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Stop Making Excuses for the Internet

Lydekker_hyenas_and_jackals

I’ll go ahead and say it: The internet is a terrible, terrible place. Moreover, it’s a terrible place in a way that the rest of the world simply isn’t and people should really stop defending it.

This is relatively new belief of mine, and in fact I am still only just beginning to believe it down to my bones. For the longest time I have more or less accepted the Gutenberg Internet Defense (GID). Simply put, the GID states that all new mediums are scary until they aren’t, and therefore criticizing the internet makes you the moral and intellectual equivalent of those who thought the printing press was a bad idea. But I am starting to see that the GID is one of those arguments that works better on paper than reality.

Take for example this quote about people who are Second Amendment supporters, passed on in glowing fashion by TPM’s Josh Marshall. (The text bolding is mine.)

The pro-gun forces have guns, and practice how to use them to protect “their rights” all the time. They fantasize about pointless shoot outs and martyrdom, as resistance to tyranny. 

And of course, in case we might forget, every couple of months one of them enacts these fantasies, in classrooms or public buildings across the country. They are, in short, weaponized bullies with terroristic tendencies, and the public shies away from confronting them. Meanwhile, pro-life activists, though they may get shouted at, have no fear of gun wielding representatives from Planned Parenthood. They know that. And the more highly weaponized the gun crowd becomes, the stronger this repression of other people’s civil right to protest becomes, even as the right knows they may be harangued but they will not be shot.

What an utterly bizarre and disconnected-from-reality collection of statements.

I should note that I come from a long line of gun owners and second amendment supporters, and that because of this I know more than my fair share of hunters, skeet and trap shooters, target marksmen, and collectors, almost all of whom self-identify as gun-rights supporters. These people span generations and live in a mixture or urban, suburban, and rural areas across the country. I disagree with most of them on various proposed gun policies as well as the wisdom of an overly robust interpretation of the Second Amendment. Indeed, I’ve had long and sometimes loud arguments on this very topic with more than a few of them. Still, I’ve never met a single one that “practices” taking over the government, or that has ever given me the slightest impression they fantasize about killing others or being killed, or has ever said or done anything in my presence to make me wonder about their “terroristic tendencies.”  Likewise, if non-gun-toting people with strong opinions no longer feel safe to voice their opposition to various things and have thus been silenced as this quote and Marshal suggest, then someone apparently forgot to pass that news along to Twitter, Facebook, and as best as I can tell pretty much every public space everywhere in the entire country. (Including, ahem, TPM.)

In fact, I am almost tempted to say that the place described above — this place where people talk excitedly about violent uprising, fantasize about killing their neighbors in the name of “freedom,” or work to ensure that those who disagree with them are denied even a voice with which to speak — doesn’t really exist. Except, of course, that such a place actually does exist. It’s called the internet.

People on the internet really do say those terrible things. In fact, it doesn’t take much googling to see that they say things like this on the internet all the time. Which is convenient for pro-gun-control people on the internet, as it gives them the ability to paint with the same broad brush everyone who disagrees with their opinions. This, in turn, allows those same people to feel morally justified using whatever tactics they might wish against anyone who does disagree. After all, if you’re targeting someone who supports murdering innocent people just to get their rocks off, what shouldn’t you be allowed to do to them? That those they target might not actually support any such thing is an issue they might well have to take into account in real life. But on the internet, not so much.

Because there really is something about the internet — as a medium — that works to poison everyone and everything, all of the time.  Which is not to say that it always succeeds in doing so. Just that it always tries. And the results speak for themselves.

When talking about Jon Rowe’s troubles with bureaucrats at Hit Coffee, Will said this regarding commenters’ reactions to Rowe’s plight:

[It’s] a somewhat disturbing attitude. As was the pouring over the record finding a way to make sure that it was Rowe’s fault. And especially the bit about Rowe demonstrating classism by believing he’s too good for a Trenton jail.

It practically made Rowe’s point for him. Better than Rowe did. In a way, at least. I think it more strongly makes another, bigger point. Which is the extent to which people lose their minds when it comes to anything political… [Since] Rowe approached it as a political matter, it was responded to as a political matter. And advocates took on the role of prosecutor. Though it’s less true than it used to be, you can still complain about the DMV, or Comcast, without people assuming that you’re being political and not responding politically. For now, anyway.

But once it does, everything does change.

My first blush after reading Will’s thoughts was, “Man, ain’t that the truth!” Expect that the more I thought about it, the more it hit me that it isn’t really true at all. Or to be more precise, it isn’t really true anywhere except on the internet. On the internet it’s a kind of universal truth that people will behave this way, in the same way that in the real world it’s a universal truth that people tend to like the smell of bacon. But it’s not actually true elsewhere.

Seriously, imagine yourself at work and hearing a coworker tell a story similar to Jon’s to people in your office. Chances are you would say to that person, “Oh man, that sounds rough. I’m sorry you went through that, but I’m glad it worked out okay in the end.” And more likely than not, you would have meant that.

Now imagine that the person in the cube next to you not only told your coworker it was all her fault, criticized her for being unhappy about it, and belittled her in front of everyone, but then went on to spend a good part of his work day researching city and state ordinances to underscore what a loser she was. What exactly would you think of that person, if they did that in the real, non-internet life?

Now, to be fair, the situation Will describes is obviously very different. It’s different because it didn’t happen in your office to a coworker. It happened on the internet to someone who holds different political beliefs than you have, and that makes it such a completely different kettle of fish that the comparison I just made is likely offensive to pretty much everyone involved. Which is kind of my point.

Interestingly, around the same time I was asked to join the League of Ordinary Gentlemen/Ordinary Times I was also asked to join another group here in Portland that held a similar mission statement. Like LoOG/OT, this group is made up of people from different backgrounds with different political, religious, and cultural viewpoints. Also like LoOG/OT, the concept was to get these people of differing opinions together and vigorously debate topics in a way that was passionate and possibly boisterous but still respectful. One might think that these two groups would have followed similar trajectories, but in fact they haven’t. This is because the two groups have a key difference: unlike LoOG/OT, this other group does not meet on the internet. It meets face-to-face and in person, usually while breaking bread and sharing beers.

As it turns out, this difference has enormous consequences.

The group that meets face-to-face has been forced to deal with their counterparts as people rather than symbols in a way that people here have not. Residents of OT have largely spent the past four years focusing on the differences (and often the perceived shortcomings) of those who hold disparate beliefs; people in the local group, however, have gone in the opposite direction. The lesson from the second group, which is almost anathema to OT, is this: Conservative or Liberal, Atheist or Active Church Member, Christian or Muslim, there is infinitely more that binds us together than separates us. Indeed, it wasn’t after that many nights of arguing before we figured that we really didn’t actually disagree on very much at all, or at least we didn’t really disagree on much that was important. Sure, we used different words and phrases, taught to us by our respective tribes, that made it seem like we disagreed more than we did. But the more we talked and listened to one another the more we realized that those supposed differences were mostly a bill of goods we’d been sold by those who stood to profit from our discord in dollars, power, or influence. The person who brought us all together initially was sure that our meetings would be more contentious and cantankerous than they ended up being, and the reason he thought so was obvious in retrospect: Most of the political conversations he’d had with all of us up to that point had been via the internet.

It’s hard for me to believe that the differences in medium between the two groups do not explain the differences in trajectory. Indeed, when I look at those folks from OT who have met in person, I see a trajectory that’s almost identical to what my Portland group experienced. Those who gathered for any of the Leaguefests are as motley a group as you might encounter, and believe me when I say that a lack of passionate belief in their tribes was not a shortcoming of any of those attendees. It’s interesting, then, to see how differently those here who have met face-to-face treat one another, compared to those who only have an internet relationship with their OT foils.

