The denizens of the internet don’t agree on much, except maybe this: The world wide web is a blasted hellscape with few redeeming qualities to recommend it. Online every controversy seems life-and-death and most disagreements quickly devolve into slugfests where every interlocutor is convinced he’s the only sane (or sincere) party involved. Spend too much time wired in and you might start to think the whole world works that way. Which is why it was a breath of fresh air to read Yevgeny Simkin’s recent piece arguing that “you’re not the asshole Twitter makes you out to be”:
Consider your day to day life on Twitter. You’re probably anonymous. The person you’re interacting with is probably anonymous, too. You have only a few words to express yourself. You’re in a constant state of high-alert, knowing that bad actors are everywhere. Put it all together and what you have is effectively a platform for serialized civilizational road-rage…
Twitter is the functional equivalent of shoving tens of millions of people into a closet, wrapping them in barbed wire, and pumping them full of PCP. It’s a miracle that anyone makes it out alive. The very fact that we volunteer to go in there is a testament to how badly we want to connect, and be heard, and maybe even understood because we feel like we’re standing here, all alone, shouting from the wilderness.
So don’t fall for the narrative that humans are all a bunch of ill-tempered, arrogant, imbeciles filled with rage. Definitely don’t fall for that narrative if the evidence for it is Twitter. We’re not… The real you isn’t an asshole.
The whole thing is good, and well worth your time. There’s just one problem.
Why should we assume that the “real you” is the face you display while you’re out and about, and it’s the internet version of yourself that’s the evil twin?
It’s true that on balance, we’re all much kinder and more gracious to one another in the real world of face-to-face meatspace. In person, with access to the whole human arsenal of nonverbal interpersonal communication, buttressed by millennia of accumulated social conventions, it’s much easier to keep things pleasant. This reassures us: We’re only jerks to one another online due to the unnaturalness of the medium—the way it strips away these layers of social lubricant and throws us together to try to make ourselves understood with plain, abrasive text. Take away that unnatural element, and hey presto: We’re sincere, generous people again.
But it’s also true that many Americans are doing less and less of their communicating and thinking and living in the “real world,” and more and more of it through the mediating lens of the internet, where the rapid advance of technology has far outstripped the development of any sort of corresponding social mores. It’s telling that one of the only socially enforced norms of internet culture that has truly taken hold as a real more is a fatwa on doxing. And this norm is an implicit acknowledgment that the internet is so awful that people ought to be allowed to shield themselves from it with the protective cloak of anonymity. It is an attempt to establish some sort of quarantine over the internet’s pathologies, to keep the rot from spilling over unduly into the analog world.
And yet the rot gets out anyway. We see this in a thousand ways. It’s most obvious at the fringes, in places where those whose connection to the real world is tenuous congregate: subcultures of flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, QAnon enthusiasts, incels. Sometimes it’s much worse than that, even. Sometimes it manifests in real-life as Dylan Roof or Elliot Rodger.
These are problems at the extremes, but the rot seeps into mainstream life as well, particularly in the realm of politics. A big part of the problem here is that most members of the national media, conservatives and liberals and mainstreamers alike—to say nothing of politicians—are as hopelessly hooked on digital life as the most isolated flat-earther. Every national conversation is litigated to death on social media almost before it enters meatspace.
Force of habit, if nothing else, keeps us thinking of the the analog world as “real life” and the digital world as a construct we layer atop it. But for a worrisome number of Americans the place where we live and move and have our being is fixed increasingly in the latter.