If the internet is a reflection of who we are, then the comment section of almost any particular website is proof that most of us are not worth hearing.
(Not on this site, of course. I enjoy all your comments. Keep them coming.)
But a quick scan of almost any website will reveal that people are dumb. Very, very dumb. Although the stupidity and ignorance bother me less than the hostility and rage that so often pops up there. Recently, DC Comics had to shut down the comment section on its website because a debate over who was faster, Flash or Superman, devolved into a namecalling ragefest with personal attacks and probably even racism and bigotry thrown in for good measure. Hey, it’s the internet. If you can’t call someone a “faggot” for not agreeing with you, then what’s the pont?
Granted, not all questions are as important as Flash vs. Superman. (By the way, the answer is Flash. He’s the “fastest man alive”. It even says so in his job description.) But the debate is less about the importance of the question and more about how Terrans behave in general.
We are, for the most part, pleasant on a face-to-face basis. There are exceptions, but these sort of aggressive, in-your-face types are usually considered obnoxious at best, pathetic at worst. Most of us know not to shout slurs at people just for having an opinion we disagree with (TV pundits and famous people usually being the exception), and we realize that life is complicated and it’s better to get along than fight over every little thing.
But in the faceless internet, where we are freed from civility, where we are faceless and our opponents are faceless, where emotional context is difficult to pin down, we become uncaged monsters. The freedom and lack of direct feedback confuses and overwhelms so many of us, we simply don’t know how to act. So we lash out. We mock. We dismiss. And we rage.
We rage like an overtired toddler at bedtime.
There are several different versions of this. There’s the Aggressor, who mistakes typing IN ALL CAPS and mocking sexual-orientation / penis size / race / you-name-it as debate. There’s the Hipster, who bemoans his title as cooler and smarter than everyone around him. There’s the Fan, who thinks any attack on his passion is an attack on him and reacts as if the smallest complaint about it is the same as telling him he’s wasted his life. There’s the Troll, who mistakes any responses to his comments as validation. And there’s the Parrot, who spews out catchphrases and cookie cutter “wisdom”. There are dozens of variations, and they all lead to the same realization.
Most people are not equipped to have a conversation or offer constructive criticism.
It’s a bit unfair to say this though because comment sections attract a very specific group of people. We’ll never know how many people don’t leave a comment because they don’t feel the overwhelming need or because the conversation turned hostile so quickly. We never know how many people have been shut out of the discussion because they find it’s not worth the trouble to post a thought when you’ll be shouted down by a sea of insults and verbal abuse for daring to express an opinion.
Yet even this shows a weakness in how we discuss things. Give us a blank canvas to have a conversation and, inevitably, the reasonable and the polite will be frightened away by the rageful and the dogmatic. Perhaps the trolls are only a small percentage, but they succeed in seeming much larger because of this. They control the discourse through intimidation and misguided passion, and they probably don’t even realize they’re doing it.
On the one hand, I don’t know if this is a problem that needs to be fixed. I’m not sure it matters if the internet is full of ignorant rage and empty dogma. On the other, there’s something terribly frustrating about this rule that says on the internet, the most powerful tool of communication we have, that often the worst of us are the only ones who speak.
I don’t have a solution, and I’m certainly not the first to comment on the problem. The optimist in my thinks we’ll work it out one day. The pessimist thinks it’s just more of the same and that there’s really nothing unique or unusual about the internet. More often than not, the loudest voices win the argument. Not because they’re right, but because so many of us mistake passion for truth and the rest of us would rather not get involved. Because getting involved doesn’t often help. It just as often adds fuel to the fire.
I want to believe there’s a way to fix this, but damned if I know how.
Leave your enraged suggestions in the comment section below.