One of the biggest problems with all of this is that more and more, the Bizarro-world reality of the internet is replacing actual reality in terms of the reference points used in our real-life, in-the-flesh political discourse and policy discussions. Congress spends countless hours and tax dollars investigating things that are, really, just an internet thang. So too does the governor of Texas. The amount of time we spend talking about real fiscal and workforce issues with a topic like immigration is dwarfed by all of us arguing over things that only exist in our virtual online universe. Hell, the most important and talked about person of the past month was someone who — let’s be honest here — was little more than an invention of the internet, created to amuse itself. The political battles we wage most these days are so constant and so ubiquitous that we rarely stop and notice that, as is the case with the whole “all the conservatives are taking arms up against the Federal government” bit noted above, they are largely based on fantasies created by and for the internet. But revery though it may be, the internet is actually beginning to bleed into the real world as more and more we find ourselves collectively reacting to the least kind and charitable fantasies of who our neighbors might be, instead of who our neighbors actually are.

Of course, I can foresee that there will be those who disagree with my conclusion, who will say that this kind of thing has nothing to do with the internet per se. After all, they’ll correctly point out, the internet is just a medium. Heck, people can just as easily spend their time writing books, or plays, or television shows that parrot the kinds or frighteningly racist and misogynist things places like 4chan and Stormfront are famous for, or that try to destroy the lives of ordinary people they have never met just for the fun of it, or that make non-public citizens that have done nothing wrong fear for the safety of themselves and their family just for the feeling of power the internet gives gives them for doing so. They could write those books and plays and scripts all day, every day if they wanted to. Except, of course, that they don’t. They can’t be bothered to do so, and even if they could chances are those mediums would reject them out of hand for wanting to do such terrible, terrible things. That most people could in theory behave this way on every medium but in reality only choose to do so on the internet means something. It’s time to stop pretending it doesn’t.

When reading an earlier draft of this post, Burt noted that it lacked a call to action. In an email last night, he said this:

Okay, Tod, I get it, people turn into raging a-holes on the Internet. So what do we do about it? Just being aware of it doesn’t seem like enough. What does a more civil Internet look like; does it lose some intellectual vitality if more norms creep in, how might we get there from here? That would be a stronger conclusion.

He’s right, of course. Ending with a solution to all of this would be a strong conclusion. It would be space awesome.

But sadly, I don’t know how to fix the internet. I don’t even know that it can be fixed, to be honest. It’s a little like wondering how one should go about making kangaroo courts more polite and more chipper. Once you decide that kangaroo courts are a thing you have to have for the sake of having them, there’s no real way to avoid the lynchings that follow. Heck, taking part in the lynchings are the entire reason most people even bother to show up in the first place. So there may really be no hope for the internet.

But I’d like to think there’s still hope for me.

That’s why I am making a commitment to myself to do a better job of tempering the internet with the actual real world. From now on, I’m going to try to do a better job treating people as people and not symbols, even when I only interact with them online. I’m going to double down on my efforts to always remember that when the internet tells me “All Democrats support X!” or “All Republicans believe Y!,” but I’ve barely met anyone from either party in real life that actually does, real life isn’t the thing that’s out of whack. I’m going to be more active in seeking out and engaging people who disagree with me — not on the internet, where people are treated as a symbols or talismans, but in the real world, where people are… well, people.

I guess that’s about the extent of my proposal: Me, making small changes to me.

Will my brilliant masterplan succeed in saving the world from Evil? Nah. At best, it will only lead to a slightly, slightly better tiny corner of it where I live. That’s not much, I admit. But it is reality, and reality is where I’m choosing to live. Brilliant masterplans that fix everything and everyone and save the world from Evil have always been the stuff of fantasy worlds.

I’ll leave those to the internet.

 

 

[Picture: Richard Lydekker’s Hyenas and Jackals, via Wikipedia.]


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Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular contributor for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter. ...more →

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111 thoughts on “Stop Making Excuses for the Internet

  1. For my part I try… I really, really try… to envision you all as real, passionate people I just happen to have never met.

    I disagree, many time vigorously, with LWA. But I see his little avatar pic, and I know he digs Steampunk, and is an architect, and is obviously an intelligent, thinking person, and I can imagine him. Imperfectly, I’m certain, but there he is.

    I can imagine breaking bread & sharing a drink with him, and having good, healthy discussions. I keep that image in my head when he says something that irks me, so I remember to take a deep breath before I engage, so as to mind my manners.

    Same goes for Chris, or Schilling, or Morat, or DavidTC, etc. That is part of why this community is my preferred one, despite the many points of disagreement between myself & many of it’s denizens.

    I try to do the same at other forums. I also have a personal rule – if I can’t picture you as a person, I don’t engage. Certainly helps to keep my BP at reasonable levels.

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  2. I’m glad Steve Gutenberg is finally getting the credit he is due. Good work on that.

    I agree the medium is often the problem. The Internet is a seductive tempt-person for a number of common biases and logical errors people make. Stereotyping, tunnel vision, confirmation bias are just a few but really the nature of the Toobz plays into the weak spots of our brains. It takes a lot to move past that.

    Way back in the early days of the LOOG ( you know steam driven computers, wooden keyboards, etc) i used to feel the need to comment far more than i do now. If i had a couple minutes before a client i might think of a quick comment or the need to respond to every other commenter. That isn’t the recipe for well thought out anything. In fact the posts that i think are the worst are usually the ones its best to stay out of, either i’m missing something good in the post, am feeling cranky or it just isn’t meant for me so i have little to add. Slowing down and trying to more thoughtful and charitable, or coming up with a better pun, usually leads to better input. But it is a lot of effort to run through all the possible logical errors and perceptual biases we have before commenting. I have to do a lot of that in my work so i’m not sure if that might make it easier for me now or just something my brain unit wants to stop doing for a while. In any case its a noble effort and worthwhile. If it doesn’t make comments better it still makes you better.

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  3. Good piece Tod.

    Part of the problem (or joy) of the internet as a medium for discussion, is that you can literally drop into circles of debate that are not immediately present in our real lives. I personally don’t know a group of Ted Cruz supporters, but I sure as hell can find them online. I can drop into websites propagated by them, argue against them, and perhaps say unfriendly things I would never dare to say to people in my actual proximity. When I get tired of the fight, I bail and go hang out somewhere else online.

    Just as you mentioned with your actual peer group, it is much harder to treat someone poorly you may disagree with if you are going to see each other on a day to day basis. The internet, in many ways, is a place to play around in other people’s sandboxes without repercussion.

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  4. While I was reading this OP I was trying to think of counterexamples from my own life to your and Will’s point on someone complaining about the DMV and that person’s interlocutors commiserating. I think I’ve found a few counterexamples. I’ve been in situations where someone has had an ideological axe to grind and they complain about something and I know that they have a political argument behind it and I respond to that argument. Or sometimes that person is me. And arguments, sometimes bitter and name-calling arguments, ensue.

    Those counterexamples don’t disprove your point. Even in those situations, the fact that we see each other in person tempers the bitterness of the arguments. So ultimately I guess they prove your point.

    Going on a more tangential point but one that addresses your point that the internet is a terrible place, the internet has done some good things for me. It has allowed me to meet people, if only virtually, who I never would have met. It’s also given me a chance to express myself to a degree I never would have, and to a “public” (if we can call it that) I would never have reached. It’s also humbling, both because I meet people much smarter than I and because I sometimes behave (by my standards and probably others’) quite poorly and uncharitably, which is a reminder that I’m not all that my in-person persona in public usually portrays myself to be.

    That last clause of what I just wrote, though, reinforces your point about the internet being a terrible place.

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  5. Hmmm.

    I wonder if what the internet does is expose people to a rather depressing version of reality when it comes to deep schisms over very big issues. Right after the most recent massacre in Oregon, I noticed a lot of my friends were posting all this data and statistics on gun violence and how gun control legislation actually works to reduce mass shootings. I will posit that this is true and believe it to be true. What I don’t share is a belief that this information will change minds? Slate published an essay today that argued the same.

