I recently read an Oct. 2 Wall Street Journal Article which brought up the brutish nature of flame wars and other kinds of disputes held exclusively on the Internet. The author, Elizabeth Bernstein, begins by saying that anonymity is a kind of shield people use so that they don’t have to face the person they are being belligerent toward.
Being faceless doesn’t encourage people to post such things. If that was the case, then people would not keep coming back to continue their arguments in the comments. They would have less involvement if they were only out to cause trouble because they would start the fight and back away in glee. People are instead very invested in proving they are correct. And that isn’t a problem; the usage of personal attacks is when everything really turns nasty.
If anonymity were the key force driving this rude behavior, then why are these fights and insults constantly appearing on Facebook and Twitter, where people are anything but anonymous?
Anonymity doesn’t contribute to online rudeness. There are too many other places where unsolicited criticism and demeaning insults are traded. An example of this would be family gatherings such as Thanksgiving. A political argument around the dinner table can get nasty, and these are not just random, anonymous people throwing insults at each other, this is family.
I think the real cause of online rudeness has to do with one’s investment in the topic, and that goes both ways. Online, we have people known as trolls, those who cause mischief for fun. They have no investment in the topic and will offer up the most cringe-worthy response to upset whoever is listening. They are few in number, especially in a social network of friends.
The big problem, I think, stems from those who care the most. According to Phillip DeFranco, a video blogger, in his Sept. 25 YouTube show, people tend to be more vocal over what angers them than what they are happy about. He was speaking about football, but it just as easily could have been any other topic with mainstream attention.
Another reason I disagree with The Wall Street Journal article is its example. Bernstein cites a situation in which one person exhibited troll-like behavior by baiting his friends over political questions on Facebook, questions his friends understandably got legitimately angry about.
I see that Facebook was used as a platform for this and similar fights, but I don’t understand how Facebook could be the cause of the user’s behavior. The article showed that these arguments do happen but did not give a causal link between platform and action. From the presentation, the person sounds more like a hypocrite in real life than a person morphing into something undesirable once they get online.
In fairness, the article was based off of a study that has not yet been completed and released. However, I still don’t think that social networking platforms and anonymity are the cause of online rudeness. I think it is a fight between people who care deeply and are sometimes spurred on by those who don’t. Those who care make their claims in a way similar to playing a poker game they have to win and can’t back out of. If they lose or withdraw, it means their point of view is wrong and not important. And as the saying goes, all is fair in love and war.
I think the best solution to the problem is not removing oneself from the Internet or getting rid of usernames; it would be accepting that others can be right at the same time you are. Making people be themselves online, rather than anonymous, just means the people fighting back can play the name game when they retort. The keys to taming the Internet are simple; agree to the dinner table rule (no politics/fighting at family meals), don’t fuss over spelling and remember that the best kind of criticism is constructive criticism. I feel implementation of these ideas can keep Internet discussions from escalating into arguments. We all want to think for ourselves, but it is possible to share differing ideas in a civilized manner.
Patrick White is a junior in journalism and mass communications. Please send comments to email@example.com.