Imagine for a moment that you leave your house and begin walking to the store. Today, you plan on giving an opinion to every person you meet along the way. Those are terrible shoes, boy on the corner. You have an ugly rat-dog, lady taking a walk. That looks like a five dollar haircut, random guy sitting on the bench looking at his phone. Of course, we think these things inwardly all day every day. We rarely voice these things out loud though, especially to the insult’s target.
The second you get back from the store, you hop online and just start unloading all of these thoughts to everyone you don’t like online. Why? Why is it so easy to do this online? Is it because this is an even more insulated medium of exchange than our vehicle, which many people use as a shield to perform terrible things on the road? Well yes, in fact it is.
Our social animal selves are conditioned to have a public and private communication candor. The way we communicate about others’ thoughts and attitudes are necessarily divided into public and private candor. With close friends and family we gossip and talk shit about people we interact with on a daily basis. In fact, research suggests that gossiping together actually improves our social bonds. We know, however, that confrontation in real time comes with consequences, which is why most gossip and shit talking takes place in private among trusted friends. The internet had disrupted this social practice.
We say things online that we wouldn’t say to a person’s face – that is evident. This isn’t even anonymous, on facebook we can see the identity of the person we’re antagonizing. So why does it feel so easy? There are two parts: we are first insulated from direct confrontation by the fact that we are not physically present during the argument; secondly, conflict is so readily served up to us at every turn that it has become common place. Each new political post, myriad in number, is an opportunity to see someone with a conflicting point of view.
During these online fights, I don’t have to read the facial reactions nor the body language of the person I’m criticizing, I only have to react to their typed words. This has lead to an exponential increase in conflict because the physical and emotional capital I need to expend to argue with them is so superficial. To be clear, this conflict is also superficial in nature, but in aggregate it has caused harm by further polarizing people who otherwise would not have this insulated forum, nor the frequent opportunity to criticize someone’s point of view.
There is no winning, no catharsis had by these interactions either. When you really land a point with an opponent in the physical world, you can read their thoughts by their body language, you can see them stumble on their own thoughts while they scramble to counter your point. Online, there is no evidence whatsoever that your message is being received, no indication your words have had any effect on the receiver. Here again, the productive mechanisms for verbal conflict which human society has relied on for eons has been disrupted. Physical cues, which provide both sender and receiver feedback on their words and ideas, is no longer there. What is left is a feeling of ineffectuality. Like sending messages through sludge, ignored and countered before fully registered.