    I think that there are a lot of deep divides in the United States on all sorts of policies. These divides can often be reflected geographically. For the most part it seems to me that many gun control supporters did not grow up in areas where shooting and handling guns was a thing you did. They were not part of my childhood and I don’t think there were many hunters in my hometown. We did not get off from school on the first day of hunting season as I heard was common. My friends who grew up in hunting country tended to stick out (because they were bookish, physically disabled, LGBT, etc.) and get bullied and their attitude was to flee and never come back.

    Unlike you, I am not sure that breaking bread and beer and meeting in real life always helps especially when people have deeply committed world views.

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  6. Still, I’ve never met a single one that “practices” taking over the government, or that has ever given me the slightest impression they fantasize about killing others or being killed, or has ever said or done anything in my presence to make me wonder about their “terroristic tendencies.” .

    I have, but then I know people connected to the militia movement. I’ve even got a few relatives who think that way. Mind you, without Facebook I wouldn’t have known about some of them — the same way I didn’t know one of my uncles was, in fact, racist as all get out. Something about the internet made him air the opinions to all and sundry in a way that face to face contact did not.

    I also know gun owners of the sort you speak of — I’m related to some as well. I find their take on mass shootings to be considerably more nuanced, and are often in favor of similar regulations as myself.

    Which one is more prevalent? I suspect the latter. They don’t give juicy quotes, and by and large they’re not exactly a problem. As they aren’t hoarding guns to defend themselves from (or take over) the government, they’re not carrying weapons in public for ‘safety’ in their crime-free suburbs, and they tend to do things like ‘lock their guns up’ so visiting kids don’t shoot other visiting kids, they’re neither newsworthy nor particularly problematic. They are not commenting on nor causing problems in society.

    The internet exposes us to crazy people. It magnifies the impact of their crazy (as cable news did before it. 24/7 news needed exciting news, so they went and found it). It doesn’t mean the crazy people don’t exist.

    But for every crazy gun-owner (militia, nutso CC scared of black boogeymen, whatever) I know, I’d guess I know about 3 or 4 solid, respectable, treats-guns-as-lethal-tools, type. All hunters or former hunters, except the one that just does target shooting.

    From personal experience, you tend to treat guns a LOT more seriously if you’ve ever killed something with one — be it duck or deer or whatever. A dead animal and a big bloody hole drives home the concept of “lethal weapon” in a way holes in paper don’t. It’s a pretty visceral experience.

    Not that they’re perfect — I’ve heard horror stories of hunters with bad trigger and muzzle discipline, that sort of thing, and one of the older hunters of my acquaintance simple won’t go hunting with someone who isn’t known to him, because as he puts it “I’ve gotten tired of idiots pointing a gun at me”.

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    • Which one is more prevalent? I suspect the latter. They don’t give juicy quotes, and by and large they’re not exactly a problem. As they aren’t hoarding guns to defend themselves from (or take over) the government, they’re not carrying weapons in public for ‘safety’ in their crime-free suburbs, and they tend to do things like ‘lock their guns up’ so visiting kids don’t shoot other visiting kids, they’re neither newsworthy nor particularly problematic. They are not commenting on nor causing problems in society.

      Indeed. As someone who lives in small-town Appalachia, I know a *lot* of gun owners. A *lot*. People I’ve known since we were kids, who grew up hunting.

      Oddly, they do sometimes spend a lot of money on the hobby of hunting, but they realized you just need one *gun*, so they buy a nice one of those, maybe one for a guest, and then spend their money on things like scopes and tree stands and other stuff.

      And they keep them securely locked up in their gun cabinet. And they don’t run around talking about defending themselves from the government, or even *really* think guns will defend them from home invaders. (It’s much more likely to defend them from *bears* outside their house.)

      And politically where they stand? Well, I actually took a sorta of informal survey after…erm, *some* mass shooting? Sandy Hook? (Jeez, I can’t keep my mass shootings straight.) And basically everyone I talked to was in favor of banning magazines over a certain capacity, because, frankly, if you couldn’t kill a deer or defend yourself with 10 bullets, you shouldn’t be carrying a damn gun.

      A significant proportion were even in favor of my idea of cracking down on handguns, because in their universe, people shouldn’t be carrying guns around everywhere (Way too dangerous.), and people should able to see if you are.

      The problem? All these people basically support the NRA, and don’t quite realize what’s going on politically, or why reasonable gun control never happens.

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  7. My theory is that the Internet grew too big to fast. Before a well-developed set of communication norms developed for the Internet, hundreds of millions of people started using it. There isn’t really a good enforcement mechanism for the few norms that exist like no trolling.

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    • Add in the ability to really build a bubble.

      I loved college, way back in the day, because I suddenly found a whole lot of people into the stuff I was into (sci-fi, games, etc).

      The internet? Doesn’t matter how fine-grained my interests are, there are people out there into it. Enough to make it feel like everyone is.

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      • Huh. College (and the internet) was definitely a place of broadening for me – I met all kinds of people with all kinds of backgrounds and opinions, and I’m slowly learning just what to avoid saying in order to keep our interactions peaceable.

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        • Yeah, I broadened my horizons. I met tons of new people and new things.

          But what I found was a critical mass of people like myself. Into video games, card games, geek stuff. Which introduced my outward into a bunch of other stuff that branched off that.

          It made me feel…normal, in a way high school didn’t. Because in HS there were like two of us that liked stuff like Axis and Allies. Video games were a bit better, because consoles were just hitting big, but still — I knew exactly three people in a class of several hundred that played video games. Or had internet, even dial up, back in the day. :)

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          • That is also true. I guess because of the internet and things like it, I always sort of knew there were more people like me; I just hadn’t run into them. The people unlike me were much more surprising. After all, I can’t read your non-sarcasm over the internet.

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  8. It’s not just “a medium like any other medium.” It’s largely a terrible, terrible place, and it deserves to be called out on it.

    “Hey you! Internet! Yeah, I’m talking to you. You know, you’re – hey! look at me when I’m talkin! – you’re a really terrible place, OK? No matter what anyone says, no matter what kind of lame bullsh** they may offer in your defense, I want you to know one thing: they’re wrong. You’re just terrible.”

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  9. I think the difference isn’t online/IRL but rather friend/not-friend.

    The classic example is: a driver cuts you off and you go full road-rage. Yelling, honking, whatever. Car pulls over, driver gets out, clearly pissed at you too. It’s your neighbor/friend/whatever. All anger dissipates immediately, everyone apologizes, life goes on.

    The internet is like that except the person who pissed you off, either for saying something or for getting pissed off at you first, is never your friend/neighbor/whatever. Except in rare communities that last long enough that at least some users develop that relationship.

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    • That’s a very good example, Nevermoor. As a pedestrian in a city with an aggressive driving culture, I get angry very quick at “cars.” Sometimes, however, I see that driver is someone I know, and my anger becomes more of a sense of being ashamed for being so angry. I suspect I don’t even have to know the driver, but just realize that he/she is a person, and I my anger dissipates.

      Somewhat related: I’ll never forget one instance about 5 years ago. I was crossing the street and a bicyclist did the thing where he almost didn’t stop for me (because, you know, bicyclists shouldn’t have to obey red lights). I was pretty peeved. But a few seconds later, I heard a crash and apparently a car had hit the bicyclist. My attitude changed from peeved to concerned and distraught that someone had been hurt.

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  10. Maybe the problem is that getting on the internet is now so easy that even dumb people can manage it.

    We live in a world where people think, in all seriousness, that “The Martian” was based on a true story.

    And it’s not that Josh Marshall is a dumb person himself. But dumb people respond to the things he writes, and the way that he writes them, and they click on the webpage and look at the ads, and that’s where the money comes from.

