There was a fascinating, if slightly unbalanced article by Nathan Heller in New York Magazine recently, entitled I Really Like That You Like What I Like. Heller surveys the development of the internet and online conversation and asks, “when did the internet get so nice?
In many ways, I agree the tone of the internet has changed and is now more like a cozy and friendly neighbourhood than a desolate and violent frontier town.
“For those of us who learned to love the web best as a hostile, predatory, somewhat haunted place, this kindness is startling—but not as startling as it might once have been. These days, life online has become friendly, well mannered, over-sweet. Everyone is on his or her very best behaviour—and if they’re not, they tend to be quickly iced out of the conversation. The sweet camaraderie that flourished during Sandy isn’t just for terror and crisis anymore; it has become the way the Internet lives now.”
The Slow Death Of Online Anonymity
While I’m no fan of Facebook, I’m thankful to the platform for putting online anonymity to the sword. People became used to revealing their identity online because of Facebook. It’s becoming hard to imagine that just ten years ago, anonymity was the norm online.
Then again, go back another five years and it was only the early adopters and geeks who had any real presence on online at all!
I believe Heller is right that as we had shed anonymity, we have socialised the internet to be more like the rest of society, with similar (but not identical) rules of social acceptability. Although we see people mess up all the time, lose jobs, destroy political campaigns and shatter relationships because of misplaced online comments, we understand the link between the real and virtual is undeniable and needs to be treated with care.
Exaggerations & Truths
As much as the internet is now kinder and nicer, there’s no denying it still has plenty of hate left in it. Of course, you’ll find vile opinions on places where anonymity still reigns, like forums, YouTube and even blogs comments. Surprisingly, you’ll also find, perhaps not hate, but certainly anti-social behaviour on Google+, which is mostly an anonymity-free zone.
As important as anonymity might be to fuelling ant-social online behaviour, it’s not the only factor. Online haters are often like classic spy villains or schoolyard bullies. They love to monologue, to hear the sound of their own voice and they revel in turning the crowd against one person or organisation.
Vilification, speaking in a way that lowers the value of someone or something, is still a pretty strong motivation online. Even on Twitter, you see plenty of Tweets whose logical structure can be broken down into “I hate this and I want you to hate it too.”
Awesome Now Trumps Snark
A combination of better online tools and increasing user sophistication, perhaps coupled with a lower threshold for negativity means we are becoming increasingly prone to filtering out online hate. After all, the unfollow, block or report button is only ever a click away. This perhaps explained the rose-coloured tinge in Heller’s argument.
So, while snark (and vilification) is still out there, awesome is a better sales pitch these days. It might be the weariness of our cultural moment, but promoting the good, the amazing, the unique and the downright awesome gets more traction online now and is the reason for a lot of social media success stories today.
The Trend Is Bland
The more revealing part of Heller’s article is when the attention turns to what the increasing niceness of the internet is doing to the tone of online conversations. The internet might be getting nicer, but it might also be at risk of becoming ever more bland and insincere.
“…given the wild outpouring of praise online, one has to wonder how much of what you see is just a public put-on. “OMG your Cartagena vacation looks AMAZING!!!”: Is this an expression of envy, interest, or a desire to have me shut up about it? The distance between earnestness and disingenuousness is vanishingly small, and—more alarming still—seems to matter less and less.”