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Speed, surveillance and the roots of Internet incivility

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

In the past year, many online publications have told would-be commenters that they would need to take their conversations elsewhere. One of the first, Popular Science, decided that comment threads, often rife with misinformation, detracted from the articles that preceded them. More recently, the technology site Re/code dropped its commenting function, declaring that social media was a more appropriate space for discussion. And this fall the English-language Moscow Times—one of the last sources of non-Putinized information in Russia—had to shut down what we might call The After-Party of the Trolls, a comment-thread cage match that would have a left tag team of Rush Limbaugh and Lenny Bruce bloodied and weeping.

Readers of online media can be forgiven for snorting at the notion that the original, conversation-starting article is the product of hard work and reflection. This is a medium, after all, that brings you thrice-regurgitated stories under fresh bylines, illustrated lists of celebrities with cellulite and political meme photos with fabricated quotes.

But let’s assume for a moment that a world survives in which writers are appropriately trained and paid: It’s reasonable enough to hope that unexamined conspiracy theories and gleeful hate speech should not attain equivalency with well-informed and thoughtfully rendered articles. Even if a reader disagrees with the article, the comment thread below the big Neil Armstrong feature probably isn’t the place for musings on how 8-year-old Barack Obama singlehandedly faked the moon landing.

The renowned foreign correspondent Anne Applebaum recently issued an elegant warning in Slate about the power of paid trolls who can profoundly shift online discussion. She concluded that the real problem was not the payment, but the empowerment that comes with anonymity. It’s a powerful argument: University of Houston researcher Arthur Santana has found that more than 50 percent of anonymous posts include “vulgar, racist, profane or hateful” language.

breaking_stuff_and_making_stuff_badge2But what if we go one step further in our dissection of Internet incivility? What if the producers of content and comment alike suffer from the same disorder: speed addiction? What if the problem of anonymity begins with surveillance? What if the virus of harsh judgment begins with the fear of being judged? In other words, what if the galloping falsehoods and rampant discourteousness of what is potentially the greatest storytelling medium ever conceived are the result of our basic assumptions about the Web? If we view the Web as a place for quick words, loosely held secrets, vast reach and swift judgment, should we be surprised that we’ve created an engine for fear and aggression?

Thoughtful communication begins with a measured study of our surroundings, private reflection upon what we’ve learned and rigorous questioning of our own assumptions. It’s pretty antiquated stuff, but then so is the old saw about looking both ways before you cross the street. To productively take part in the big conversation, we need not only to live our lives, executing a series of actions in time, but to process those lives, taking the time to think and dream about what it all means. It makes sense to withhold the music of public communication until the score is written. We nurse, nurture, study and work upon our thoughts so that at the point of communication these thoughts are fully rendered into the currency of civil discourse.

The perceived need for speed, the nagging anxiety (or exhibitionist glee) that one is being watched, and the sense that one must judge or be judged has created a Hobbesian struggle online. Some of us choose to opt out; some choose to wear a mask of chirpy positivity, hoping that fulsome praise will provide shelter from the storm. Others, however, decide that the best defense is a good offense. They may operate under the cover of false names, but their actions are lit by the glow of a million screens. All at once they experience the opiate power of being both known and unknown. They move swiftly, and without mercy.

Greg Blake Miller, Ph.D., is the director of Olympian Creative Education.

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