“I’ve gotta take a leak” you tell your friend. He nods and continues to stare down at his pint of beer. You pass by a table of drunk teenagers laughing loudly and make your way to the bathroom.
The toilet is full of cracked tiles and stains on the walls. The urinal is blocked so you use the cubicle instead. As you’re doing your business, you notice the wall is covered in writing. One message written with a black marker stands out more than the others. It reads:
WHOEVER USES THIS TOILET IS A VIRGIN
The message is followed with an arrow pointing down into toilet you’re currently pissing into.
You raise your eyebrow at the childish message. But then you notice that the black marker pen has been left on the floor. “Fuck it” you say to yourself. You pick up the marker and write your reply:
WHOEVER WROTE THIS MESSAGE IS A FUCKING IDIOT
The next week you come back to the same bar. “I’ve gotta take a leak” you say to your friend. He nods silently while looking down at his pint of beer like always.
You’re about to unzip your pants when you notice that a new message has been added to the wall.
BE QUIET LIBTARD
This makes you angry for two reasons. One: The level of stupidity. Two: Why the hell is this guy assuming that I’m a liberal? The black marker pen has been left on the floor again, so you pick it up and write your response:
NOT THE SHARPEST TOOL IN THE SHED ARE YOU MORON
Every week you and your friend visit the same bar and every week the idiot has left a new message. This guy is obviously a complete imbecile, but you find it kind of entertaining. So you continue replying to this idiot’s messages and the conversation continues:
WHOEVER USES THIS TOILET IS A VIRGIN
WHOEVER WROTE THIS MESSAGE IS A F**KING IDIOT
BE QUIET LIBTARD
NOT THE SHARPEST TOOL IN THE SHED ARE YOU MORON
I HOPE YOU DIE TODAY
GO TAKE A WALK INTO TRAFFIC
DO THE WORLD A FAVOUR AND KILL YOURSELF
PLEASE. DON’T HAVE KIDS. YOUR GENES ARE TOXIC
This goes on for several weeks.
One day, you’re hanging out with your friend at the bar like usual. Talking nonsense. Making jokes.
As he picks up his pint of beer and starts to drink you notice something.
Black ink on his fingertips.
“Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral” - Melvin Kranzberg (The first law of technology)
Technology isn’t neutral.
Each technology interacts in it’s own unique way with human psychology. People communicate differently through technology than they do in the real world.
Considering that text based communication is the main way that we communicate with each other - wouldn’t it be a good idea to actually understand the effects this has on our psychology?
After reading this article you will be able to browse the internet in peace. You will no longer get frustrated, angry or depressed by the way others act on the internet. You will understand why the comments section is full of assholes. And you won’t hold it against them quite so much.
There are 6 main factors that encourage people to act far more negatively on the internet than they do in the real world:
1. The Empathy Deficit
2. Asynchronous Communication
3. Lack of Authority
4. Solipsistic Introjection
5. Audience Size
6. Likes, Comments, Follows, Shares
(1-4 are based on the online disinhibition effect coined by Suler.J in 2004)
the empathy deficit
In a real conversation you make eye-contact.
You see facial expressions. You hear vocal tonality. You see body language. You see that look in their eyes.
You can tell when they’re upset, when they’re frustrated and when they’re being sarcastic (Most of the time).
When you’re staring face to face with someone your mirror neurons fire up. The same mirror neurons that allowed us to learn from our parents when we were younger. The same mirror neurons that allowed our ancestors to teach their children how to build a fire.
When you see someone get punched in the nose, you wince because the mirror neurons in your brain make you feel a piece of that pain yourself.
We’re evolved to have face to face conversations. Not communicate by text.
Communication by text results in an empathy deficit.
We don’t see facial expressions. We don’t hear vocal tonality. And we don’t see that look in their eyes. Therefore empathy breaks down.
That’s why many people have no problem telling others to kill themselves in the comment section.
That’s why many people have no problem leaving death threats.
That’s why tens of thousands of people can attack a single person on Twitter and feel no guilt whatsoever.
Imagine that instead of communicating in the Youtube comments section, a crowd of people spoke together face to face to exchange their thoughts on the video they’d just watched? How would their communication change?
Would tens of thousands of people mob a single person walking down the street like they do on Twitter? Shouting horrific insults and death threats right to their face? I don’t think so.
In the comments section (And in messenger apps) people don’t deal with real-time reactions from others. Just like leaving messages on a toilet wall.
You can leave a comment and then immediately close the tab. Often you won’t get a response for hours, days or weeks.
Not having to deal with someones immediate reaction disinhibits people. People are braver than they are in the real world because they don’t have to deal with feedback.
Face to face communication is a continuous feedback loop between two people. For every single thing that you say, there will be immediate feedback from the other person. This feedback loop encourages civil behaviour that conforms to social norms.
When there are long delays in this feedback loop, civil behaviour often breaks down. And people feel free to type any toxic message that they want.
Lack Of Authority
In the comments section everyone is equal.
Everyone has exactly the same status. There is no way to know who is an expert on the subject at hand and who has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.
In the real world we have experts with experience and qualifications on particular topics. We have authority figures.
