It's long, but it is below in its entirety. I sort of disagree with only one premise put forth by L56 - that somehow the anonymity of the internet allows people to be more hostile and volatile than they would be if they had to deal face to face. I don't think media changes personalities or, ultimately, actions. For all those episodes of The Three Stooges I watched when I was a kid, I never felt inclined to take a pipe wrench to anybody's nose (although I did once stage a pie fight with a cousin of mine!). And who knows, maybe the ranting and raving on sites like craigslist actually siphons off some of the unsocialized rage that these fringers carry around, rage that they would otherwise act out physically. Interesting. Anyway...
Oh man, I thought you knew...
This post got me thinking again about something that I've often thought about on and off over the last, oh, decade or so. That is: the other side of the double edged sword that is the internet.
I remember reading a while back when instant messaging first came on the scene, oh it must have been '98 or so, about the serious problems with instant message communications. Really it's pretty simple, it was about a lack of facial expression and tonal inflection that's obviously so important to good face to face communication. Obviously things are very easily taken the wrong way when you're just typing words without your eyes or your hands or your voice to give the subtleties and the subtext behind the words. Irony, sarcasm and emotion are totally lost if you're not completely specific with your words. (Emoticons were developed in an ad hoc manner to combat this, although their usefulness is still pretty limited.) :-)
As a matter of course, I did myself fall victim to that very problem. I attempted to get a problematic relationship off the ground through instant messaging, probably because I wasn't getting any where in real life and Instant Messaging was there, and it was the latest craze, so why not? Needless to say the attempted relationship ended in a stupid, disastrous mess. It was a pretty quick lesson in the limitations of the social aspects of the internet.
That's just Instant Messaging which is really about person to person communications. More recently with the advent of the Blog, MySpace, then Facebook and finally Twitter, that impersonality has extended not only to person to person but also to very large virtual rooms of sometimes thousands and thousands of people. Think about it, impersonal, practically anonymous communication combined with virtual mob mentality, how could the result be anything but what you're experiencing?
The virtual anonymous nature of blogging (well more to the point, the people that respond to the blogs) is particularly problematic. My sense is that if you were to round up all these people that say these unbelievably horrific things and put them in a world with no internet, no TV, no nothing for a year, they'd ultimately have to revert back to the morality and sensibility that most of them learned from living in the real world before the internet. I don't think these people would be that mean if the opposing point of view was presented by someone in real life - like their brother, their friend or even a random guy they met on the street. Take away the face, the identity and the responsibility and of course it's gonna' get ugly.
The word blogosphere was introduced around 2002, around the time that blogs really started to take off. That's only 7 years ago. These people that are saying these things are older than 7, in fact, most of them are probably between 25 and 45. A 40 year old for example would have been alive for 33 years before he'd even have an opportunity to read a blog. 33 years of living an un-anonymous life where the human filter that filters out all the unbelievably ridiculous things that we all think, but never say out loud because we're... human and appreciate human contact has been well honed. I doubt a 40 year old walked around for 33 years saying that kind of stuff and got away with it. They didn't get away with it, but the anonymous nature of the internet gives them a sudden unfettered medium to say the things that are in the most backward places of their minds without having to pay the consequences.
In a sense the blogosphere is a 7 year old child with some untold millions of parents that feed it, live through it, spoil it but never discipline it. As a psychologist you know exactly what that child would be like.
Anyway, what's interesting to think of is the political implications of all of this. Again, the internet is barely 15 years old, blogging - at the level it's at now - probably 5, I don't think that our political structure has really caught up. (I would add that the 24 hour news cycle is definitely part of this same problem). There's a lot of weird crap going on in relation to all this stuff. The anonymous nature of it is reverting us back to days where we didn't have that social filter that we've worked so hard to develop which is creating a feedback loop, where people are starting to act out in real life the primal urges that they're experiencing online which is fueling more anonymous primal urges online.
Politicians can't figure out how much of the blogosphere is legit. I mean, how many of these "mean bloggers" (for a lack of a better term) actually vote? Clearly they're living in a fantasy world, why would we think that they have the initiative to actually get out from behind their computer screens and get to a voting booth? But also, the 24 hour media is eating this blogosphere feedback loop up and are reporting a lot of this as if it were sort of ad hoc polling which in turn influences the people who do watch the news and who do actually vote. It's very probable that our politicians are making a lot of decisions based on information that's gleaned from unreliable sources. The actual messages from the blogosphere are probably no where near the REAL feelings of those same people that have been sucked into this ridiculous vapid void.
In some sense I agree with Frank Schaeffer in that we need to sort of move around these poor people who've gotten sucked into this literal virtual reality. I mean in the least we certainly can't ask the people that have been rendered insane to help make decisions for the sane. At the same time I think it's also our responsibility to keep helping those who've been sucked in to get out. I mean I guess maybe it's like a drug addiction, in reality they're gonna' have to learn on their own; nothing we can do or say will stop them from doing what they're doing. But we should be there to support them and realize that most of them are legitimately decent people who just got caught in a stupid game.
It's definitely a weird time right now, but I have a bit of faith that once we as a society learn how to better tame this enormous beast which is the internet I think we'll eventually see a return to some decency and normalcy and we'll look back at this era as sort of a great battle we had with this technology. (It actually reminds me of a show that was on the History Channel recently that was talking about the invention of the x-ray. When it was invented we had no idea about the health problems associated with over exposure and were willy nilly using it on everything. Shoe salesmen had a device that provided a live x-ray picture of your feet so you can see how snugly your shoes fit.) Of course I just have no idea when we'll collectively realize the social health risks of anonymous internet postings. When Obama leaves office (I'm optimistically assuming he'll get re-elected) blogs will literately be more than twice as old as they are now, the Internet - roughly 50% older. Obviously with the development of anything, the early years are the most productive (and volatile). Think about the difference between a 7 year old and a 15 year old. Or a 15 year old and a 23 year old. I would hope that just as quickly this has gotten to where it's gotten, perhaps in just as much time, it will get to a place much better than where it is now.
Anyway, I'm glad that you've broken out of your "fugue", and I look forward to future postings with your new found perspective.