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11 April 2013

Never Read the Comments

The interwebs can be a very mean place. Scroll through the comments to a random YouTube video, blog post, or Facebook status, and you'll quickly realize what I mean. Discourse on the internet is often intentionally cruel. The prevailing folk theory invoked to explain this is that the technology itself disconnects and dehumanizes; it makes all users anonymous and, thus, easier to belittle. Let me throw a competing theory out there: cruelty on the internet may actually be the secondary reaction that people have to others' meanness that forces them to disconnect and dehumanize in order to cope with the meanness that they have initially experienced. For example, Johnny naively starts surfing the web and is demeaned by others. In order to mitigate the emotional pain from these encounters, Johnny must reframe his understanding of social interaction in that space, which makes it easier for him to disconnect and dehumanize others in the same way that he experiences. It's not so much the nature of the technology that creates the ugliness as it is the ugliness than forces others to redefine their definition of the space. Those of us who can't or won't renegotiate those definitions limit our interaction in that space and bemoan the vitriol from the periphery, thus limiting our influence on the norms of the technology.

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