Cage: Automation and Us," Carr argues that humans lose basic skills when their jobs become partially automated. Could that apply to offline social skills? “Just as automation tends to degrade subtle skills that depend on real world interaction and real world feedback,” Carr says, “I do think you see some of the same phenomenon when it comes to social networks and socializing through a computer.”
“I don’t want to be living in the mean kids’ playground all my life"
Many think of the angry rhetoric and personal attacks online as the pesky dues one has to pay to take part in the free, open world of online discourse. But much of what you read online is being shaped by the Web’s angriest participants.
Sometimes those quickly popped-off comments — frequently full of bad information or half-baked conjecture — gain a lot of traction. “People will come in very deeply influenced by nasty comments — sometimes more than the story itself,” Seife says.
There is also a very strong chance that certain voices, valuable voices, are leaving the conversation.
Hess, the journalist who frames online threats as a civil rights issue, and who describes in her story a Twitter account that existed solely to field death threats targeting her, is concerned that online hate often seems determined to shut out certain voices — namely the voices of minorities and women.
“When I had my first journalism job for a local newspaper, I was writing about gender and sexuality. I didn’t realize that drove people crazy. At first, it was just really gendered comments … people who called me ‘Mandy,’ ‘sweetheart,’ or ‘a cunt.’ There weren’t a lot of women there and I don’t think that they really understood what I was dealing with, but I did have those feelings that it was too much emotional trauma to deal with.”
Markman says that everyone knows to expect a more hostile environment online. “There’s a sense in which, at least in some segments of the Internet for kids who grew up with this, that this is what’s expected, that this is the playground where people play rough.”
But even Markman — who seems impressively cool-headed and secure, and who frequently opines on bad Internet behavior — isn’t immune to vindictive online sniping. No one is. “There’s a certain amount of practice that you can get in not taking it personally, or at least not taking it personally in the long run, but I don’t know anyone who doesn’t take those seriously in the moment. They always sting in the moment, but it’s the attribution that you make afterwards. ‘That person’s just being an Internet troll,’ you know. But I think there’s a mistake in saying that those comments never hurt. I think they do.”
“It’s not pleasant to live in an environment where people are always saying mean things, particularly if they are strangers. You know, adolescent boys carve themselves up all the time. They insult each other, but those insults are said with love — mostly. The Internet’s not usually like that. There’s no affection there. But it’s arousing in the moment. If you’re just lurking for that stuff, it’s sort of like watching a horror movie.”
Is this shutting down some types on online discourse? You bet it is. When an article Markman wrote in the aftermath of a shooting on his campus was picked up by the Dallas Morning News (contradicting the National Rifle Association’s claim that more weapons on campus would have made anyone safer), his email inbox was immediately flooded with vicious attacks. The onslaught had the desired effect — but it certainly didn’t do much for thoughtful conversation online.
“It certainly didn’t make me more interested in writing that sort of thing in the future,” he says.
He’s not the only one virtually run out of the public square (or at least certain conversations). Much of the fallout is difficult to quantify, but Hess speculates that a significant drop in women’s participation in online chat and discussion groups recorded by Pew was the result of online invective.
“I don’t want to be living in the mean kids’ playground all my life,” says Hess. She says that people’s lives can’t be compartmentalized anymore into offline and online, so it’s getting more and more difficult to distinguish which threats are empty and which might warrant a restraining order. “Companies don’t seem to regard online life as real life yet. Delete the comment, or you should just shut the computer and take a bath,” says Hess.
“I think it’s time to establish a better community online. Hurtful comments are just hurtful. The more marginalized group, the worse it gets.” She adds that Silicon Valley billionaires — generally white and male — have little motivation to change things.
Part of the problem is that there is no recourse when the online anger turns truly nasty, into death threats and rape threats. Both Seife and Hess underscore the imbalance of writing online as a journalist — name, email address and other information exposed for a peanut gallery that is loud and anonymous. (Seife calls it “asymmetric warfare.”)
The problem goes beyond journalism, though. More and more, I see it spilling over into the sites I frequent daily. This will impact how our children interact online (and, in some cases, how they will feel about themselves and what they believe). It will affect whose voices are heard, which ideas are shared. It’s been impacting politics for years. And it’s shaping the academy. As university classes go online, professors are noting that the nature of intellectual dialogue is changing in disturbing new ways.
Can we undo the damage?
It’s possible, as some have speculated, that we are currently living in a Wild West period of the Internet, a rough transition between lawlessness and civilization. In 15 years, will today’s online discourse look as raw and macho as an episode of "Deadwood"? The West, after all, was eventually civilized.
Some online sites are already initiating the change. Discussion board moderators exile members (an imperfect art, to say the least), some magazines have killed their reader comment threads, and the online world is becoming more and more fragmented as people retreat into more comfortable spaces away from the blistering crowd. Some, weary of online bullies, are fighting back by enlisting large numbers of like-minded people to harass the harassers.
Other possibilities include building in a time lag, so that comments are no longer instantaneously posted, a pay-to-vent model (in which people who comment need to subscribe or pay a small fee), the erosion of anonymity online (already happening as some sites “out” truly horrific contributors), and sites that scan comments and articles for overt or buried threats or insults. All are controversial, and none are a quick fix for a very complex problem.
Free speech advocates may cry foul, but when speech becomes so shrill that it shouts down and shuts out certain voices, it’s not free anymore. Larry Rosenthal, a University of California, Berkeley, professor who specializes in civility and public discourse, says that what we gain might be worth the price we pay for restraining speech online.
Members of marginalized groups are vulnerable to “discrimination and also mistreatment — and kind of a mob attack mode, depending upon who they are and what they say. Those people should savor the capacity to practice their trade,” says Rosenthal. He says that they should be able to do that “without any of the noise pollution and any of the perceived or actual risks to their persons, and their families and their reputations, and all the things that can come with an unrefereed conversation.”
“They negatively impact everybody, not just the poster, but also the folks who are trying to say things constructively, the people who state opinions — and sometimes disagreeable opinions — but in a collective, respectful and understandable way.”
Clearly, more needs to happen on the front end, before truly hateful messages are made public. By the time someone reported the harassing posts to Zelda Williams, the damage had already been done.
Of course, the best way to create a thoughtful online conversation is to put some money into it. The best -- if imperfect -- idea is to employ actual human beings trained to sift out the hostile, unhelpful and blatantly false comments and to keep the conversation civil. Charles Seife, the journalism professor, says, “We need to keep the signal and get rid of the noise. The best way to do that is moderation by human.” It’s an expensive option, but it might be necessary in order to keep everyone online and part of the conversation. As Seife says, “A gardener pulling weeds makes a much nicer garden.”