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  11. If I may… the internet was created as an experiment that included “Rules should be implemented by the end users if they want them; the network won’t implement more than the bare minimum.” From the perspective of connecting things, and generating new applications, this has turned out to be an immensely powerful concept. From a content perspective, perhaps not so much. In the early 1990s, it was far from clear that TCP/IP would be the commercial winner; certainly the big telecom companies were opposed to the idea. As were the Compuserves and AOLs, who were dead set on the walled garden approach. And yet, in effect, the anarchists won. There must be reasons for that. Despite the bomb-throwers running loose, I regard it as preferable to the alternative. Of course, I’m not the managing editor :^)

    I suspect that at some point, “reputation” will become a common concept. Tod Kelly gets a thumbs-up from me, assuming others trust my judgement. Crazies will be excluded. There are a number of precursors that have to come first, though. Perhaps the toughest one will be that enough people have to decide to give up anonymity.

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    • Perhaps the toughest one will be that enough people have to decide to give up anonymity.

      Pried from my cold, dead fingers. ;-)

      I suspect that at some point, “reputation” will become a common concept. Tod Kelly gets a thumbs-up from me, assuming others trust my judgement.

      Did you follow the “Peeple” brouhaha?

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      • At some point, if things are bad enough, anonymous users will be excluded from “civilized” forums. Note that “anonymous” doesn’t mean that your real identity is necessarily known. Despicable people may be able to create a civil online persona; so long as they conform to that, well, “on the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” Unless you break your cover. Maintaining a facade is hard, and most people won’t bother for long.

        Reputation will, of course, be a relative thing. My reputation (karma) at Slashdot is excellent; here, people at least put up with me; at Red State, I’m probably regarded as one of the crazies. Real life is much the same — in Denver, CO I’m probably somewhat right of center; in Omaha, NE somewhat left; for most of the region between the two, I’m a left-wing bomb-thrower.

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        • Michael Cain: Note that “anonymous” doesn’t mean that your real identity is necessarily known.

          That’s an interesting notion. I’m imagining a service — call it SockPuppet.com — that verifies and then protects your real life identity while providing you one — and only one! — online alter ego. Then a site like this could limit comments to SP identities only. Anonymous but not, simultaneously.

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        • Of course some people may have reasons for not wanting their real identity known others than to troll. The internet reaches places with relatively oppressive governments and the guy writing a blog about police brutality in Cairo (for example) may both be doing a public service and have an excellent reason to hide his identity.

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          • Even in non-repressive liberal democracies: if you work in the public sector and say something political (regardless of whether civil or uncivil) online, and it gets popular and someone in the press happens to notice it, you could face anything from a reprimand to being fired.

            The divide between what is public and what is private more or less disappears with the Internet. I got the “yes, you can lose your job over what you say on Facebook” lecture as soon as I started in the public sector. And not in the sense of “being a massive dick on Facebook”, just in the sense of voicing any political opinion or critique of the government that could be understood as compromising your impartiality.

            Any online identity in which you 1) express political opinions, 2) use your real name, and 3) indicate or reveal where you work, can get your fired.

            Also, on an entirely different topic: women with the temerity to have and voice opinions online have recieved masses of death threats and been driven from their homes. Remove anonymity, and you expose a lot of people to real, physical danger, and silence a lot of people. It’s not just the jerks you’ll be harming; it’s all the victims of the jerks.

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  12. I agree with the quote Todd takes issue with (because he often goes after left wing comments, perhaps suggesting that the left is just as uncivil as the right, which would be absurd).

    The person who wrote the comment uses “They” in an unfortunately vague way, though:

    “And of course, in case we might forget, every couple of months one of them enacts these fantasies, in classrooms or public buildings across the country. THEY are, in short, weaponized bullies with terroristic tendencies,

    If “They” above refers to the people enacting violent fantasies, this is undeniably true.

    I suppose the person who wrote the comment could be said to overgeneralize when talking about “pro-gun forces” suggesting all people who are opposed to gun control have violent fantasies about fighting the government. But I take this commenter to be saying that many hard-core gun rights activist conservative (a group constituting millions of Americans) has violent fantasies about fighting the government (and others). This is hard to deny, too, if one reads what hard core gun rights advocates say.

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    • Another aspect of this is that Marshall, by posting the comment cited in the OP, is continuing his own ruminations regarding an earlier thesis he presented concerning the Oregon massacre and the politics of gun rights, to wit (!!): that we, as a society!, have already decided the issue in favor of tolerating the everyfewmonths massacre in exchange for unfettered access to guns. His evidence for this was a demand from folks that the media refrain from publishing the name of the killer, and his subsequent shock at realizing that *that’s* what the debate has been reduced to. So the quotation arises out of a larger discussion about gun violence and the politics of gun rights and the second amendment and so on.

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    • I agree with the quote Todd takes issue with (because he often goes after left wing comments, perhaps suggesting that the left is just as uncivil as the right, which would be absurd).

      For what it’s worth, I associate violent fantasies primarily with the populist left. You know the type: “If rich don’t throw their support behind more redistributive policies, they’re going to find themselves up against the wall come the revolution and OH GOD I AM SO TURNED ON RIGHT NOW!”

      …The last part is usually just implied.

      Anyway, I suppose this happens on the right, too, but I rarely see it. It’s always been my impression that there are no conservatives on the Internet. Where are you guys finding these people?

      It’s interesting how the right-wingers fantasize about doing it themselves, and the left-wingers fantasize about someone else doing it for them. Come to think of it, that actually makes a lot of sense.

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  13. Something else I think is happening is that you can’t hide on the internet, and you can’t hide from the internet.

    In meatspace, your racist uncle pollutes a family gathering, or a fervent MRA offends some people at a cocktail party or SF convention. In the internet era, your uncle puts something offensive on his Facewalltweet, or the MRA’s victim’s story is blogged – and it’s linked, shared, searched, reposted, tweeted, and commented on before the next sunrise. And the posts never go away – ever.

    And then some city council somewhere does something stupid. In the old days, it’s confined to local news, or page 8 of the paper. Now the content is aggregated and it’s in everyone’s RSS feed, providing evidence to support whatever our pre-existing position on the topic was.

    Basically, the Internet allows us to be represented by the worst of us, and the best of us can’t get any traction against that kind of spectacle.

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    • I mean, you never see the people who just click away when they hit a post they can’t stand. In real life, when someone starts up a terrible racist rant or whatever, they can watch everyone in the room leave, or at least turn away.*

      On the internet, you can’t tell the difference between a hit where someone said “screw this, and for that matter I’ve just lost respect for the person who linked me here” and someone who reads the whole article.

      *Despite the fact that he’s absolutely despicable, I will always have sympathy for Juror #10 because of the response to his last big speech.

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      • Guy,
        Oh, you think people walk away when there’s a racist rant?
        Funny…
        I’m tempted to repost some of what Field Negro wrote about running into racists at a restaurant…

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  14. Also, there is a downside to the fact that we empathize with people more in person. I have heard people say -in person- horridly racist, violent, sexist, homophobic things, but because they seemed in distress at the time I felt a pressure to not point out the terribleness of their beliefs and attitudes. This was cowardly of me, on some level, but in some ways was me being a kind person attending to a friend’s well-being over shaming their truly horrible beliefs and attitudes.

    But some attitudes and beliefs need to be shamed. The internet allows for that and also creates a space where those with shameful attitudes and beliefs -racists, xenophobes, sexists, homophobes, MRA people, gun nuts, and many others who are (more often than not) far right wingers- to display their shameful crud.

    Their showing their shameful horrible beliefs and attitudes and people fearlessly attacking those feelings isn’t all bad. And the internet allows for that in a way that in-person conversation, with all its politeness ( and sometimes cowardice) makes rare.

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    • It’s hard to do a driveby in real life. This is a big thing for me (you may have noticed that I occasionally make driveby comments here); in real life if I make some snarky comment about some stupid thing someone said I have to stay engaged and deal with the argument that results. On the internet I don’t (necessarily). I can be pretty conflict averse, so this is a big deal. Where in reality I will simply not engage, on the internet I will sometimes say something angry, rile someone up, get them shouting back at me, and then not re-engage because that has tripped the “get out” response.