Authority figures express their status and power with their dress, facial expressions and body language. Human beings intuitively pick up cues of authority. We know when someone is sure of themselves and when they’re not.
Our brains are evolved to live in tribes. If our ancestors spoke loudly and obnoxiously to an authority figure in their tribe, they could have been killed. So we have a natural instinct to respect authority.
But in the comments section where figures of authority are minimised, people are much more likely to speak out and misbehave.
Those with no authority on a subject feel like they can can voice their opinions loudly and confidently. They feel as though have an equal status to everybody else present.
This results in a comments section full of loud and confident people who feel free to state their uninformed opinion as loudly as they like.
On Reddit there are moderators who have the ability to ban particular users from a group. This is one reason why people are generally more respectful to each other on Reddit than in the Youtube comments section, where the only authority figure is the creator of the video (who has no real incentive to moderate the comments).
When people read text, they create images in their mind.
When you read a fictional novel, you create an image in your mind of the characters being described in the book.
In exactly the same way, you create an image of the user you’re talking to. Not only that, you might even recreate their voice. You may even imagine their whole identity.
You don’t know who this person is, what they look like or what they sound like. So your mind may create it’s own image of them.This image will be based on your own perception of the world.
For example, if you’re a men’s rights activist and you read a pro-feminist comment, you may create an image in your head of the commenter. A man-hating, blue haired, shreaking, overweight, ugly woman. An image that is probably not accurate to reality.
On the other hand, if you’re a feminist and you read an anti-feminist comment you may also create a particular image in your head. An angry, misogynist, uneducated, ugly and frustrated man.
You may have already created the perfect negative stereotype of the commenter in your mind before replying to them.
In the comments section, you argue with figments of your own imagination.
We don’t fully understand that we’re talking with another human being. And so we argue with our own imagination instead.
It only takes a few toxic people to ruin a comments section.
Negative energy spreads from person to person. If you want proof of this go to any Youtube comments section (On more or less any video) and see how one toxic comment turns into 10 toxic comments.
One user will leave a toxic comment on the video “The guy in this video looks like Jabba the hut”. Then someone else will reply to him in a toxic manner “Shut up douche you’re probably as fat as he is”.
Following this exchange 5 other users will join the conversation and post toxic comments of their own.
This is how negative energy flows from person to person. One toxic user turns into 10 turns into 50. And pretty soon the entire comments section is filled with personal insults, radical generalisations and other toxic behaviour.
The bigger the audience, the more toxic users are commenting. And it only takes a small number of toxic users to infect everyone else.
That’s why the worst comments sections are usually on Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. Smaller websites are capable of having civilised comments sections because the audience is small enough that there aren’t too many toxic users.
The bigger the audience, the more toxic the comments section.
Likes, Comments, Follows, shares
The comments section is an environment where you have a very short time to impress your reader. Most people don’t read comments more than a few sentences long. A well-balanced point takes at least a few paragraphs to make.
Anger is incentivised. Outrage is incentivised. Snarky one liners are incentivised.
These are the comments that get likes.
The well-balanced, thoughtful comments? These fade into obscurity.
People love to be validated by others. The like you receive on your comment makes you feel good. People crave likes. And they’ll adapt their behaviour in order to get them.
In an effort to chase likes, each user will try to post an even snappier “zinger” than the person before them. It doesn’t matter if the zinger is negative or harmful, as long as it pleases the crowd and makes them click like.
But it’s not only likes. It’s follows too. A well-placed snarky comment that gets 1000 likes can also get followers. And followers give you influence.
On Twitter, which essentially a giant comment section - enough followers can turn you from nobody into somebody. So the incentive to make a comment full of outrage, anger or snark is extremely high.
The internet is full of people desperately saying whatever it takes to get the likes they crave.
The Worst Possible COmmunication medium
The entire planet is communicating proedominantly via text based communication.
Sure there’s video. There’s voice. But most of the internet is text based. And most communication is done through messages.
Friends, family and lovers communicate with text. Tweets are mainstream news. Most political discourse happens online via text.
Considering all the flaws of text based communication (The Empathy Deficit, Asynchronous communication, Lack of authority, Solipsistic Introjection) is it really the best idea to have most of our conversations through this medium?
For most people, the internet is their main chance to see the people outside their own personal social circle.
Spend an afternoon on Twitter and you may begin to feel as though the world is full of cruel, stupid and negative people.
And yet when you step away from your computer and actually go outside into the real world everything is completely different. People are generally civil. People are chatting happily with each other. People are focused on their jobs.
Why is there such a huge difference between Twitter and the real world? Because in the real world we’re communicating the way we’re evolved to communicate. Face to face.
Many people assume that the internet reveals the truth about how people really are. This is false. As we’ve discovered here, the internet changes how people act. It doesn’t reveal how people really think. It changes how people think.
The internet isn’t a clear lens into the rest of the world. It’s a distorted lens. Because technology isn’t neutral.
Text based communication may actually be the worst possible communication medium. And yet this is our main global communication medium.
What is text based communication doing to our political dialogue? Our relationships? Our mental health?
Don’t get upset by the anger on the internet. Know that if everyone was standing in a room talking face to face they would act completely differently.
And not because they’re hiding their true feelings. But because they’re not communicating through the distorted filter of text based communication.