When we ask ourselves why the internet is such a negative place, we always seem to just sort of come to a circular conclusion: it’s just… the internet! The internet, I tell you. It brings out the worst in people, makes ‘em impulsive, unable to control themselves. They think their words don’t have consequences, so out those words come like puss from some sick diseased body part.
We’ve all experienced it, haven’t we? Whether it’s a random stranger harassing us on Twitter or our best friend on Facebook.
Why, we ourselves become that angry person half the time, don’t we? It could be our sweet old grandmother commenting on our post, and if she said something wrong, oh boy, watch out. We just… can’t seem to control ourselves can we? Man, that anger. Just bubbles out and comes frothing like foam from our rabid virtual mouths. Poor Grandma.
Yeah, we experienced it ourselves. But what about those other people, the ones who just can’t stop? Man, they’re out there, aren’t they? I mean, us being bastions of morality, we fall into it every now and then. But then there’s those bad people, you know? Not as good as us, of course. Spewing their anger everywhere they go on the web, like they’re on a road trip of pissing contests.
So, maybe that’s just it. The internet is this magical place where everyone’s demons come out. The animal we keep inside finally can roam free. And yes, grandmothers will suffer, but that’s the price of progress, right? There’s no other way to share funny memes without taking down a few grandmothers along the way, amiright?
But there’s a mystery in all this, isn’t there? Or at least a few questions we should ask.
First of all, no one seems to really have an explanation for how this works. The internet is like reverse-Prozac. Prozac makes us happier, the internet makes our lives miserable. And in both cases knows that those things work, but no one knows how. We just take it as gospel. We see the effect but ignore the cause.
Then, there’s this other anomaly: some people (prepare yourselves for this, it’s big) are actually nice online.
I know! Right?! Weird.
Let’s take a site like HelloGiggles, those sweet ladies. A site run by Zoe Descasjfhanel and Sophia Rossi, that somehow, by some miracle, has like wonderful comments all over it. On a site for women! Those should be magnets for angry misogynists and all that, right? But it’s not! Even the men there are nice. Weird. It’s like reverse Jezebel and xoJane.
Or let’s take it even further. Down the positivity rabbit hole. reddit. reddit! The weird, uncapitalized social media site where the internet’s garbage, hate, and evil comes out to play.
reddit is like a formula for everything most of us consider to be wrong with the internet. Virtually no control by the people who run the site. Anonymous users. No accountability for negative behavior.
By every internet guru’s calculations, reddit should pure negativity.
And, I mean, it’s kind of true. There are hate sections (called “subreddits”) all over their freaking site. Being a Jew on that site… not so fun.
There is so much drama and negativity on the site that there’s a subreddit called SubredditDrama just to record the craziest version of it.
I’m really just scratching the surface of Evil Reddit, trust me.
But there’s this weird thing, if you look a little closer. There’s also Good Reddit. `There’re places like UpliftingNews where everyone is so freaking nice all the time. Places like AskHistorians where you’ll find more substantive, thoughtful, insightful comments than maybe anywhere on the internet.
In other words, some of the nicest people and best interactions happen on reddit. The place with anonymous comments. The place with no accountability. The place where evil runs rampant.
Or how about places like GoFundMe? Places where people give money to people they don’t know for no discernible reason, and for no recognition. Money! Online! For others!
But even those pale in comparison to stuff like the freaking Ice Bucket Challenge (that thing that we’re all annoyed with by now, right?) which ended up raising $220-freaking-million for ALS sufferers?
We have a mystery on our hands. You, you keep telling me the internet is just the worst, just this horrible place where the worst comes out of all of us. It’s a haven of hate, right?
But… what about all this… niceness? This positivity? This actual good being done for the world?
So maybe now we can finally pin down the question we asked up there. How is it that people are so freaking evil online? So much more evil than they are in “real life?”
The answer is in the answer to our second question, in fact. The answer is in this important reality that us poor saps are completely unaware of because our feelings are too hurt by the meanies to notice: just as the internet can bring out the worst in us, it can bring out the best too.
Did you know that Facebook makes our minds work like it’s on crack? Like… literally?
And we all are intimately familiar with just how horrible our attention spans have become as we get more and more addicted to this drug.
Did you know that the words you read on the internet literally become voices in your head, almost indistinguishable from you as a person? (And so when we reply to people online, it’s more like we’re talking to ourselves, psychologically speaking).
All of that doesn’t sound too positive, but there’s a powerful truth that results from it: the internet is a place that removes our filters. To put it in more psychological language, it’s a place where our subconscious roams free.
There’s even a fancy academic term for it: the online disinhibition effect.
That’s why being held “accountable” to our real names and faces doesn’t totally stop the constant flow of verbal crap coming out of people’s mouths, including our own. It’s why anger flows as free as a tap. It’s why there’s so much hate, racism, bigotry, antisemitism, and more online.
Because the internet doesn’t make us more angry or hateful. It brings out what exists already.
Most of us, when our sweet grandmother says something not so nice, hold our tongues. But in our heads we’re thinking, “You stupid b%$#@.”
Now we say that on the internet.
But here’s the thing about filters: they don’t just apply to the negative in us. Did you know that our subconscious also holds positive thoughts? It’s true! Some of us are good people! That’s also true! Most people are a combination of both. Even more true!
And so, while we should probably be saying many more positive, loving, or deep ideas more publicly, we often filter those as well. And what a shame!
But the internet removes that filter too. And so we can be nicer! We can be better!
We can have substantive, positive discussions on an anonymous forum. We can give to someone we don’t know and change their life completely. We can change the freaking world.
Because the internet isn’t a haven for evil. It’s a haven for our inner realities. A haven for what’s going on just a level deeper than how we are in real life. It’s like the ultimate art form, causing us to express everything human inside of us.
So, now comes the question every damn pundit and mommy blogger on the internet is wondering: how do we stop the internet from being a hate-filled swamp?
Well, first we should acknowledge that it’s not a hate-filled swamp. We should get over thinking the internet is some sort of dark magic created by Voldemort and see it for what it is: a tool and nothing more. A tool that accesses a different part of our brains.
Second, we should celebrate this fact. For the first time, our country has had to face just how racist it actually is, for example. We are sort of conducting our own therapy, facing up to who we really are, both individually and collectively. That’s healthy, friends. Just like therapy will bring up the ugly before it gets to the healthy, so to does this incredibly screwed up world that’s been hiding itself from who it really is finally have to face facts.
And finally, most importantly, we have to realize that if we want to make the internet a better place, there is quite literally only one answer: make the world better.
You aren’t going to stop abusing your grandmother online unless you stop harboring inwardly asshole-ish thoughts about her. And more importantly, about yourself.
And in the same way, we can’t make the overall culture of the internet better until we improve the actual culture of the world.
Let’s get crackin’.