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  15. Id.
    Ego.
    Superego.

    When we get together and break bread, we actually see each other, see the passion and pain that the other feels about issues, some things stronger than others, some less so. We can get a feel for what they truely have a stake in, or what is simply positional. In other words, we can be human with them and in return, see them as human. The Id.

    We live in a nation (well, most of us, sorry James K and Murali!) of 300 million and this third stone has, what, 7 billion? As I am sure you can guess, it would be impossible to meet all of those people. I live in a small city of 100k and there is no way to meet them all, not in any real sense. So we create things like the internet and before that we had news papers and before that town criers, etc.

    And that alows us to get things off our chest, yell at our metaphorical dads, or those damn kids on the lawn! Long before the internet became a thing, I remember the Letters To The Editor! I am sure that many people here do to. Crazyness, right! The internet isn’t something new, it is just something faster.

    Just think of that one LGBT kid in Deseret, where everone is talking about how Ted Cruz is right on X … Or the veteren at Cal, whom all around is baraged about Hilary is OK, but that Bern! They both found a voice and a circle, where none was before. Does that outweigh the craziness? Don’t know…

    Should we all tone it down? Of course. Can we?

    Right now, the US is pretty evenly split on a lot of issues, issues that some people find increadibly important, but due to that split are not going to go away any time soon. And yes, we do need to listen to the other sides arguement if we want to make headway on some of these issues. But which issues are above that, which are too important? The Superego.

    All of this too say that I am not disagreeing with you and civility needs to reign, but until the US comes to an agreement of which direction we want to go, it is going to stay loud and partisan.

    Oh, and we need more LeagueFests! Mini ones, in all areas! Lests keep the talking trend rolling.

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    • Just think of that one LGBT kid in Deseret, where everone is talking about how Ted Cruz is right on X … Or the veteren at Cal, whom all around is baraged about Hilary is OK, but that Bern! They both found a voice and a circle, where none was before. Does that outweigh the craziness? Don’t know…

      That, I think, is a good point.

      Somewhat related, and perhaps relevant to Maribou’s comment, is that at least some of the off-internet civility is people holding their tongues and self-censoring when very rude or damaging things are said to their face or in their presence. Sometimes, maybe even usually, such tongue-holding and self-censorship is a good thing. But it can also silence certain voices and points of views that need to be heard or at least deserve to be more fairly spoken of. The internet gives such people a forum to say those things. Sometimes that turns into incivil hectoring but sometimes it’s more than that, too.

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  16. However, if you think being uncivil is the real problem and both sides (left and right) are equally bad because they don’t compromise, then, yes, the internet is all bad. But one side is much worse in their attitudes and being uncivil with such horrible attitudes is a good thing, not a bad one. At least being uncivil is good in some cases.

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  17. “They could write those books and plays and scripts all day, every day if they wanted to. Except, of course, that they don’t. They can’t be bothered to do so, and even if they could chances are those mediums would reject them out of hand for wanting to do such terrible, terrible things. That most people could in theory behave this way on every medium but in reality only choose to do so on the internet means something. It’s time to stop pretending it doesn’t.”

    My friend, I have some instinctive sympathy for what you are saying here, but I think you are just plain wrong. Perhaps those particular individuals might not. But perhaps they might. With more than half my life spent in bookstores and libraries – lots of people write these ridiculously aggressive things without needing an internet for it, and have done so, throughout history. (Malleus Mallificarum, much?)

    Lots of people DO terrifyingly evil things to their neighbors and their community ALL THE FREAKING TIME. Literally every day, people turn on their neighbors in small and large ways. And lots of people spread banal vicious craptrap through every medium, posters and flyers and radio stations and plays and handing out books on street corners. Have you really been insulated from that in real life? Is that why you think “people” don’t? The analytical part of my brain wonders what the class demographics of your in-person group might be, and whether you ever spent much time without a car to drive… (And if that sounds snarky, I don’t mean it to be. I just can’t reconcile what you seem to be saying with the you that lives in my head, and is deeply, startlingly, wise. I hear you saying “Well, I post things to the internet so people will teach me I’m wrong, sometimes,” and I hear myself hoping this is what you wanted. Because man did this turn into a long streetcorner rant of my own…)

    But mostly, from my heart – I find it confusing that you can rail against the internet as a uniquely bad amplifier of such things, because I can’t imagine living in a large modern city pre-internet and not having been exposed to a plethora of extremist angry blathering in multiple media, and a plethora of small surprising violences. Both of those sometimes coming out of left field from someone you had previously found entirely reasonable, a friendly acquaintance transformed into a danger. I certainly was exposed to such in Montreal, and that was without even owning a television. It wasn’t ALL I saw or even a majority of what I saw; I went out of my way to focus on the lovely parts of communal life rather than the miserable and not-in-my-control underbelly, much as I choose to pay more attention to the lovely parts of the internet as well. Sometimes it was harder. When a large group of my friends’ friends, my acquaintances whom I admired and felt at home with, all started dying of AIDS, and people were driving around with bumper stickers saying that their suffering and death was deserved, that choice to look away felt like a betrayal – but I wasn’t strong enough to stay. I hadn’t yet learned how not to disappear.

    Leaving the big cities aside, I grew up in a very small place – a small, pretty, statistically-way-more safe-than-any-major- US-city place – where the major industry is tourism and social values are incredibly strong and people know and respect their neighbors and people of strongly differing opinions can easily get along and recognize their shared humanity and not go insane nitpicking each other in public discourse. A place where almost everyone more or less agrees they need to look after each other even if they use different words or have different ideas about how to do it. In many ways it is an idyllic place and when I tell people where I grew up, if they’ve heard of it at all, their reaction is usually something like, “OH! That must have been a wonderful place to grow up! I am so jealous!” The things you say about your in person group *are* true there, for most people most of the time.

    But the problem is they are ambivalently true. It is also a place where I was afraid to shave my head (and had several dear ones insist I *mustn’t* do so) because I wouldn’t be able to get the jobs a high school student gets if people thought I was a lesbian. It is a place where a light-skinned Lebanese-Canadian teenager can be hugely popular and successful, but also come nearly to despairing blows with her peers – the same people who decided she was one of them, and a particularly shiny exemplar of their type – over the crappy racist slurs they would cheerfully throw at her darker-skinned, less overachieving younger brother. It is a place where a man was murdered and his house burned down, for homophobic reasons, and everyone involved in the investigation conspired to have it declared an accidental death It is a place where an upper middle-class judge with a nice house (the father of the boy I had a crush on from 5th-8th grades) regularly handed out sentences that would turn your stomach in their indifference to continued suffering- the one I never could manage to forget was 6 months probation and continued parental custody for a man who deliberately, with cruel intent, sat his infant in a full pot of boiling water. It is a place where lots of people, both family and not, are usually a little bit aware of what’s going on in a family where the father is deeply, disgustingly abusive. But it just wouldn’t be right to try and do something to stop it, or even to acknowledge it, because, well, we all have to get along, don’t we?

    Or maybe I should say – it WAS such a place. When I was growing up, and we didn’t have an internet, and the abused / marginalized / alone didn’t realize there were so many people going through what they were going through – or perhaps they DID realize it, intellectually, but that’s different – so very different – from knowing those people through sustained, affectionate conversations …. back then that is the sort of place it was. Nowadays, the seeds that started when those people (we people) started to find each other both locally and all over the world – those seeds have grown into trees. I go back and visit with my family, and I see not just the superficial tourist layer, but the powerful grassroots institutions that have either sprung from internet connections and internet sharing, or incorporated those tools into an already fierce desire to make things better for their community. Heck, I watched my little sister – from age 18 into her 30s – turn again and again to social media and internet research to make herself stronger and more whole. They’re suffering from some federal political decisions right now (at least that’s how it seems to me), but their networks, their care for each other, are far more interconnected than they used to be – and at least some of those strands are woven from the sort of inspirational facebook posts that make me, jaded cynic that I sometimes am, roll my eyes. It’s still not the utopia people see it as. It still has crimes swept under rugs, and massive cruelty, and trapped children. But it is a braver, more honest, and more compassionate place.

