Why is the Internet So Mean?

Unless this is the first ‘blog you’ve ever read, chances are you have experienced a ‘rant’ or two in your journey.  People have gotten so enraged that the evening news down in Kentucky (sorry Rick) has a 5 minute segment for people to call in and rant about almost anything (it’s literally called “The Rant”).  As a Christian I have a growing concern over this disturbing trend.  But why is everyone so ready and willing to explode on each other?

A selfish age

I’ll start off, ironically, with a rant.  I believe most of this rage comes out of our preoccupation with ourselves. Selfies, social media, emojis, everything is about expressing Me these days.  And if simply expressing yourself doesn't draw the attention you crave, you can always steal it by saying something provocative (something to push other people's buttons).  The online platform seems to be a mad dash for who can get in the most cutting remark. Despite this we wonder why cyber bullying has become concerning enough for prime time public service announcements.  But what encouraged all this self centeredness and hatred?  I hope you’ll find this a unique approach but I’m going to blame the internet itself.

It all began with text

I’d like to backtrack a bit.  We have rants on the news because of rants from alternate media.  We have alternate media because the internet lets anyone with a keyboard, webcam or microphone speak to the whole world. We let anyone speak to the whole world because the internet has grown year over year in it’s capabilities and reach. But the origin of the internet is simple text based communication: chat rooms, message boards and email.  I think was in the flaws of this simple media and the speed at which the internet grew that the self centered culture we now live in was born.

Text is Devoid of Context

This should be an obvious point but text has a natural lack of context.  In the communication classes I’ve taken over the years, one of the first things they always discuss is the richness of various communication media.  It’s usually described as a scale ranging from extremely rich face-to-face communication to moderately rich phone conversations all the way down to simple text messages.  The idea is that in a face to face meeting the other person feels connected to you and your message is communicated on deeper levels.  The problem is the more lean the communication, the harder it is to effectively communicate your message.   So why do we resort to expressing ourselves in the least rich media?

Texting is a coward’s retreat

I think the key to why we use text too often lies in the reciprocity of this process.  Face to face makes you communicate more deeply, but this richness also makes you more vulnerable. If we try to express ourselves in writing we can isolate ourselves from the emotional backlash. I think it’s this element that leads so many people break up over text, despite the stigma.  It’s this ability to say what you want and hide from the backlash that is creating the divide in our society.  But where do these extreme points of view come from?  I’ll again go back to the weakness of the medium.

Escalating Emphasis

I’ll risk maligning myself for a moment and bring up a movie example; the classic stoner movie “Dude, Where’s My Car?”  It’s about two guys (stoners) who wake up after a night of strongly inferred partying and go on a quest to rediscover their escapades from the night before. The pertinent part of the story to this article is when they discover they both got back tattoos the night before. The excerpt below is courtesy IMDB.

[Jesse and Chester have tattoos on their backs that say "dude" and "sweet."]

dude.jpg

Jesse: Dude! You got a tattoo!
Chester: So do you, dude! Dude, what does my tattoo say?
Jesse: "Sweet!" What about mine?
Chester: "Dude!" What does mine say?
Jesse: "Sweet!" What about mine?
Chester: "Dude!" What does mine say?
Jesse: "Sweet!" What about mine?
Chester: "Dude!" What does mine say?
Jesse: "Sweet!" What about mine?
Chester: "Dude!" But what does mine say?
Jesse: "Sweet!" What about mine?
Chester: "Dude!" What does mine say?
Jesse: "S - wee - t!" What about mine?
...... [later] ......
Chester: [angry] "Dude!" What does mine say?
Jesse: [screaming] "Sweet!"

The argument is eventually broken up by a bystander who calmly explains what each one is saying to the other.  The mixup is hilarious because the two friends are at each other's throat even though they are answering each other. They are just too dense to read each other's verbal context.  The same thing happens when we go online.  We say some of the basic information and assume the message was received.  When we don’t feel understood, we retreat to our internal drawing board to rally the troops. 

Not as Objective as We Think

The problem with trying to self edit and internally revise is it never works as well as we think it does.  We are trying to refine our argument in a biased environment, after all we know what we mean right?  By doing this we can often become unintentionally narcissistic, falling in love with how smart we sound in our own mind.  We often do not realize how pompous we sound until it’s too late.   

So What Can We Do?

If communicating with others were easy there would be no need for speech classes.  We’ve always been called to hold our tongues but with the internet and social media we have more opportunities than ever to speak hastily and take the easy way to attention.  Here are my top 5 suggestions for communicating peacefully.

  1. Take breaks.  Going on a rant is a cycle.  Stop the cycle, stop the rant.
  2. Listen to your words, aloud.  If you can’t have a friend read it to you, use a voice-to-text converter. Most devices have them and I’d be glad to help you figure out how to use yours.
  3. Using text to express emotion is dysfunctional.  If you’re trying to communicate emotion, pick up the phone or visit in person.  Avoiding that is a sign you are being tempted to compromise your relational integrity.
  4. If you can’t say it to their face, don’t.  The perceived anonymity and lack of reciprocity of the internet can make people braver than they should be.  If you’re charged up about about a topic, try to talk it out with a group.  Better yet bring it up in Bible Study on Sunday (Shameless plug for Myth Busters Bible Study) 
  5. Speak plainly. The harder you try to prove your point the more likely you’ll go overboard. Remember this caution about swearing oaths from the sermon on the mount.

 

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ 34 But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.[g]
Matthew 5:33-37(NIV)

- Reggie
  Esteemed member of the Digital Campus team & I.T. genius.