In a previous professional life, I helped police a large and vocal online community, waging a sort of silent war against spammers, gamers, and users spewing racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally abhorrent comments. And there was always plenty of muck to wade through.
All it takes is a quick scroll to the bottom of the page of any popular YouTube video or highly trafficked news site’s top story to be reminded that, online, people are shockingly rude to one another, in ways that most would never dare to be in real life.
A recent Wall Street Journal story points out the obvious reason for the relentless torrent of negative comments that plague every popular site with a community component: anonymity. But it turns out that even when people use their true identities, as they typically do on Facebook, they’re quick to devolve into childish, insult-slinging versions of themselves.
The story cites soon-to-be-published research from professors at Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh that suggests that Facebook lowers an individual’s self-control. Interestingly, it turns out that presenting a filtered, more positive version of oneself on a social network (Myspace angle, anyone?) boosts a person’s self-esteem, leading to a loss of inhibition.
“Think of it as a licensing effect: You feel good about yourself so you feel a sense of entitlement,” said Keith Wilcox, co-author of the study. “And you want to protect that enhanced view, which might be why people are lashing out so strongly at others who don’t share their opinions.”
People seem to forget that they’re speaking out loud when they opine online, said Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT. And the rise of the smartphone has made things worse. “You are publishing but you don’t feel like you are,” she said. “So what if you say ‘I hate you’ on this tiny little thing? It’s like a toy. It doesn’t feel consequential.”
Perhaps that’s partly to blame for the amount of homophobic language online. The ongoing problem can be seen on the No Homophobes site, an equally disheartening and fascinating visualization of homophobia that uses a simple Twitter search for common anti-gay phrases.
“This website is designed as a social mirror to show the prevalence of casual homophobia in our society,” according to the site’s description.
It shows the casual use of the terms, but also the aggressive, mean-spirited use.
This complicated problem doesn’t seem to be getting any easier to tackle. But it’s important to step back and remember that, as Turkle noted, commenting on a story or tweeting an off-handed, obnoxious statement, is indeed speaking out loud. And as politicians, job-seekers, and countless others have learned, the internet never forgets.