    As for me, I married my favorite of the kindred spirits I found on the internet. (And we always have been kindred spirits, despite our many polar oppositions.) I am in touch daily or weekly or monthly with most of the rest of my favorite people, because of the internet – sometimes directly, sometimes in a way that resembles refrigerator magnet pictures, and is no less a strengthened connection than those pictures are. I visit these people in person, when we can. One of my best friends, someone I regularly drive 70 miles to see, is the first person I ever *really* talked to, in real time, on the internet. I didn’t even know he lived in this state, and hadn’t thought about him in at least two year. But then mutual other internet friends – ones I had kept in touch with – kept harrassing us to go be friends, and then we realized we’d actually known each other online back in 1994. No wonder it was so easy to be friends with him. (I’ve also become very close friends with his wife – and it wouldn’t be possible to be so close to people who live so far away, and haven’t ever lived next door, without the stories and jokes and ponderings we read in each other’s voices online.) I have a million of these stories, you know? “The Internet” is the place where I can always feel at home. Socially, it blessed me.

    Intellectually, my life has evolved from “well, I’ve read every book in the children’s section and at least looked at every book in the adult fiction and non-fiction, and I don’t have enough money to buy food AND books…”, and ever so many memories of rereading everything in the house because of yet another snowstorm, to an infinite, inexhaustible, instant archive of stories – stories that connect me to people both living and dead: some of them noble, some of them base, most of them decidedly mixed, as we all are. And an archive of facts, some embedded in stories, some just hanging out without much interpretation, that widen my eyes and make my heart beat faster, too.

    Spiritually, I am constantly, every dang day, caused to stop for a second and just sit, amazed, by some brilliant something I stumble across online. Nearly every day I come across something that sends me falling out of my chair in laughter. I rarely see things that make me weep or rage (I’m still working on learning how not to run away), but when I do encounter such things, and I can make myself stand still, I try my best to sit down in the deepest part of myself, and ask what I can do to help. I fail, of course, as I do in the face of the concrete horrors that I mostly walk past every day of my life, but I succeed at least as often. And I’m getting better at sitting in that part of me.

    But it matters to me that I’m not choosing this path out of frustration or abhorrence. I’m not choosing it because the internet is a horrible thing that needs melioration, somehow different and worse than everyday life. I sit, or walk, or tesser, how I do because the internet is a beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring piece of a beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring world, and being deeply kind is the best and hardest way I know to say thank you. It is also, and here is where I think we come together, the best and hardest way to say no thanks.

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    • Today alone I was asked if I wanted to talk about God and to donate to some left-wing cause. And this is in one of the tamer parts of the city.

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/30/atlah-anti-gay-sign_n_5634256.html

      This place isn’t too far off my commute and I’ve driven past it.

      I believe is on to something that perhaps the internet has brought these people to Tod’s attention but that does not mean they didn’t exist before.

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      • Yeah, I agree with this thesis. But I also agree with Our Tod’s thesis in the OP that something in this medium elicits the inner a-hole that most of us, most of the time, can keep submerged.

        The reason (I posit) is that most of the Internet users out there don’t invest the effort of imagination to visualize their interlocutors as actual people. They’re something less than fully human because they are seen and interacted with as screen names an tiny graphic avatars. Not people.

        I also think the meeting-and-eating thing has a lot of depth to it. When you do these things (both interact physically with other people, and eat food), your brains are washed in happy hormones that make your neurons fire in more pleasant, agreeable ways. So you are in a more pleasant mood (mostly, not always). On the Internet, these cushions to irritation are often absent, so behavior degenerates.

        It’s only a postulate, but I put a fair amount of faith in it.

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        • Actually, I think it’s just the length. Imagine and were sitting in someone’s living room having a conversation. Do you think Maribou would have gotten that entire essay out? Do you think Tod would have managed to get through the entire OP?

          The internet is a place where you can get off a 1000+ word Shakesperean soliloquy on whatever you feel like talking about, and the person you’re talking to has the response options of “no reply”, “pithy one-liner” or another soliloquy. There’s no way to have an actual conversation, or at least not one that gets recorded. The closest is a chatroom of some kind, but those are kind of gone (actually, could someone set up an OT irc channel? That might be a fun place to hang out).

          Soliloquy-to-soliloquy communication is naturally different from what we could normally recognize as conversation, mostly because point-by-point responses are really hard. The closest we have is the practice of fisking, which is (1) kind of mean and (2) still doesn’t really look natural. So instead of you starting to say something, then your interlocutor objecting and you both following that line of discussion off somewhere else, you write a giant essay, they respond with an essay of varying size dealing with one or more flaws in your argument, but inevitably fail to address some part of it, so you respond in like kind dealing with flaws in their response and reiterating what they failed to address. Repeat a few times and eventually both people leave feeling like they “won” in an extremely unsatisfying manner because their opponent just didn’t deal with the core of their position.

          Also: failure to engage with opponents as people can’t explain folks who can be perfectly civil in real life but just can’t deal with each other over the internet.

          Also also: what the carp happened to my tagging of maribou and tod-kelly?

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          • I’d agree that we didn’t get that kind of soliloquy out in conversation before the internet, – and don’t now unless they have very patient friends – but what people did do was write intense, long letters to each other about meaty topics. Intellectuals in particular did this (and thank goodness they did, I love reading books of letters), but it wasn’t unheard of for regular people to do it either. I also have a suspicion that people used to let each other talk more and interrupt less often before televisions came along, but I have yet to research that one.

            know the kind of post you are talking about, but I don’t think that alone is enough to explain it, given that only some people work that way. I’m far more likely to expend energy on an essay-length answer when I really do care about the person I am responding to, and the topic they are writing about, and want to flesh out / respond to just one or two points. When I’m “fighting mad” or irritated, that’s when I write careless, aggressive paragraphs.

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        • How much of this is about sample size? If I have 10 interpersonal interactions, I can almost guarantee each will be pleasant. 100? It gets harder. The 1000’s the internet allows for? Eash… You’re now guaranteeing that (at least!) one of them goes awry.

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    • When I was in my early teens, I got exposed to the ugliest, nastiest, most foul political campaigning I have seen to date.

      It included barely veiled accusations of pedophilia, in fact. And by “barely” I mean at age 13 or 14 I recognized what was being implied, despite the fact that I knew the accused gentlemen quite well (he was the father of my brother’s best friend).

      It was a race for a single seat on the local school board. The incumbent (the aforementioned father) was accused of pedophilia, teaching children to masturbate in kindergarten, associating with Hillary Clinton (this was in 1993, the Presidential race was in full swing), being an atheist (he was the deacon of his Church, but whatever), and quite a few other things.

      Flyers were passed around the neighborhood (he lived in our neighborhood), full of quotes attributed to him (although if you followed the asterisks you’d find it was a paraphrase of something someone else said that they alleged the man ‘believed’).

      He won handily, I would guess because so many people were offended on his behalf that they made sure to vote in an election that generally saw perhaps 200 votes.

      The accuser won the next year, against an open seat. He was very polite to her in meetings, which was not something reciprocated.

      So yeah, it’s not the internet. It’s people. It’s just the people you see face to face? Those are generally your family, friends, or co-workers and you filter your words. Because why argue. Why risk alienating the people you have to see all the time? Why risk having your image tarnished?

      There are certain conversations (politically, for instance) I simply do not have with my father. Others (religious) I don’t have with my mother. Others (climate change) I don’t have with my two best friends. On some we know we don’t see eye to eye — so why argue when there’s a host of other things we can do? On others I know we don’t see eye to eye on, so I simply…let slide. (And I’m sure they do the same to me.).

      In the end, the internet doesn’t make us different people. It’s just 99% of the people you talk to are relative strangers, and even if you know them — well, you never see the look on their face. The one that says “You just stepped in it”. The one most people actively try to avoid putting on other people’s faces.

