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Rant #375
(published March 27, 2008)
The Nastiness Online: A Rant in Conversation
by David Erik Nelson and Morgan Johnson
[SETTING: Day. Dave is trying to place a listing on Craigslist advertising this contestOMG! THE DEADLINE IS NEXT MONDAY! ENTER TODAY! — The posting is flagged and removed within minutes.]

DAVE: San Francisco Craigslist is crazy flag-happy, and I can never get an ad to stick.

MOJO: Did we get flagged for being a Giant Squid?

DAVE: No. Short Answer: We got flagged because a sufficient number of SF Craigslisters believe that a writing contest is a type of sweepstakes (not kidding). Long Answer: Owing to high popularity and low barrier to entry, Craigslist is a toxic echo chamber when it comes to work or love: Folks posting ads are so deluged with unsuitable responses that they feel no need to reply professionally, and folks responding to the ads end up entering a paranoid-hate-space in response to that eerie silence punctuated with occasional haughty terseness. Subsequently, there is a lot of lashing out which I am trying hard not to join in on ([my wife] had parent-teacher conferences tonight, so it's been a 13 hour day for everyone. All of us are tired, except for the baby and the dog, who are now trying to kill us with their energy fields).

MOJO: Ugh, sorry man. Craigslist is mostly blocked at my work, so I'm spared the hate fields. Does it ever seem that the internet gets meaner every year?

DAVE: Yeah, but I think that's an emergent quality and possibly illusory. The problem with the Internet is that it cues one part of our social neural net (let's call it the "discussing local construction while in line at the hotdog stand" lobe), but communicates none of the collateral cues that make that discussion work (i.e., I can see how many other people in line are listening, I can discern the relative noise-level of the venue, I can hear competing conversations/radio broadcasts/blaring TVs that might distract or modify my cohort's behavior, etc.) So, we have these idyl chats, but are filling in all of that other matter from our imaginations . Since everything is shiny and well-cared for online — every forum looks like a clean, well-lighted place — we tend to fill that in with an image of a lot of infrastructure and many polite, bustling people, all in the fuzzy background — think "ideal New York Public Library, 2037." In reality the Internet is traditionally mostly empty — think Second Life. Remember back in the day, when you needed to know a little something (basic HTML, how to register a domain name, where to buy hosting) to set up even a dinky a personal web page? Back then there was a silly-high ratio of infrastructure per user, like a city where every citizen runs his own shop and lives in his own little house. Basically, we had sprawl, and it was mid-Michigan-style sprawl — which is to say the Internet was more-or-less empty. Every year, more people pour into the Internet, and density goes up, with huge high-rise apartment buildings like MySpace and Facebook. People pour into the public forums. In Real Life you'd see this density rise, and feel the little corner cafe slide into being crowded with rowdy teens busting up the sofas and smoking, and you'd unconsciously adjust your social expectations. You know its loud, you know folks will be a little brash, and it ain't no big thing. But online every place still looks clean and orderly, and then you get nailed with the Hate, and it blind sides you badly.

So, I guess it is getting Meaner, in terms of volume, but I have no real reason to believe the ratio of Meanies to Norms is actually rising. But, since we haven't developed the tool-set to properly gauge the social timbre, it certainly seems like the Haters are running the show.

MOJO: What I'm wondering now is, do new heavy-users of the Internet (think of teens, but more of people our parents' age, who finally get online and start using it a lot and perusing forums and comment threads) see all the hate and the FIRST!!1 and the flamers and the trolls and do they learn how to act online by following these examples? Are new heavy-users being trained to be mean jackasses online, by the examples of the mean jackasses before them?

DAVE: I hypothesize that the jackasses are the newbies; they come on, and (regardless of age) front like they know it all and have every right to strut like Godkings — i.e., behave like adolescents everywhere. Then, after being on for a while, they grow up and chill out. That's why there seems to be an endless, tireless supply of fuckwads: As folks get some experience, calm down, and drift of into more idiosyncratic communities where they behave better (or into fouler communities where they choose to wallow in nastiness), they are replaced by numbfuck know-it-alls lousing up the entry-level public forums.

MOJO: This is pretty much what Encyclopedia Dramatica says, by the way: There was one great Newbie Day back when AOL first launched and became popular. A lot of the crusty old Well-dwellers and alt.nerds say that the Internet died on that died. And has been dying anew every day since, with the enormous flood of newbies.

DAVE: Wow, so the Internet is like that pig in Valhalla.

MOJO: Yeah, if that pig kept trolling you into infinity:

*munch* *munch*
*munch* *munch*
Clinton is a Murderer! Vote Paul!
*munch* *munch*
Godwin's law!

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