Let’s harken back to the early days of the Internet, say the 1990s. In those days of yore, characterized by limited bandwidth and lack of flash animations, people by trial and error attempted to work out the dos and don’ts of online communication. This was before Facebook messaging and tweeting, before SMS and MMS. Communication was via email, or Usenet, or IRC (you may have to look up the last two, but they still exist). Even in those days it was quickly recognized that communicating electronically was not the same as communicating face-to-face, or even via telephone. The impersonal nature of online communication tends to insulate those communicating from the emotional feedback that occurs naturally during face-to-face communication. We don’t see the anger, or embarrassment, or sadness in the faces or in the voices of those with whom we are communicating. Talking with someone face-to-face, we can see how our words are affecting them. We might change the course of the conversation when we see that our words are making someone angry, or sad, based on concern that we might end up with a bloody nose, or because we hate to see someone upset. With digital communication, especially the anonymous sort, we don’t have these checks and balances, so the sky’s the limit as to how much hateful speech we can spew out without regard to consequences.
In response to this, rules of Netiquette were developed. Today these rules sound quaint, much like Emily Post’s rules of etiquette (do you remember to always leave a calling card after dining at a lady’s house?). Rules like: don’t make a big deal of spelling mistakes, or don’t post in all capital letters, or avoid off-topic posting. If only these were the worst of the problems we face when surfing the Internet today!
Online communication, if you still want to dignify the process with that term, has changed for the worse, with no end in sight. If you feel it’s always been this bad, I disagree. It is getting worse. Online rudeness has even spilled over into everyday life. How many times a day do you see some self-important jackass (see it’s affected even me) sitting in a public place (like an airport terminal) holding a loud conversation on his (I won’t neutralize the pronoun here, it’s usually a man) cell phone over his bluetooth headset? I remember the very first time I saw this happen, years ago in a train station. I was convinced the person was schizophrenic and talking to imaginary friends.
There is no civility online anymore. Accounts are hacked and private photos are leaked. Men post naked photos of ex-girlfriends online, where they circulate forever between Tumblr sites (links withheld intentionally). Poor Anita Sarkeesian, whose “crime” was that she produced a set of YouTube videos detailing the very stereotypical way women are depicted in many video games (as if that should be a shock to anyone) is the constant victim of rape and death threats (NSFW link). Nothing proves her thesis more than the response to her videos. And if you want to see for yourself how wild it is out there (on the Internet), go ahead and tweet something even mildly controversial, such as something about gun control, or Islam, or the depiction of women in games. Then sit back and wait for the barrage of ad-hominem attacks. Sure, with a 140 character limit in Twitter, it’s probably easier to launch an ad-hominem attack than to have a rational discussion. But there’s more going on here than just too limited space for a rebuttal. Trashing people online has become a sport that is increasing in popularity. And that’s sad.
I just hope that if there is ever an alien race investigating our world to see if we are worthy of joining the inter-galactic community they don’t base their judgment on reading the comments section to the Fox News website, or the Twitter posts with the #GamerGate hashtag. If they do, we’re in big trouble.