      The internet is people, stripped of much of social niceties. It’s who we really are, just without the thin gloss of politeness and etiquette we wear.

      And trolls, of course. There’s always been people that like to stir crap up. It’s just on the internet, you can sock-puppet it and take it to new heights. Trolling IS fairly unique to the internet. The closest real world example I can think of is undercover people egging on potential criminals to actually commit a crime they can be arrested for.

      Or hiding in a crowd with the goal to throw a few bottles and turn the march from peaceful to riot — and give people and excuse to crack heads.

      Not really something the common man got much chance to do.

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    • Yeah, what Maribou said, Mr. Kelly. Mostly all of it.

      ===

      Breaking news: Man writes screed on internet bemoaning screeds written on the internet. Updates at 11. In other news, Irony died today. It left no kin.

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  18. I don’t disagree with this post but I think it might be worth distinguishing “the internet” from “how discourse is conducted on the internet.” I don’t think online discourse was ever or will ever be the same as discourse in person. We’re evolved to communicate through physical cues and all manner of non-verbal signals that can’t translate into text (at least with current technology). However, what I believe has made discourse on the internet even worse than it otherwise might be, is the incentives set up by social media. The psychological satisfaction of getting a like or a re-tweet is small but real. In an environment of strangers or loosely connected people the speech that ends up getting the most likes (or whatever) isn’t the speech that’s most thoughtful or nuanced, it’s the speech that affirms biases in the most aggressive language possible. This isn’t to say you couldn’t see some out there stuff on Web 1.0 but now we’ve found a way to reward people for bad or stupid speech.
    .

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    • I’m pretty fucking sure the people buying and selling twitter accounts aren’t doing it with bland pablum. They’re doing it with consistent customers, and marketshare.

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  19. Given that face-to-face interactions generally seem to be much more enjoyable and productive than discussions on the internet…
    And given that these interactions comprise the vast majority of our lives…
    Maybe we should consider the possibility that the stuff that happens on the internet doesn’t really matter all that much?

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  20. I didn’t realize I had “lost my mind” in critiquing Rowe. It’d have been nice to have that argument made here but, hey, to each their own.

    Wait… am I being terrible here again?

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  21. Maybe I’m uniquely an asshole in real life but…

    “Seriously, imagine yourself at work and hearing a coworker tell a story similar to Jon’s to people in your office. Chances are you would say to that person, “Oh man, that sounds rough. I’m sorry you went through that, but I’m glad it worked out okay in the end.” And more likely than not, you would have meant that.”

    No. Not if the person was someone I really cared about. I mean, if they were clearly still fuming from the moment… if they had just gotten off the phone… I’d have supported them in that moment. But when the time was right, I’d say, “Hey, let’s figure out what went wrong here and try not to let that happen again.” And if they made their rant and then said, “AND THIS IS WHY THE GOVERNMENT IS AWFUL?” I’d say, “Well, maybe what happened to you was awful, but babies and bath water and all that.”

    So, yea, maybe there is something different about the internet, but I think you’ve chosen some pretty poor examples here.

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    • Except I don’t recall Jon wanting an Anarchist Utopia, so that wasn’t about tossing out the bathwater without checking for babies it was about noticing that the baby was upset because the bathwater is too cold, & everyone piled on about how that is just what bathwater does & it’s the babies own fault for staying in the bath too long.

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      • We can disagree on that.

        But what I don’t think we can disagree on is that Jon’s piece was not a blowing-off-steam vent but in fact a political argument. For which he received political pushback. Tod’s analogy fails because he presents an entirely different scenario.

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        • It was both. The venting of steam led to the political argument.

          What just baffled me about it all was that Jon made a very salient political criticism, that a moderately complex system that relies upon the police power of arrest to enforce minor issues is going to unfairly snare and disrupt/destroy the lives of people who are honestly unable to navigate it, and that such a system should be reformed, especially if (as I & others pointed out) alternative examples exist that are less dependant upon the police & still get the job done.

          The response was, to paraphrase, “Sure, that is true, but did YOU obey every step of the moderately complex system? If not, then you have no room to complain & it’s your own fault.” So instead of not liking the message & then shooting the messenger, you were all ok with the message, but just decided the messenger was disagreeable & shot him anyway.

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          • I still don’t get that whole business. I always understood Jon’s message to be “I damn near got thrown in jail over this and I’m a white guy with money, a job, and a college degree. How is someone who hasn’t got those advantages supposed to deal with stuff like this?”

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  22. I don’t think one can posit much of a defense of the internet itself as it stands but I do think a plea can be made on the basis of evolution.

    I remember, early on, when phishing, email scamming, Nigerian princes and the like was the great big bad. Every gullible fool with an email account was going to be cleaned out. Everyone would lose money to the scammers. It was big, it was scary, and then… after a bit… it went away. The scammers didn’t go away of course, no there’re more than ever and more sophisticated than ever but the users in general evolved. People have become more net savvy, a cynicism has grown up, the herd adapts and develops immunity.

    I think it’s easy for us to forget that the internet is an extremely young medium. Most of the users online today can remember there being no internet. How weird is that eh? There’s a cohort of users who have grown up with it though, and they’ll eventually have another cohort of users who have parents who always had the internet. The herd will adapt, I expect that in time norms and behaviors will develop.

    I doubt I’ll like it, I still mourn the fading of the era of the blogs. Twitter and its ilk make me ache with loathing. In time, though, I suspect the internet will mature. It is, after all, just a baby of a medium. Babies take years before they even recognize others as having emotions or needs beyond the babies own. They take years more before they can put themselves in another persons shoes with any reliability. The medium will mature; I think it’s inevitable.

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  23. What an utterly bizarre and disconnected-from-reality collection of statements.
    Read my mind.

    Sure, we used different words and phrases, taught to us by our respective tribes, that made it seem like we disagreed more than we did.
    I noticed this thing at school recently, where we did self-evaluations on the Big 5 personality factors. People were using the same phrases to justify their positions, even when they were in direct conflict. Odd, that.

    [T]here really is something about the internet — as a medium — that works to poison everyone and everything, all of the time.
    Ethnocentricity alert!
    “Catalyst” is the proper term, I believe. The poison was there in the first place, but lay inert until provoked, and internet usage demonstrates great efficacy in such provocation.
    But I believe a lot of that is cultural.
    That said, the persistence of this cultural trait, or potential for persistence, is especially worrisome.
    It’s the old “Evolve, or destroy yourselves” dilemma.
    We never seem to do really well at that one.

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  24. The comment Josh Marshall quoted is actually pretty interesting. It doesn’t describe many people in the real world, but it’s a pretty fair paraphrase of the statements made by the NRA and other organized pro-gun lobbying groups, in particular:

    * The world is dangerous and without a gun, you’re a victim.
    * Guns make very situation better.
    * Personal weapons will protect you against tyranny.

    And since most internet comments are tossed off, not thought through [1], it’s no surprise that they consist of the same tired arguments repeated over and over, nor is it surprising that these arguments come from people who are well-paid for publicizing them.

    So another way to look at Tod’s complaint is that the internet is a place that doesn’t in any way discourage people from communicating in lazy and stupid way.

    1. Which given that most comment sections are close to write-only, is entirely appropriate.

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  25. Our Tod shrinks from a call to action, but I’ll issue one.

    Breathe. Keep your temper in check and your patience plentiful. Learn to know when persuasion is not possible, when the arguments have been exhausted, and then trust in the readers that they will see the truth thus elicited. In other words, take your shot and learn when to walk away. Keep the inner a-hole within you in check, and avoid those forae which reward douchey behavior.

    Maybe that means you wind up spending all of your internet time here at OT. That’s not a bad thing, IMO. Maybe you can write us a guest post!

