What's all the fuss about? A close look at the science behind Internet rage.
Earlier this month, the game designer Phil Fish retired after being called a "hipster" and a "tosspot" by a former PR rep with a video commentary series. Shortly before, Hugo Schwyzer, attempted murderer and college professor, announced his withdrawal from the Internet after a Twitter campaign against his work and presence on it.
These kinds of Internet-driven hostility have become familiar over the years. Though the ethics of each case have significant differences, both show aggression to be one of the Internet's native attitudes. People are mean on the Internet, both with and without good reason, and a thinking about ways to pacify this condition has become a pastime for those who see it as a problem.
A new study from MIT has found that this perception of crushing negativity may be an anomalous affect on the margins of Internet culture, and that the predominant behavior of online behavior is actually positivity and affirmation. The study looked at how stories spread online by spending months introducing different links to an unnamed aggregator and artificially manipulating the number of "likes" and comments for each story. The researchers found they could affect the popularity of stories by posting them with a few likes to start with. They also found a tendency of users to correct stories that had mostly negative impressions by adding likes and looking for good qualities in them that criticisms had missed.
The dominant mode of rhetoric on the Internet is a contest for control over facts, and not actually an exchange of ideas and experiences in the way that conversations are.
Essentially, people favor consensus about positive things and prefer to disengage from conflict and disagreement as much as possible. Adding to this idea, TechCrunch's Greg Ferenstein finds the model to hold true even for contentious political issues like gay marriage. In 2012 a Pew Research poll showed public opinion was mostly split on the issue, with 33 percent supporting, 44 percent against, and 15 percent neutral. Yet a survey of Twitter posts showed only 8 percent of people made negative posts, while the remaining 92 percent were either supportive or neutral.
These facts point toward a contradiction in Internet behavior, with positivity being the most important factor for a story finding a wide audience, while hostility and ridicule being the inevitable reaction to any story that reaches a wide enough audience. While we often blame commenters for initiating the antagonism, it's just as much the structure of news stories presented in concrete and uninterruptible forms that make the first provocation against which readers feel compelled to respond.
"When you're having a conversation in person, who actually gets to deliver a monologue except people in the movies?" Art Markman, a psychology professor at UT Austin, told Scientific American in a story about Internet hostility. "Even if you get angry, people are talking back and forth and so eventually you have to calm down and listen so you can have a conversation."
The dominant mode of rhetoric on the Internet is a contest for control over facts, and not actually an exchange of ideas and experiences in the way that conversations are. In my own years of writing, I've found most exchanges with commenters is a drawn out process of correcting misperceptions of motive. The default response is typically an ad hominem about why I would have such an idea, and how I must automatically accept a number of correlated ideas not actually addressed in the story.
When I write stories, they must be completed in a vacuum of subjectivity, with choices of emphasis, acknowledgement, and elision made according to my own values and circumstances. The final form is then presented as a heavy and immutable tablet of truth against which readers can only hurl comments that are always doomed to be less visible and less acknowledged because of their placement on the page. Reading a book, one feels like a spectator on someone's process of thinking, from which the reader is free to respond in any way, noting or defacing the text, or simply leaving its pages to yellow and decay in a dusty corner.
Online stories appear in perfected and immortal form, always ready to be called into being by a search engine and presented again as pristine and immutable truth. Using the Internet to publish stories is as outmoded and awkward as filming plays is to cinema, a gross and boring underutilization of the Internet's natural possibilities. Yet the economic centrality of last century's publishing models have ensured that these are the only forms that are taken seriously.
Publishers have turned the Internet into a long trail of ad-supported monologues wherein one person addresses a difficult question and the answer she finds for herself feels as if it must become canonical truth for everyone. In that way, Internet rage can be seen as a symptom of the desire to share in the act of answering common questions, and a rebellion against those who seem to only use it as a way to amplify the illusion that questions have singular and unchallengeable answers.
In order to address the sometimes-overwhelming influx of negativity of comments on the Internet, it becomes necessary to change the structure of content sent out over the Internet. Old publishers continue to struggle in the face of shrinking revenues online, while exchange-driven formats like Tumblr, Twitter, Quora, Reddit, and any number of torrenting communities continue to flourish.
In another generation or two, those kinds of exchange-driven structures will have supplanted the old media behemoths that want only to publish one-way statements and then sell the market value of the audience they're able to ensnare with their bullhorn. Whether that will be better or worse than what we have now, I have no idea, but I would bet the Internet will at least feel like a nicer place.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.