Why Are People Such Jerks Online?
When’s the last time a total stranger walked up to you at a party and just started berating you?
“You should be ashamed of yourself. You should be fired for being such a spineless shill. Maybe they’ll replace you with someone who has a clue.”
I’m guessing that no stranger has ever spoken to you like that. Nobody except the tragically unstable would open a conversation with you, in person, with that kind of intensity.
But online, this happens all the time. If you’re a writer, you get email like that routinely. Even if you’re not a writer, you see that sort of language in the cesspools — I mean the comments areas — of many websites.
It’s a problem. The Web has the potential to eliminate our differences in geography, social class and demographic breakdown. It could be humanity’s best hope for freedom of speech. It could be an amazing, centralized forum for useful discussion, solving problems, moving forward.
Instead, all too often, it’s a place for the anonymous and insecure to take potshots. It seems to be a global incarnation of that old, sad rule: If you can’t feel good about yourself, at least you can make somebody else feel worse.
Hiding behind the Web
For many years, I’ve pondered why the Internet turns people into walking toxic spewers — people who, in real life, might be perfectly nice. (I’ve also wondered if people ever heap hatred unknowingly at people they actually know. Kind of like when you honk angrily at another driver, and then realize, as he seems to follow you all the way home, that you’ve just been a jerk to your own neighbor.)
For most of those years, I had these theories:
– On the Internet, you’re anonymous. There are no social repercussions for having a tantrum. Nobody knows who you are.
– There are thousands of other voices all around you. So you feel the need to shout because, deep inside, you worry that you won’t be heard.
– As I’ve often said, technology has become a surprisingly politicized field. A phone or tablet has become a fashion statement — a lifestyle choice — and it’s always open season for criticizing people who’ve made different choices. (See: Mac vs. Windows, iPhone vs. Android, iPhone vs. Samsung, and so on.)
– There might be a youth factor at play. Today’s youngsters spend much less time in face-to-face social interactions than their parents did. So they may not be very good at being civil because they’ve had less practice being civil. (What will happen when they seek a job? Or a spouse?)
Lately, though, I’ve collected two new data points on this question. To me, they shed more light on the “Why are people such nasties online?” question.
First data point: So far, it’s much better now that I’m at Yahoo.
During the 13 years I wrote for The New York Times, the nastygrams amounted to about 25 percent of the reader email. Yahoo Tech has only been open for a month, but so far, my readers’ email has been far more civil.
That’s not to say that people aren’t critical — you, dear readers, have plenty of good suggestions for Yahoo Tech’s improvement. But for some reason, you’ve been surprisingly constructive about it.
Example: “Hi David: The new site is entertaining and very informative. But I wanted to say that I am really tired of all the continuing CES stuff —you are sort of running it in the ground. The event is over and the articles are stale. Otherwise, keep up the good work!”