Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Duff: Why do Internet dialogues inevitably deteriorate into name-calling diatribes?

Duff: Why do Internet dialogues inevitably deteriorate into name-calling diatribes?

I’ve always been skeptical of columnists who preach about the educational value of the Internet. Sure, the Internet started out as a forum for academics and scientists, but in the past 10 years the Net has evolved into a hodgepodge of amateur and commercial sites, presented more for entertainment and commerce than anything else.

You can still find heavy intellectual debate on the Net, but most of these discussions are limited by the nature of the Internet itself. No matter what their background, something strange happens to people who try to debate things on the Net. Maybe it’s the anonymity of it, maybe it’s the emotional distance provided by words on a monitor screen. Or maybe people just don’t know how to choose their words.

I don’t know what causes it, but I’ve seen this phenomenon over and over again. You may be a kind-hearted youth minister with a Ph.D. in physics, but after two hours on an Internet forum, odds are you’ll be cursing at people and typing snide insults. You may be arguing the driest topic in theoretical physics, but after two hours in the wrong forum you’ll be pounding out streams of exclamation points and screaming at your monitor in incoherent rage.

I’ve seen it a hundred times – smart, mature, soft-spoken people, turned into screaming maniacs by demons from the Internet.

I remember the rudest e-mail I ever got. This gentleman was having trouble registering for our Web site. After slogging through a variety of creative and outrageous insults, I realized this e-mail was from my best friend’s father, who didn’t realize who I worked for.

I spent my childhood going in and out of this man’s house – going to school with his son and playing catch with his dogs – and now he was questioning my intelligence, my parentage and my right to exist, simply because I worked for a company that didn’t meet his expectations.

That’s what the Internet does to people. It adds a layer of abstraction that makes it hard to see other participants as human beings. I’m confident that most folks who argue about things on the Internet would be perfectly civil to each other in real life. (Those who didn’t freeze up completely at the sight of real people.)

I blame it on poor writing skills, combined with a general deterioration in manners. Sometimes I wonder if the ease and informality of Internet communication isn’t doing more harm than good. On one hand, Internet discourse can inspire a level of honesty that would take months to achieve in real life. And on the other, you can end up being rude to people you barely know.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 5, 2007 at 14:25

Posted in Columns

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