|Anonymity Breeds Contempt: Dissecting Internet Chat Rooms|
Soon after I learned to drive, I stumbled upon a fascinating though unwritten rule of the road: while drivers are people just like everyone else, CARS are assholes. While on the road, we watch the cars around us do horrible things, and their actions enrage us. But if you ever drive up next to the car that just infuriated you and look into the window, the odds are frankly excellent that what you’ll see…is a person just like you. This piece of information is most valuable to me when I’m trying to enter into a line of traffic, such as at the exit to a crowded parking lot. As long as I sit there with my blinker on and do nothing, no one will EVER let me through; I’m just another asshole car trying to cut into line. However, the MINUTE that I make eye contact with the DRIVER of a car, they will ALWAYS let me in; I’m now a fellow motorist trying to get home.
In other words, while familiarity might breed contempt, it’s anonymity that really brings out the worst in people.
Never has this truth been made more apparent to me than with the prevalence of the modern Web 2.0 landscape, where visitors are urged to react and comment to everything they see online. We have all fallen in love with creating and consuming user-generated content, and in nine cases out of ten, we do so through the comforting and empowering mask of anonymity (it would be hypocritical of me not to mention at this point that my name, shockingly, is NOT Rob Van Winkle). This is a good thing in that it provides naturally shy people the chance to be heard, without fear of calling undue attention to themselves. However, by making statements about people you don’t know, while simultaneously hiding behind a pseudonym, it creates a dehumanizing effect similar to sitting behind the wheel of your car. Normally civil people who would NEVER speak a bad word to another human being, when put behind a keyboard and masked by an alias, feel completely free to unleash their inner assholes.
I first felt the sting of anonymous hate through the magic of Craig’s List. Before launching CC2K, several of us contributed to a humor blog, and we were (then as now) always in search of new readers. A friend of mine introduced me to the Rants and Raves section of CL, and revealed that he had used this forum to direct hundreds of people to various posts on his website from time to time. If you’ve never been there, Rants and Raves is a mini-phenomenon. Thousands of people linger there all day long, writing and publishing their random thoughts while others respond. This entire process is COMPLETELY anonymous, in that not even a screen name is required. One day, I gave it a go, writing a quick entry directing people to a particular blog post, and found that our traffic went up exponentially that day. A new marketing tool was born…and then I made a DISASTROUS mistake.
On this particular day, I wrote something I thought was particularly funny, and for whatever reason I posted it directly to Rants and Raves DC. As people started to respond, it occurred to me that it might be a good way to draw people to the blog, so I published it on our site, then sent messages to the RnR sections from other cities, asking the same question posed in the piece, but referring readers to the blog rather than printing the rest of the text in the body. Later that day, I was still scrolling through the responses to my initial post on the DC page when a message came in, the author of which took great pains to make clear that he was writing from CHICAGO. This crack investigator had found both the original post in DC with the full content, AND the Chicago post where I asked people to go to my blog to read it. (Un)fortunately, I do not have the text of this response (all messages erase after thirty days; the impermanence offering yet another buffer from responsibility from your words), but what I remember clear as day was that, after lambasting my actions (the crime in which I have never fully understood), he then took the time to rip apart my CHARACTER. He called me “pathetic,” and “a hopeless loser,” and several other things my psyche has forced me to forget. From the comfort of his office chair a full time zone away, he managed to horrify and embarrass a complete stranger, without ever being in danger himself of having to read a response.
(Admission number two: I too have taken advantage of Craig’s List anonymity to spew venom. After a particularly horrendous flight back home from vacation where two children loudly screamed and fought while their parent did nothing to police them, I wrote an “open letter” to that parent on Rants and Raves, including the phrase “You are the worst mother alive, and I am including that chick who drowned her kids in the bathtub.” Now, I was clearly joking, though the rest of the letter might have effectively muddied this fact. So yes, I was an awful person for writing it, but it’s up to you to determine if my actions warranted the following reaction which I received: “You are a piece of shit. I hope you get cancer and die.”)
This brand of vicious, snap-judgment criticism should be enough to keep all but the strongest of people from ever submitting their writing to the web, but surprisingly it has not; never have blogging and user-generated websites been more popular. It’s not that the comments have abated or become kinder over the years, so something must have shifted in the public persona to allow for a stronger resolve. Personally, I think the answer comes down to a few points that are universally understood, even if they’re never discussed:
I can’t prove the first two things on this list (and even if I could, the results wouldn’t be that funny), but I have several examples, all generated from content found on CC2K. Let me share them now, completely unedited in any way.
