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Was the Internet a mistake?

Jamie KarlNov 9, 2018, 7:52:07 AM

We’ve all experienced hostility online. Strangers can come in hot into a conversation. Drama can escalate. One only needs to glance into a reply chain almost anywhere and you will see interactions you would virtually never see in person.

Anonymity & Text

Without social cues and the social consequences we experience in normal life - it’s been established in psychology since the earliest days of computing that communication over technology results in a substantially lowered empathy response. That is to say, people are crueller when they don’t face social consequences or see/hear people’s physical reaction.

Feelings Spread

On top of that, there’s the issue of emotional contagion. There’s a huge body of science showing that people transmit their feelings to others, even if they intentionally try to suppress it. Even if there is no “tell” that they are feeling that way. This often unconscious transmits of feeling, can occur online as shown by Facebook’s controversial study where they meddled with peoples feeds and thus affected the tone of the posts users posted as a consequence of more positive or negative content on their feed.

Tribalism & Depression

Then there’s the issue of tribalism. People exposed to ideas and information that conflict with their own often react in a defensive way. Our fundamental beliefs can be easily threatened, and with the internet being global, everyone’s different values, culture, ideas are all placed right next to each other in a way that they never would be in real life. Because online social interaction is so different, people tend to be far less tactful about their opinions or disagreements. At a dinner table, people might agree to avoid heated topics of disagreement. Not so online.

Worse, it appears like people who spend the most time online, are the most likely to be depressed. So much so several large-scale studies have shown a positive correlation with suicide rates and heavy net use.

What can be done?

Obviously, there are benefits to online communication. For example, collaboration is measurably enhanced. In fact, this was one of the earliest uses of the medium. Information can be more easily shared. People can connect and relate to people of different backgrounds and nationalities.

But there are notable issues as I have outlined. One of the solutions found in the early studies surrounding computer-mediated conversation was that formats that encourage social feedback to enhance empathy. For example, voice and video offer more social feedback. If at all possible it would be ideal to minimize the role of text and offer more lifelike emotional responses in conversation.

Culture and Reward

Minds.com’s token system might go some way to encourage better social behaviour. There is also the issue of “culture”. Forums that socially scorn bad behaviour, act like in person groups reinforcing the social mores of the group. You might have noticed that some places, some forums, groups and so on, are significantly more polite than others. This in part is reinforced by the moderation and policy of the group or forum. So another potential solution is to allow autonomy to social media subgroups so that their admins and moderators can create cultures around civil discourse without affecting the freedom of the platform as a whole. Essentially a sort of group freedom of association.


A connected community of regular posters help instil a sense of values to the group. A connection to the real-world community might also help raise this sense of group cultural values.

And, rather than using the blunt tool of banning, reporting and TOS, a more elegant solution for bullying might be to offer access to an official support community. Such things don't always cross over into organised harassment campaigns. 

Online support communities often offer people much-needed relief when they have no one in real life to talk to about their circumstances. Heavy internet users can be a vulnerable and isolated group. A support group, where psychological services are promoted could be a far more responsible response to instances of sub-TOS online hostility than merely making overt harassment against policy. People could also get well-meaning advice and understanding in such a group.  

Where to from here?

The Internet offers the possibility of whistleblowing, confession, political dissidence, discussion of taboo subjects. It gives us, potentially a radical freedom of expression never before experienced in history. We can express our most heartfelt, even darkest selves. In a sense, that freedom of expression is weighed against the responsibility with which we use it. It's a freedom of expression that is, of course, rightly valued. It sheds light upon the dark. 

Studies into emotional contagion show that emotion is conveyed even under conditions of conscious restraint. This means that censorship is not an elegant solution. You can ban as many naughty words or as much wrongthink as you like, and hostility, negativity and so on will still spread. And whilst technology has been largely driven by commercial purposes, it perhaps merits at least thought how to steer the technology towards better social impact. 

Of course, the topic of civility online has become quite controversial in itself. With such a mass movement towards censorship, cultural language and tone policing at it's height. And of course sometimes the culture of online spaces resembles that of a high school playground. The rule has become "toughen up", or "the internet is not real". To an extent, stoicism is an excellent virtue - we are all stronger than we realise. But interaction is far more subtle and simultaneously powerful in its effects than the individual scale, as studies into emotional contagion show. And it is not a dichotomy either of ban or tolerate any attitude either. 

Fortunately, studies at this point seem to indicate that online interaction does not lower real-world empathy overall. So we need not worry too much about that. But it remains the case that online worlds do affect real ones, in ways both positive and negative.     

Rather than stemming speech, it might be possible to engineer our online experience to be more in inline with real-life interactions and encourage without suppression more productive and meaningful exchange. Fostering civility and empathy, using the same kinds of means it's created in person, seem like a more intelligent and powerful response than merely banning overt cruelty.