The Internet is an interesting creature. I know I’m dating myself here, but sometimes I’m thankful that I had the opportunity during my life to personally experience the birth and growth of the Internet. Then, there are times when I wonder whether the evolution of that Internet is headed in the right direction today.
Why do I feel that way? It comes down to the nature of discourses on the web. Maybe I’m just getting old, but it seems as though discussions, debates, blog and forum comments, and other human interactions online are turning far more harsh, antagonistic and downright rude than ever before.
Here at MUO, we’ve recognized this aspect of the Internet, and responded with our own set of advice and tools to help you ward off those trolls. Saikat, in his wisdom, provided a set of 5 ways you can deal with arrogant trolls. I tried to help readers understand how comments can inadvertently come across as troll-like online. Joel even saw fit to provide a three-part series – the MUO Toolkit against online trolls.
Those are great articles, and I highly recommend Joel’s series in particular. However, what does it mean that we even need tools these days to ward off nasty people with no sense of common decency toward fellow human beings? Was it always that way?
Is the Internet Too Saturated With Opinions?
Digging deeper into the rudeness, is the root cause simply the fact that too many people are offering up their opinion on the Internet about every topic under the sun?
Were the early bulletin board systems of the sort created by Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss in 1978 for Chicago computer users anything like this? Was it just a madhouse of people posting their take on politics, religion and the universe? Was Fidonet, PEN (Public Electronic Network) and UseNet like this?
Well, as anyone that experienced that era will tell you, the BBS systems were the reason the term “flame war” was created. Yes, people debated and argued, but for the most part, BBS systems were much more isolated communities of users that were interested in a particular topic that the BBS was built for. You had to specifically sign up for and dial into the BBS system to take part in the discussions there.
In the case of the University where I went to school, it was a BBS called FirstClass. There were discussion boards there that got pretty heated at times. I remember debating everything from gender issues to AIDS. But the thing there was that you knew who you were debating. You sat next to them in class, or you passed them on campus.
The likelihood of some random bloke strolling along, spotting your post, and shouting some rude quip like a heckler in a comedy club was far less likely back then. Even the “flame wars” back then had more substance and meaning to them.
From Isolated Island to a Global Community
These isolated communities of academics, students, and intellectuals eventually blended into the evolving and ever-connecting Internet. The Internet – a place where Google or Bing now answers your query and delivers you immediately to the web page that it believes to be most relevant. No dial-up required.
The interesting thing is that this evolution didn’t immediately morph the Net into a melting pot of commentary. Organization was still maintained by a whole new entity – online forums.
Forums served the purpose of containing those topical communities. The same is true today. With forums, you still need to sign up usually – so there’s some insulation from the larger Internet community. I had used the larger bulletin board systems like AOL, but was too busy with my first job that I didn’t get very involved with debates or many online discussions, but by 2005 I had some time on my hands, so I signed up at a large online forum devoted to fringe topics like Ufology and the paranormal.
Those years re-sparked my love of writing, and ignited the old fire of debate that I had enjoyed so much back in college. I remember taking part in one of the periodic “Debate Wars” that they held every few months at that forum. Among a pool of about 15 forum “fighters” (this is what the debaters were called), I fought my way through round after round of peer-judged debates to land in second place at the final debate.
What that time period meant to me – what those debates offered me – was a chance to exercise my intellect against another human with equal or greater intellect than mine. It demanded thoughtful consideration, careful research, and a mutual respect that even to this day I recall warmly.
Forums offered a camaraderie that is very difficult to explain to someone that has never experienced it. You got to know people at a level that goes beyond the superficial. You got to experience beautiful minds, without the prejudice of appearance.
I made some amazing friends at that place. I left it for good years ago, but a few of those people I still call my lifelong friends. I never even met them in person.
Facebook, Twitter and Blogs, Oh My.
Then came along Facebook. In bounded Twitter. Suddenly, in the span of just a few years, the floodgates opened. Families encouraged their elderly grandparents to get online so they can check out photos of their grandchildren on Facebook. Baby-boomers who previously had no inkling or desire to even use the Internet, were dragged into Facebook or Twitter by a younger family member.
At first, I cheered this on. To me, this represented an evolution of the Internet on a scale so much larger than the Internet boom of the 1990’s. I mean, here, we had Internet adoption rates in record numbers, within demographics hardly represented online before Facebook. Women started outnumbering men on online gaming communities. Folks over 70 years old started venturing into forums and blogs that had never really experienced the presence of older folks before.
Cultures blended, the oceans separating countries suddenly shrunk down to puddle size, and the distance to my parents suddenly equaled the distance to my good friend in England. I could see what both were up to in the blink of an eye.
And the numbers grew, but that’s when the flood started.
I don’t know if it was two years ago, or last year, or maybe it only started this year – but the feeling that I get from this influx of status updates, Twitter tweets, Tumblr posts, Google plus updates, LinkedIn requests, Diggs, and now Pins – is that I had started out drinking cool, clear water from a garden hose, and then suddenly that garden hose has metamorphosized into a fire hose.
I can’t breathe.
Is It Really All Driving Us Apart?
I’ve always prided myself in keeping up with the times when it came to Internet technology and progress, but just last week I watched as Facebook drove two friends nearly to blows – ending a long friendship over some ridiculous topic. Just this month I watched as a father and son started debating – no, fighting – about religion and homosexuality, for the entire Facebook community to see.
It’s difficult to watch what “opinion” can do to relationships – particularly when that opinion is offered in the cold, faceless world of cyberspace. A place where the ramifications of what you write to someone, or about someone, never really hit home until you see that person again, face to face, in the real world.
It’s these observations – maybe from an older and wiser vantage point – that have made me ease off on offering my opinions on my Facebook stream or my public Twitter account. I’m not so quick to take part in forum debates anymore. I cringe every time I see name-calling take place in blog comments, like those right here on MUO.
These observations – they scare me. They make me wonder if maybe, just maybe, in all of our desire to create this beautiful tool that would connect the globe and bring together the world community – we’ve actually given birth to a Frankenstein’s monster of ego, pride, hatred and animosity. Is it possible, that in our haste to connect the world, we’ve created a tool that may very well trigger the next world war?
I don’t know for certain, but I do wonder.
Of course, as is the way of the Internet, we also wonder what you think. Please share your own observations about online debates today, and whether you feel they do more to build hate than they do to build community. We’d love to read your thoughts on this in the comments section below.