Animal Collective Review – Last week, Jimmy Hitt released his advanced review of the new Animal Collective CD, Strawberry Jam. The review was fair, and positive overall, but it did speak evenly and in a relatively detached way about what the band did right and wrong on the disc. As a means of attracting readers and sparking debate (see, we even SEEK OUT this stuff!), Jimmy submitted the article to an Animal Collective fan site. His original posts, and the subsequent responses, can be found here:
There are several things that jump out at me in this string of comments. First of all, look at the VERY first comment after the article is seeded:
This guy is kinda a douche. And has obviously never heard anything other than 'Feels' and 'Sung Tongs'.
This reader disagreed with Jimmy’s audacious criticism, and has gone right past disagreeing with the PIECE, or even with disagreeing with the author, and leapt all the way over to shitting on Jimmy’s CHARACTER.
Later on, someone has expressed a complaint with an actual point that Jimmy has made, arguing that he was incorrect when he (Jimmy) asserted that a particular song was mellow. This relatively well-written complaint reads:
the only way I think you could see that song as mellow was if you just skipped around, or only listened to the first two minutes or something
Fair enough. But look at what someone else wrote RIGHT AFTER it:
or were an un-AC-educated music critic who listened to a couple of 30 second snippets of sung tongs and feels just so you could make reference to them in your poorly written and ball-sucking review.
Here, this person has equated “doesn’t agree with me” with “poorly written,” and thrown in the adjective “ball-sucking” to seemingly suggest that, since Jimmy’s opinion of AC does not jive with his, then Jimmy must, in fact, be gay.
But this is where it gets interesting. After THIS comment, someone else decided to end the debate once and for all, thusly:
you guys are arguing about the judgement of a guy who thinks timecop is overrated. and his favorite movies list puts gladiator right next to master and commander. it's like you can see his thought process while he's making his list of his favorite movies, and thats the point where he remembered that he absolutely loves russell crowe.
This reader, unsatisfied with merely bashing Jimmy’s review, actually went so far as to click on Jimmy’s profile on the site, and study it for chinks in his armor to use against him. Personally, I wouldn’t call either Gladiator or Master and Commander one of my favorite movies…but I don’t honestly see how Jimmy’s thinking so negates or invalidates his thoughts on music.
Evan Almighty on Fark – A few months ago, we were fortunate enough to get an advanced review of Steve Carell’s Evan Almighty up onto Fark.com’s main page. This single link led to over 4,000 hits, and over forty comments.
In the piece, Kristen Lopez set up her excitement at being invited into a preview without being told what it was…and expressed her disappointment when she learned it was EA. She found the movie to be utterly terrible, and since both this movie and its predecessor were bible/God-based, she wrote up her complaints in the form of Commandments. It was a cute article.
Among the comments:
The best part of the article is how the guy tries to act like he enjoyed the first film, and yet seemed to have some predisposed notion that EA was going to such before going in. "See see! I'm impartial! I liked the first movie! So my opinion on this one means that much more!"
Almost a cogent point after getting the gender of the author wrong…but then he strikes a low blow by mocking our (now defunct) site design. Once again, by casually shitting on the source, it can only strengthen your own point.
A bit later, we get this:
As for the sequel, I'll reserve judgement until I either see it or read a review by someone other than a random blog who writes an article about Noah's ark modeled after the ten commandments.
Despite the fact that the article justifies the Commandments angle on the fact that the film is Biblically-based, this writer ignores that fact, assumes that the author mistook Noah for Moses (an error that another commenter did in this forum, I concede), and uses that erroneous conclusion to dismiss her opinions on film in general.
Harry Potter and the Crucible of Faith on Flixster – Written as a part of Harry Potter Week, this article by Big Ross has somehow become both our most popular and our most controversial piece ever on CC2K. The piece merely restates an obvious and well-known fact – that being that right-wing fundamentalist Christians hate Harry Potter – and attempts to explain (with no bias) why this is so.
In one forum (link unavailable), a reader attempts to disagree with what he must see as Ross’ dismissal of Christianity, by making a point decrying the secularization of his holiday. Here’s what he wrote:
Its kind of gay how people celebrate christmas as some kind of reason
There are several things worth noting here. First, describing the phenomenon he’s putting down as “gay” seems somewhat inappropriate, since he’s arguing for piety. Second, it’s one thing to say the word, but to actually WRITE “like” in a purely slang context can only weaken your argument, whatever it might be. Third…no, I guess there were only two things wrong with that sentence.
Except, perhaps, for the fact that CHRISTMAS IS NOT THE DAY THAT CHRIST DIED!! Talk about destroying your credibility! And just in case that wasn’t enough, as a little button on the end of this performance, the writer ends his comment with “jeez,” a bastardization of the name of his Lord, who died on his own birthday.
What this all goes to show is that the internet, despite theoretically bringing us all closer than we’ve ever been before as a planet of disparate personalities, has actually provided more detachment from humanity than ever before. Writers write under pseudonyms, commenters post reactions under pseudonyms, and readers who never reveal themselves can log on and mock both. It’s a very sad state of affairs…and also more than a little funny.