Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal Elizabeth Bernstein takes on online rudeness, citing a soon-to-be-published study that informs us that being on Facebook too much lowers our self control and does this most of all, somehow, when our Facebook networks are made up of our close friends. This flies in the face of the logic that tells us we're meaner and ruder when we're anonymous online; on Facebook, we know each other, and we're still rude. (Bernstein tells the story of one woman who lost a friend in a tumultuous Facebook discussion about pit bulls; it's now 8 months later and she hasn't heard a virtual peep from him.)
The research goes to show, per Keith Wilcox, the study's co-author and a Columbia Business School assistant professor, that all the liking and self-promotion on Facebook makes us feel a sense of entitlement. "And you want to protect that enhanced view, which might be why people are lashing out so strongly at others who don't share their opinions," he tells Bernstein. This is the same sort of behavior, he adds, "often displayed by people impaired by alcohol." We're all a bunch of drunks on Facebook! Also, "People who spent more time online and who had a high percentage of close ties in their network were more likely to engage in binge eating and to have a greater body mass index, as well as to have more credit-card debt and a lower credit score, the research found."
Yikes. So is the Internet really making us so awful, or were we, perhaps, just bad to start with, and getting worse? We discuss.
The Internet Brings out the Horrible in People.
There's no magic Internet-ness that is making us meaner than we naturally are, but it encourages rude in a way that real life doesn't. In the non-digital world we have social codes that make us act less like the horrible humans we are at our cores. On the Internet we don't. There's nobody teaching children to say please and thank you after receiving Facebook likes. Rather, this place conditions for jerkiness. The anonymity allows for nastiness without consequences. Trolls get rewarded with page views and fame. Things that are stigmatized (for good reason) flourish here: There are corners of this place where people just talk about being racist, out in the open. Even on places like Facebook where people use their real names, the distance makes everything easier. For the hater, being mean feels about as real as sending someone a diss via snail mail. But, it is instant and public, ergo a cinch for you and harsh on the recipient. Also, for the truly remorseful there are delete options, meaning we can let horrible things come out of our mouths willy-nilly.
The Internet even gets us to be mean in private, making cruel chat or e-mail conversations so easy. Nobody will see these, we think. It's not like a note that can be found lying on a desk and later serve as evidence. (Even though, that is totally untrue.) So we paste along gossip and snarky comments we would never say in person. (See: Tyler Clementi.)
On the other hand, this here forum doesn't love loving, or kind. The standard of nice on the Internet we have come to expect on the Internet involves Facebook "likes" and "omg you look soooo cute" photo comments and "loved this: LINK" tweets. And do we really value those things as compliments? They are expected norms. "If I post a photo, someone better like it!" Even those who try their hardest to be considerate Internet citizens, can't. Only in this cruel web world do saccharine wedding proposals get made fun of in front of the whole Internet to see. Kill 'em with kindness doesn't work here. When someone assaults you with a mean tweet in an attempt to spark a Twitter fight, you can't passive aggressively smile it off. Either you engage, having a spat for all to see. Or, you can respond in the most benign way possible, which looks like a snarkier than thou remark. Or, you can say nothing at all, which means you are invisible. Those are the options: Be nobody or be a loud, mean somebody.
Now, maybe some of you, like my colleague Jen Doll, like that "genuineness." But, I would argue it's not authentic, it's conditioned. The Internet has made us behave a certain way. Now, it's up to you to make a call on if that is a "good" or "bad" thing. — Rebecca Greenfield
Rude People on the Internet Are Rude in Real Life.
Frankly, I'm tired of blaming the Internet for every mistake we're making. Rude people are rude, and that's that, whether they're on the Internet or shoving past you to get on a subway car before you have a chance to get off, or giving you the finger when you order before they do at the bar. Does the Internet give us more accessibility to these people? Yes, certainly, we can interact with them without even leaving our homes. So, sure, that makes it seem like there are more of them, that perhaps they're growing in numbers and perceived misdeeds. But I disagree, regardless of the study, that we can make an exact correlation between Facebook and and the Internet in general and our personal rudenesses and bad behaviors. We've been being bad since well before Facebook or even Mark Zuckerberg existed.
Again, yes, perhaps the Internet makes it easier for some small group of sad sacks to hide behind anonymity and shout from commenter sections that we're filthy, terrible writers who shouldn't be paid for this garbage. And, yes, that's pretty rude: Do we comment on how you're doing your job? No. We wouldn't dare. But the point is, rude people at comedy shows heckle comedians. Rude comedians heckle them back. People on the street bump into one another and shove and make faces. People in front of one another tell each other, sometimes, the most awful things; even your own mother is not immune to saying something rude about you! (Do you really need that bag of Doritos, honey?) This happens even when we do see each other's reactions. Maybe, if anything, the ability to do this online without seeing reactions makes us unfraid to do it in public. But, again, the Internet didn't give birth to rudeness. It's only a place where we demonstrate it.
But sometimes the counter is true. In fact, with all this social media stuff we're up to, the Internet has started to become a place where we are, in fact, nice. Remember earlier this year when Slate's Jacob Silverman called out author Emma Straub for being representative of this terrible unholy new "Internet niceness"? Perhaps that was in some ways rude of him, but he was railing against the way writers use the Internet to be, well, not rude at all, and, in fact, completely the opposite—congratulating, back-patting, and being kind to each other. How dare they!?
Maybe, in that vein, there's an argument to be made that offline, we can snark and yell and complain about what jerks everyone else is with no one to hear but our immediate friends and family, who aren't ultimately going to hold it against us, but online, our moves are public, there forever when we say or do the wrong thing, with the machine of Internet rage ready to act if it's truly, truly bad. We are not free from punishment online, which is enough to make you start hugging people virtually, sometimes. At least, those of us who are nice. xoxo — Jen Doll
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.