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    • Agreed absolutely. I know I am definitely guilty of posting in anger / while tired (sorry ; I’m pretty sure you get the worst of that side of me, except maybe that one time I blew up at someone talking about stupid college students) and I usually regret it afterward, for a sufficiently large “after”.

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    • I find that the five- (or ten-) minute rule, when I actually observe it, prevents me from saying a lot of things I would have regretted. But unfortunately, I don’t always observe it.

      I also think it’s important to, when possible, give people the chance to retreat gracefully from a conversation. Sometimes I get so attached to a position, even when it’s a losing one that’s been demolished, that it can get hard to cut my losses. I suspect that’s true of at least some others. I’m not sure “how” to help someone retreat gracefully, but if it’s possible, I think it should be done.

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      • This is a good comment. People misread and make errors all the time. There’s a natural tendency to double down, but it should be fought. There’s also a natural tendency to keep going after someone who won that fight: “sure, you say that NOW but BEFORE you said…”. That’s the worst.

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  26. Now I wanna write a “why I hate the internet” post… [Short Answer: google “worst job in Google”. IANAL: How the hell is this job legal?]

    Seriously, Tod, what the hell do you have against people who are crusading for Free Speech? I’m not going to say that you should get yourself banned from other countries for it, but it seems a little meanspirited to call someone out on a government takedown.

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  27. I won’t pretend to think the internet isn’t a force multiplier of badness. It was just the other day, on these very pages, that I suggested the internet is an amplifier for the voices of the small percentage of the population comprised of assholes, sociopaths, and bitter, bitter people.

    That said, the old wisdom is that you don’t talk about politics or religion in polite company, because such conversations will inevitably turn ugly. Yet on the internet, we spend a lot of time talking about such things, and what’s more, with people we don’t know very well and with to we have few social, much less familial ties. I think the nastiness of the internet is, then, just as much about who we’re talking to and what we’re talking about, if not more so.

    Jon’s case is an excellent example. He wrote an overtly political post based on a personal experience, came off as snooty and superior, a classist, and repeatedly described himself as a t-crosser despite the fact that at least part of the reason he found himself in that situation in the first place is that he hadn’t bothered to cross any t’s or even look at the i’s. Now, if we were close friends or family of Jon’s, we might know that when he gets upset, his filters turn off and he becomes entitled and snobbish, and we’d have ignored it. We might also know that getting angry makes him less reflective, less capable of seeing his role in a situation, and more likely to unquestioning generalization from the situation, and to draw broad political or social lessons completely in line with his pre-existing beliefs without even a little bit of critical awareness.

    Unfortunately, we don’t know Jon that well, so it just looked like a guy who got angry at treatment he deemed beneath him, because he had failed to take actions he deemed beneath him, and from this he drew a rather silly political lesson. Oh, and the classism. If I’d run into someone at work saying exactly what Jon said, I’d either have ignored him as a fool, or called him out on it. Since this is a blog, and people were commenting, we only got to hear the people who chose not to ignore him. Such is the internet. Why would anyone expect it to be different? And if we don’t like it, why the hell are we here?

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    • That said, the old wisdom is that you don’t talk about politics or religion in polite company,

      PC, again! We just can’t get away from it!

      The fact is that lots and lots of people actually want to talk about politics and religion, so it’s not that the internet makes people “uncivil”, it’s that topics which can only be discussed in impolite company are gonna be impolite.

      Two other things, repeating comments made upthread: the first is greg’s comment that the fault lies not in our Internets but in ourselves. The second (I think it was Owen) is that in the bigger scheme of things what happens on the internet doesn’t matter all that much.

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      • I don’t know that what happens on the internet doesn’t matter all that much. We spend a shitload of time on the internet, as a society, and that’s definitely having an impact on who we are and how we relate to the world.

        I mean, individual conversations may not matter, but the whole of it certainly does.

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    • Glyph,
      yes, if you count the word radically.
      If even Anonymous isn’t democratic, how the hell do you expect the rest of the internet to be?
      Pop Quiz: What’s the worst job at google?

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  29. ” I was also asked to join another group here in Portland...” [emphasis added]

    I think this is what is missing here Tod. Not that Portland is anything special, but that all of you have a common frame to hang issues on. Now, obviously I haven’t been to one of those meetings and talked with the group but it would seem that if one can place a person in some sort of live action matrix of places (OK, he’s from the west hills, she’s from the SE, etc.) it is easier to see issues that they focus on, or the physical characteristics they have that might give them greater weight of experience to matters at hand.

    The internet makes everyone even (well, not to the grammer fascist,) which has a corresponding effect on people who would not normal feel that they are equal to the speaker. The internet removes barriers of class, race, gender and age. Everyone feels that they are “punching up” now. And while that has its pluses and minuses, overall it is probably a good thing. Does it look ugly at times? Sure. But as all my lefty friends would point out, sometimes voices that have been left out will fight to be heard.

    The problem with that though, we are really starting to see how many people feel left out. And are angry about it.

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  30. The furry phenomenon.

    How many furries actually existed prior to the internet? I imagine that there are those who were created by Deities and Demigods. (Bast, definitely. Blibdoolpoolp, maybe.) Perhaps Fritz the Cat made a couple.

    But let’s say that you have this… erm… hobby. Prior to 1992, what happened to these people?

    Well, post-internet, there are conventions. People are pleased to know that they are not alone.

    Similar to furrydom, there are a lot of things that used to not be discussable in “polite” society that are now commonplace to the point where people are comfortable talking about them out in the open.

    And the internet allows them to find each other and say “Oh, my gosh. I thought I was the only one. I am so pleased that I am not alone!”

    Sometimes it’s good. Like (example)
    Sometimes it’s neutral. Like (example in line with previous example that sets a pattern).
    And sometimes it’s bad. Like (example that subverts expectations set by the pattern).

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  31. Yes, internet discourse is awful. But not in a new way. People are generally awful to people that they don’t know, and from whom they would suffer no reputational damage. It’s always been that way: that’s the fundamental mechanism behind tribalism of all stripes: the ability to perceive the “other” as something less than fully human.

    This is really a Moneysphere problem. For those unfamiliar with the term, it comes from a pretty dang brilliant essay in Cracked Magazine (yes, I’m serious) that succinctly and memorably describes an important aspect of human nature:

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    • Hey, !

      I’m not at all surprised that such an idea emanated from Cracked. Especially seeing the author (pseudonym David Wong). If you read them regularly, you realize there is a lot of thought and work put into their pieces… you just have to dig through the dick jokes. Listen to the Podcast and you’ll get an even better idea, especially this guy in particular who is a regular contributor.

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  32. But sadly, I don’t know how to fix the internet.

    I do.

    The problem is that the solution is a whopper of a collective action problem, and people as a class are, if nothing else, lazy.

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  34. A couple points:

    1. I am an introvert, and I do not like the idea of a joining a group of people meeting at a bar to discuss things. Two or three people, maybe. But even then, not for long. Social interactions tend to suck the energy right out of me. I also don’t like confrontation, especially in person. (I am ok with arguing, just not in-person confrontation, if that makes sense. E.g. I hate haggling.) I have a feeling that in most in-person groups like the one you described, the discussion is dominated by: extroverts, people who don’t mind confrontation, people who think quickly on their feet, loud people, etc. I prefer reading alone and then thinking about it before responding.

    2. People tend to cooperate in social situations. It’s how we evolved. I think cooperation can stifle honest criticism (this is related to my first point). Maybe some arguments need to be presented in textual format and then ripped to shreds by the mob. It’s a crucible! This might get more candid discussion than an in-person meat meet at a bar or party, even if (especially if?) it’s respectful, polite, etc.

    3. I bet many an LGBT person (or other groups) feel safer/freer in chat rooms than in real life. Moderated chat rooms, of course.

    4. I am reminded of how savagely Thomas Jefferson attacked John Adams through surrogates in newspapers and pamphlets, in a way he never would have done to Adams’ face. Assholes find a way.

    Great, now you have me defending the internet. Thanks a lot! I have to go take a shower now

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