Back in the 1980s, before browsers and WorldWideWeb pages, the early internet users communicated on Usenet groups. Usenet is still an option. It is preferred by some for the same reason that many internet providers currently block access to it; by its very nature it offers a greater level of anonymity with the attendant advantages for both legitimate and criminal purposes. Users in the ‘80s were relatively few, and therefore social pressure was a real force for collegiality and congeniality. Rude people found themselves pounced upon or excluded until they learned to play by the rules. They soon did. A challenge arose every September as a new wave of college freshman, many of them operating computers for the very first time, posted in the crude offensive mean-spirited fashion one expects of college freshmen. By and large, however, they were educated in netiquette in a month or two. This was similar to the “small town effect” that keeps folks polite and honest in small communities. As Amy Alkon points out in her book I See Rude People, you can’t very well rob the local liquor store if the owner knows your mother. As populations grow larger and anonymity becomes the norm, however, social pressures lose much of their force: there is no penalty for being a boorish jackass.
A cultural change came to the internet in 1993 when pioneering providers of access to the Web such as AOL and Prodigy welcomed a rising flood of new users. The new users were far too numerous to moderate by social pressure alone, and belligerency quickly became widespread. Veteran users refer to this as the onset of the Eternal September. There is no sign yet of September ever ending. This past election year gave us some particularly dark September days as professional propagandists exploited the readiness of internet users (of any political stripe) to share pre-packaged insults and slanders of the opposition. Especially popular are the memes showing some nutcase member of the opposition behaving like an ass (there never is a shortage of such people), thereby implying that everyone in opposition is the same. But politics is just one small aspect of online loutishness.
Why do we behave that way online? (That’s the editorial “we,” of course, which might or might not include you and me.) For the same reason we do it elsewhere. All primates are hardwired to be cocky posturing trash-talkers. When chimpanzees or baboons do it we call it displaying, but it is the same thing. It makes evolutionary sense: the genes of high-ranking primates get transmitted and survive more often. Achieving a high rank means taking down your individual rivals a notch and forming alliances against rival groups. Most real-world displays, whether among humans or nonhumans, do not lead to violence. They cause the less confident rival to back down. If neither backs down there is still (overall) a 50/50 chance of winning a fight, so the numbers favor pushing your luck. Humans need social cohesion, too, of course, so social pressures also evolved within bands to keep this sort of competition within bounds. They didn’t evolve to deal with the internet, however. We can’t rely on our instincts to behave with proper netiquette.
Fortunately, we have other tools than instinct. After all, our intellect allows us to develop and believe in the most amazing philosophies that run counter to every instinct we have. At least some of that capacity can be directed toward living in an online world with trolls – mostly by ignoring them. Their words have only the power we give them. Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
An occasional vacation from virtual space back into meatspace is warranted too. This Thursday a motley assortment of the usual suspects will be at my Thanksgiving table. They range in age from teens to seniors and span the political spectrum. Being face-to-face in a non-anonymous environment, I expect little trash talk, except perhaps about the Brussels sprouts.