online offline: some brief reflections on bad behavior

Some folks believe that the Internet is somehow different from the “real world.” Some folks believe that, because of the anonymity of the Internet, people will invariably behave worse online than off, that they will say and do things that in the “real world” they would never consider saying or doing, morals and ethics be damned.

I believe that’s a crock of shit. Sometimes (a lot of times) people behave badly. Period. Where and when that happens is most likely a factor of specific circumstances. And to the extent that I’ve seen people behave spectacularly poorly in a wide array of circumstances, both online and off, I cannot sustain the belief that people behave quantitatively or qualitatively worse on the Internet than they do in real life.

While I’m on the subject, the “anonymity” of the Internet is a great myth. We would all like to believe that we have some far reaching, transnational, ubiquitous Fourth Amendment Right to Privacy (I don’t even know where to begin with how wrong this idea is); but this is simply not true. Leaving aside the ethical question of whether or not we should have anonymity on the Internet, the reality is that it is spectacularly easy to find out who is behaving badly on the Internet, out them, and force them to face the consequences of their actions. It’s just that most of the time we don’t because, really, who has the time? Or the energy? Especially when the lion’s share of bad behavior on the Internet is little more than the digital equivalent of someone cutting you off in traffic; it’s annoying, possibly dangerous, but in the grand scheme of things, not that big of deal when compared to, oh, I don’t know, genocide.

The only difference between people behaving poorly on the Internet and people behaving poorly in the real world is that online bad behavior leaves a paper trail. As they say, nothing ever really goes away on the Internet (another myth I’ll leave un-busted for the time being), and this is obviously true when it comes to the malicious behavior of trolls and other ne’er-do-wells who spew useless, hateful, and at times threatening and harmful crap all over Internet forums, blogs, and comment feeds.

I’ll say it again: the only difference between people acting like idiots online and off is that when it’s done online, we have a digital record of it. In other words, we can study it and learn from it far more effectively than we can from people behaving like idiots in the real world.

[Trigger warning: rape, rape culture, trolling]

I am reminded of this because of an ongoing controversy regarding video game culture, a webcomic, feminism, rape, and rape culture. I am not interested in debating the specifics of this particular controversy. (Long-time readers who know a thing or two about my politics and who know a thing or two about how I feel about violence against women can probably figure out where I stand.) What I am interested in is how this particular debate has generated it’s own history and it’s own analysis. (My inner scholar is geeking out hard right now.)

Once you get yourself acquainted with the issue (I suggest reading this), check out this analysis of troll language done by a central figure in the debacle. I don’t have a lot to say about the analysis or the arguments or even about the bad (offensive, horrifying, inexcusable) behavior of the trolls. I just think that language analysis here — especially by someone on the receiving end of bad behavior — is pretty interesting. And I suspect that this type of critical analysis of an online argument is probably pretty helpful in other corners of the Internet. Lord knows that folks in this “Buddhist corner” of the web have been through plenty of our own heated debates and controversies. We’ve had our own trolls. Many of us have been on the receiving end of some pretty awful behavior, and many of us have said and done some spectacularly stupid things that are on display for all to see. (Sorry about that.)

So. We can probably all learn something form this. Both online and off.