A funny thing happened on the way to the forum – I really wish I didn’t have to start every entry by talking about how long it’s been since I last posted. I don’t know why I haven’t posted in so long. It’s not that I haven’t had the time. Nor is it that I haven’t had anything to write about. It just seems that whenever I have something I want to write about, I don’t have the time, and when I do have the time, I don’t feel like writing. Ideas seem to have an expiration date for me—if I can at least start writing about something while it is still fresh, I’m usually OK (although even then I need to make sure I finish it). But if a few days pass after I first get the idea, I often lose interest in it. I don’t know why this is. It might have something to do with the fact that I often use this online journal to think things through in writing, and after I’ve spent a few days mulling over something I feel that it would be pointless to write about it.
This is not true, of course, for a couple of reasons. For one, there’s always something else that can be said, and no matter how much I’ve thought about a particular topic, I will always discover something new when I actually write about it. And then there’s the fact that this journal is not the solipsistic fantasy I often pretend it is—there are real-life people out there who actually stop by on occasion and, for whatever reason, read what I write. However stale something may feel to me, it could be brand new to them. I rarely write on topical subjects anyway. Usually I just write about things I experience, and there’s no real expiration date on those.
So I’m going to pretend that something that happened to me a week or so ago actually happened to me today, and you’re going to play along with me (because for all you know—or for all you would have known if I hadn’t just told you—this really could have happened to me today), and we’ll finally pull ourselves out of this nearly month-long drought.
I was on the internet today, on a forum that I used to frequent and have only recently started visiting again. I decided to post in a particular thread, expressing my opinion on something. This opinion happened to be somewhat critical. The name of the forum, the topic of thread, and the content of my post are all unimportant. What is important is that my criticism wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular, and was posted not only to express my dissatisfaction with the object of my criticism, but also to build solidarity with the other members of the forum community (as is the case with most forum posts, unless you’re a troll). What is more important, at least for the purposes of today’s entry, is that not long after I posted my comment, another forum member addressed it, and for some reason he felt the need to begin his reply by insulting me. Again, the content of his reply is not important. All you need to know is that I had very little interaction with this forum member previously, and my original post had nothing to do with him.
Now, lest you think me naïve, I was not particularly surprised by the fact that there exist people on the internet who seem to enjoy insulting other people. I have had dealings with many of these people before. The insult was so out of the blue, though, and so utterly unnecessary, that I was even more perplexed than usual. So I replied to him, beginning my comment with a question: why did he feel it necessary to start his reply by belittling me? Then I went on to address his point in as calm and logical a manner as I could.
This is not the usual method of operating on the internet. Usually when someone is insulted, the insulted individual will reply in kind, either overtly or using more subtle tactics. It’s a natural reaction to defend oneself when attacked, but of course this leads to a continuation of the cycle, which will end only when one or more of the participants become bored or a moderator comes along and closes down the thread for devolving into a flame war.
So why did I reply with an innocent question? Was I trying to take the high road and thus put him in a difficult position? Not really—I honestly wanted to know. Maybe it was because I had just been reading another thread on that same forum where the participants regularly began their posts by denouncing the previous poster as ignorant, unreasonable, unintelligent, or all of the above. It was almost humorous how each participant followed the same format, as if they were incapable of making a point without first discrediting those who might think differently. Perhaps that was what put me in this particular state of mind, but I really did want an answer. Unfortunately, I never got one (and here is where I will temporarily abandon all pretenses of this happening today and tell you that I checked back on occasion for several days afterward, hoping that my interlocutor would reply).
In retrospect, I suppose it was silly to expect an answer. In fact, unless you’re dealing with someone particularly mean, the most effective way to defuse an insult is with a reply that does not respond in kind. After all, how was I expecting him to reply? There were really only two possibilities: another insult (which would mean I was dealing with an internet psychopath) or an attempt to laugh it off. And I suppose there was possibility that he would just leave the thread entirely, which is what ended up happening.
So I thought about this a few days—I mean “hours” ago, wondering why it is that some people feel the need to insult random strangers on the internet. Well, perhaps I should rephrase that. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t understand why someone might want to leave a snarky comment on an internet forum. This is something that I understand very well, having been tempted on many occasions to do just that. Usually it is in response to someone who makes a moronic post, or someone who is just trolling. Sometimes I will type out a reply, saying everything that I want to say—and then delete it. I have found that I don’t actually need to submit such comments. Simply typing them out is usually enough to get it out of my system. Then I navigate away from that particular thread and put it out of my mind.
(Actually, this is one reason why I don’t really hang around internet forums too much anymore. Another reason is time, of course, but I have enough stress in my life that I don’t need to actively seek out more stress in my free time. There is only one forum that I visit regularly, but this is a private forum with a small, invite-only membership, and everyone there is very cool. It’s like hanging out with a bunch of your friends, and completely unlike any other forum I’ve ever dropped by on the information highway. OK, end digression.)
So, I can understand why people might want to lash out at other people, even if there is no provocation, just a difference of opinion. Again, that’s human nature. What I can’t understand is why people actually do it. Years ago, when I was more volatile than I am now, and when the internet was the equivalent of the Wild West, I would make such posts myself. But I always regretted what I said later, and usually posted again to apologize. I never felt good about it. There are people out there, though, who apparently get a kick out of being jerks to other people.
I’m not the first person to discuss this topic—in fact, I know for a fact that papers have been written on it that are far more interesting and intelligent than today’s entry (which is actually another reason why I wasn’t going to write this, but whatever)—but it was something that has been on my mind: why are people jerks on the internet? The first thing that comes to a lot of people’s minds, I think, is the anonymity of the internet. That is, if no one knows who you are, there can be no real repercussions, so you can do whatever you want. A connection here could be drawn with road rage, I suppose, as the same reason is often cited for that phenomena. When you get into your car, you have a sense of security because you are enclosed in this solid metal casing. On the internet, you are even more anonymous. You’re not enclosed in anything—in fact, you’ve stripped yourself of all identifying features and sent what’s left out into cyberspace.
Of course, the internet is not completely anonymous, and if someone wants to track you down badly enough, eventually they are going to find you. But most internet forum surfers don’t have the time, resources or inclination to track people down, so in effect you can generally count on anonymity on the internet. (The exception to this, of course, would be if you get on the wrong side of Korean netizens, who are, as a group, possibly the scariest people on the planet. They will not only track you down, but they will then post all of your private information on the internet, effectively ruining your life. Modern-day vigilantism at its finest, I tell you. Just ask the Dog Poop Girl. Oh, and I suppose you’re also pretty much screwed if you ever become famous, because you can be sure that someone out there will dig up all your dirty internet secrets. Such situations aside, though, the average internet user posting under a pseudonym on an internet forum is generally going to remain anonymous unless they choose to give up that anonymity.)
The question of whether you’re truly anonymous on the internet is actually moot, though, because people don’t make decisions based on reality, they make decisions based on their perception of reality. So as long as people think they are anonymous, the argument holds. But is anonymity really enough to make people act like jerks? Will people really do nasty thing simply because they think they can get away with it? I know for a fact that whenever I say or do something mean to someone else, regardless of how much anonymity I might have, I usually feel bad about it afterward. I don’t think I am alone in this either, so it can’t just be the anonymity.
(Another digression here. I suppose it could be argued that the total anonymity argument doesn’t apply to most forum users, as people will generally use a single handle or user name and build up a reputation around that. So people might not know your real name or where you live, but you do start to inhabit and identify with your online persona, and some people might avoid doing things to mar the reputation of their personae. This may be one reason why people use “sock puppets” or user names/accounts created specifically for the purpose of posting under complete anonymity.)
Whatever the case, I think there is something else going on here, and I think it also applies to other examples of this phenomenon, such as road rage. In a nutshell, people don’t think of other people on the internet as actual people. It’s not really the anonymity so much as it is the fact that all we see of others on the internet is their words. We don’t hear the tone of their voices or see the expressions on their faces, and thus they are less human. Because of this, our relationships with these people has been reduced to something that no longer encourages healthy interaction. I think this applies to everyone. I’m not saying that everyone on the internet is necessarily a jerk, but you have to admit that it is easier to flame someone on the internet than it is to insult someone to their face.
It’s tempting to see this as one of the ills of the internet, but the next question we need to ask is if this is limited to the internet or is simply a manifestation of a deeper problem. For as much as I’d like to sit down on my porch with my shotgun and yell at these kids to take their newfangled internet and get off my lawn, I do think that this is something that is not limited to the internet. In fact, as I was writing this entry, it occurred to me that all of this sounded very familiar. What it reminded me of was the difference in the way people act toward those in their in-group as opposed to those in their out-group (or “everyone else”).
The in-group/out-group distinction happens to be particularly strong in Korea, but it’s a universal human social phenomenon. The fact is that you’re going to act more charitably toward someone who has some sort of influence on your life than you are toward someone who has no influence on your life. This is why—just to pull an example out of the air—people who want to emphasize the evils of war will talk about “sending our sons to die” or “sending our boys to die” rather than just say, “sending our soldiers to die.” Using “sons” or “boys” personalizes things and brings the issue that much closer to home. Strangers suddenly become part of your in-group, and you feel more strongly about them.
On occasion I have had run-ins with strangers here in Korea. This doesn’t happen very often, generally because I don’t go out of my way looking for conflict, but it does happen. Sometimes it’s apparent that the person isn’t right in the head, but other times my antagonists seem like otherwise normal people. Would they have treated me the same way if I were in their in-group? Would I have treated them the same way if they were in my in-group? The answer is pretty obvious, I think.
And I suppose that’s one reason why I had originally hesitated to write this entry: because I knew that it was going to lead to a rather obvious conclusion. I like to entertain the illusion that what I write here is insightful commentary on my life and the world around me, and so I often do not write about things that I feel are too obvious. In fact, there are probably more topics that I haven’t written about for this reason than topics that I have written about. I wonder if this has always been the right choice.
Anyway, I think it’s about time to wrap this up, however obvious the wrap-up may be. I still don’t really understand why some people say the things they do on the internet. It’s not the desire to say these things that I can’t understand, but the lack of self-control that most people show when they move from desire to action. This is not to say that I am a paragon of self-control and virtue—truth be told, I’ve probably been successful at avoiding acting this way myself because I generally avoid situations online that might tempt me to act impulsively. It could be said that a truly wise man would be able to face these situations and not succumb to temptation, but being less than wise I must settle for avoiding temptation in the first place.
I don’t think I have a simple answer to my original question, which was essentially: why are people jerks on the internet? In fact, all I’ve done is uncover the fundamental question that underlies this question: why do people people act differently toward those in their in-group and those in their out-group? I suppose I could write more on that topic, but it would require a lot more than an online journal entry if I wanted to get beyond the obvious surface explanations, and would probably be over my head anyway. Still, for as obvious as all this is, I’m glad to have finally written something. With any luck, I’ll be able to continue the trend.