There seems to be a fair amount of handwringing and teeth-gnashing going on in the internet about how rude and asshole-ish people are to each other cyberspace. I do believe, with eyes glazing over from boredom, I’ve read a few articles providing training to us cyborgs on how not to be an asshole on the internet. Anonymity is not a right, we are sternly reminded in the voice principals use to rebuke offending pupils, but a privilege. The fact that we get to comment anonymously on the internet shouldn’t mean that we snap and snarl at each other like animals. Instead, we should treat each e-mail or cyber comment as if our grandmother AND our boss is peering over our shoulder.
Oh yeah? Go screw yourselves, O Great Moral Judges of All The Internets. My whole life is structured around being polite and respectful to people. Unfortunately, I am no superstar -academic or otherwise- which allows me to get away with being assholish to people in real life, to their faces. Neither is anyone else I know. All that suppressed assholishness needs to go somewhere, and what better place than the internet? Seven days a week, I interact with people politely and generously. I smile, I talk, I listen. I am not saying it’s all a mask or show- I genuinely enjoy (most of) those interactions. But there are times -frequently- when I find myself screaming in my head “you dumb stupid bitch! you putrid stinking dickhead!” Or even not- there has to be no outside stimulus to make me feel fatigued at the public performance we put on, daily, for each other. This performance can be exhausting. It’s nice to put it aside occasionally, and behind the safe screen of the monitor, use a tone or expression which you could never allow yourself in real life. Or rather, IRL. Eg, I like bashing religion. The internet is the only place I can realistically do so. And if I had to use my real name, I couldn’t even do it on the internet.
Second benefit of these genuine uncensored internet interactions is that it allows us to see what people “really” think and feel. It is well established that we tend to have a confirmation bias in our social lives, that is, we tend to hang out with people who echo our own thoughts and sentiments. It feels so good! And so, if it wasn’t for the cesspool of internet, I would probably think there were no open racists, sexists or religious nutjobs. Perhaps I would get the impression that we have truly achieved, or are close to achieving a post-feminist or post-racial society (though obviously I don’t think, in this lifetime, i could ever even remotely think we’re in a post-religious society). Thanks to internet anonymity, I only need to glance at the comments beneath any article which even remotely touches on issues of race, sex, gender, to see how thin that veneer of equality is.
But what about the cyber bullies? I can hear the Internet Moral Police wail. Oh yes. I think it is absolutely horrifying and unjustified that someone should be cyberbullied to the extent of committing suicide. But I do question whether cyber-bullying can be the main or only cause of, say, suicide. Such dreadful events are the results of a whole structure of systematic neglect, ignorance, distortions of power and abuse. Merely forcing people to forfeit anonymity of the internet isn’t going to make cyber-bullying go away. See how many instances of bullying there is in real life?
TL;DR Being an asshole in cyberspace is less harmful than being one IRL. Plus, it’s liberating and informative. Go forth and be an asshole.