Why you're so mean on the internet

Science is trying to explain why people seem to be so angry all the time online.
Written by Rose Eveleth, Contributing Editor

One of the first things you learn as a writer online is to not take comments too seriously. You're guaranteed to be called all sorts of names, by people who often clearly didn't even read the thing they're commenting on (you know who you are). But why are people so nasty online? Would they be just as rude to me in person?

Scientific American says that the key is eye contact. Researchers asked students to debate an issue over Instant Messenger from different rooms. In one group, they simply saw text. In another, they used video cameras to see their partner. And in a third group they were asked to maintain eye contact with their partner. Here's what happened:

Far more than anonymity or invisibility, whether or not the subjects had to look into their partner's eyes predicted how mean they were. When their eyes were hidden, participants were twice as likely to be hostile. Even if the subjects were both unrecognizable (with only their eyes on screen) and anonymous, they rarely made threats if they maintained eye contact.

But other people have posited different theories about the meanies on the web. At io9 they suspect that trolls on the web are probably trolls in real life too, minus the hair I guess.

The fact is, you can meet internet trolls in real life, and they will be just as trollish in person as they are on the internet. It's just that, when someone starts screaming at you on the street about their crazy conspiracy theories, you can walk away. Also, most of us who are over the age of 21 don't make a point of hunting down random 14-year-olds and asking them what they think about stuff — unless we're related to them, in which case it's a self-selecting group. Most of us who live in city centers also probably don't venture out to suburban malls and ask people what they think about politics or cultural issues, or vice versa.

Many sites have disabled comments either permanently or for a short period of time. Endgaget wrote:

What is normally a charged -- but fun -- environment for our users and editors has become mean, ugly, pointless, and frankly threatening in some situations... and that's just not acceptable. Some of you out there in the world of anonymous grandstanding have gotten the impression that you run the place, but that's simply not the case.

And at On The Media, they spoke with Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, about why he disabled comments on their website.

The idea that comments are going to enhance our experience of the internet runs deep. The Guardian writes:

The assumption has long been that getting more people online is going to be a universal good – rather like getting more people into work. Once everyone is connected to the internet, we'll all be lovely, shiny and happy, helping each other with homework (except when we shouldn't, when we'll blithely laugh and say "oh no, you have to work that out yourself!"). Not angry, snarky, blinkered and impotent, like some seem to be.

And yet more and more websites are struggling with comments that devolve into sexism, racism, nonsense or political bickering that has nothing to do with the post or story they're now attached to.

So while you might comment on this post telling me how awful I am, maybe you wouldn't do it if you had to look me in the eye while you said it. Or maybe you would. Would you? Take to the comments to let me know.

Via: Scientific American

Image: David Boyle

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards