In Mr. Pogue’s article, he draws the conclusion that the reason people are jerks to each other on the internet, when they aren’t necessarily that way in RL, is because the internet affords something that a face-to-face meeting does not: anonymity.
While I don’t have the status of Mr. Pogue, in that I’m not a well-known columnist, far too often I have witnessed appalling behavior from one person (or a group of people) in the online arena to another.
I have had numerous conversations about this phenomenon with my publishing company owner, Jaimi Sorrell. She herself has been the target of internet attacks, as have several other online acquaintances of mine. Those against me have been few enough, and far enough between, that none of them really tweak a memory profound enough to share.
In addition to running her publishing company, Jaimi also works with me and a few others on a discussion board called Tracy Island Writers Forum. It is on that venue, and on the website fanfiction.net, that I have most often seen behavior that baffles both of us.
In a very small number of cases, we have discovered that the people who post nasty reviews on fan fiction stories, or send ‘poison pen’ emails to their authors, suffer from one or more mental disorders. While this doesn’t exactly excuse the behavior in question, it at least sheds some light on the cause of it. Sadly, we have come to the conclusion that there isn’t very much you can do where that is concerned. You simply have to not let their poisonous intent affect you, like water rolling off a duck’s back.
But in the case of what you might consider to be average, everyday netizens, the question does arise as to why they think it’s okay to do something online that they wouldn’t (in all likelihood) do if they were face-to-face with the person being subjected to their rudeness. (Although for all I know, some of these people are like that in RL too, which ::shivers:: yikes.)
As Mr. Pogue points out in his post, the internet is “a place for the anonymous and insecure to take potshots.” But what I want to understand is why. And for me, the most relevant parallel I can draw to what amounts to internet bullying, is bullying in RL.
There has been an increased focused on bullying over the past several years (you can see bullying statistics for yourself right here). We have all heard the stories of teens being bullied by other teens, which sometimes results in the victim taking their own life or getting their hands on a gun and shooting up their school. We see bullying on elementary school playgrounds all the time. Children, up to a certain age, haven’t really digested the “what’s right and what’s wrong” portion of their moral values (for the most part). I’ve seen children be downright cruel to one another on the playground; in fact, my own son was once bullied because he was “different” from the rest of the children. In his case, “different” simply meant that he was able to complete activities and homework much more quickly than his peers, to the point where he would have absolutely nothing to do for a good half of the school day. He also didn’t want to participate in the cliques they formed, was more interested in reading than being macho, and in general didn’t think the same things were important that they did.
Children always pick on anyone who’s different from them. They often sling insults (many of which they have heard at home) toward others, be they racial epithets or otherwise, and there’s only one reason they do this. Acting out is a way of getting attention, and if you have a group of friends who also are desperate for attention, and desperate to fit in, you get together with them and pick on someone different from all of you. This makes you and your crew feel better about yourselves.
Why do they do this? Because they have one or more problems with self-image, self-love and quite possibly with their home lives. Whether they feel ignored at home, inadequate compared to siblings or are just completely lost trying to figure out their own identity, this behavior is exacerbated in teenagers, whose hormones make every situation life and death. As Vivienne Parry points out, “Teenagers get a rush from intensity, excitement and arousal.” The difference among teens is what the thing is that gives them that rush. All too often it’s behavior that I still haven’t figured out how they get away with.
The same behaviors, however, exist among adults on the internet, both individually and in whatever groups they choose to become part of. Yet adults, unless they suffer from a debilitation that affects this part of their brain, don’t have the benefit of being able to claim their sense of right and wrong hasn’t yet developed. And they don’t have the benefit of being able to blame raging hormones or whatever other factors spur teenagers to act the way many do. So why does one person gather their sheep around them, declare war on another group of people who’ve never said a bad word about any of them, and attack that group so viciously that sometimes it curls your hair?
I agree with Mr. Pogue that a large part of the ‘why’ is that even if people on the internet know your real name, it’s still a largely anonymous environment. Rather than looking a person in the eye and bringing out your verbal weaponry (or putting up your dukes), you are simply sitting there in your living room or office or bedroom looking at a computer screen. Nothing bad will happen to you, at least not physically, for unleashing your putrid internal sludge in blog comments, emails, story/book reviews or discussion boards. Certainly the online community in question may give you warnings or ban you from posting to that place altogether, if that is possible for them. And in retribution you may receive responses from those group members or the friends of the person you attacked, trying to defend their friends/community from your attack.
But by and large, you can do and say whatever you want to on the internet without having to suffer any consequences at all because it is anonymous. And that’s what I think is the true reason people misbehave online: there are no consequences for their actions.
When I was a child, if I misbehaved – whether it was getting into a fight on the playground at school, staying out past my curfew, going to a place I was told not to go or not doing my chores – I was punished in some way. It might’ve been that I had to go to bed an hour earlier. It might have been that I had to stand in a corner for a period of time. Not being able to watch my favorite TV show was a frequent one. It might even have been a spanking or lashing with the belt. Whatever the punishment was, it was designed to teach me right from wrong. To make me take responsibility for my actions. To show me that just because I could do something, doesn’t mean I should.
I’m not going to debate the merits of different types of punishment for children and adults; that’s not what this post is about. What it is about, is the disturbing trend in the United States of children not being held accountable for anything from their actions to themselves. With No Child Left Behind, if a kid is failing their grade it doesn’t matter…they’re pushed along to the next grade anyway. What does that teach our children? That it’s okay if they can’t, won’t or don’t achieve a certain level of education or knowledge, because they’ll get to stay with all their friends and move on to the next class. Which, I should point out, they are ill-prepared for since they didn’t adequately learn the foundational information from previous classes. I shan’t delve too deeply into this, for it is a much broader topic deserving of its own post.
In addition to a broken educational system, there is the strange practice, now, of awarding trophies (be they statuettes, ribbons or gold stars) to every single student who does something, even if the student doesn’t “win.” When I was on the track team in my younger years, I didn’t bring home a ribbon if I lost the race or didn’t throw discus the farthest. When I participated in state and national singing competitions, I didn’t win an award if other singers performed better than I did. I had to work, and work hard, to achieve recognition and success. Actors don’t get Oscars for B-level performances. Olympic hopefuls don’t get a gold medal if they place second in their sport.
Yet nowadays, in many schools, all the children on a school sports team receive all sorts of ‘gifts’ just for being on the team. Even if they never take the field, or even if the team never wins a game, they are treated as though they have poured their heart and soul into playing and as though they have won every single game…when they have done neither. How does this encourage children, then, to strive for excellence? If you know you’re going to be recognized for just being there, where’s the incentive to work harder, do better, surpass your personal best? Answer: there is none.
There are more reasons than just these why we are now being faced with teens and twenty-somethings who carry with them a sense of entitlement that they have not earned and don’t in any way deserve. This issue was recently expounded upon by BabyZone in their article here, in which they talk about how parents allowing their children to do whatever they want with no consequences ruined a play date the author had. As well, Babble.com spoke of Parenting in the Age of Entitlement in their article found here, showing this truly is a modern epidemic. What it boils down to is that children and therefore young adults don’t understand that you can’t have what a fifty-year old has (wealth, family, house, car) just because you want it. You have to earn it just like that fifty-year old earned it.
An example more germaine to my existence online: someone joins a long-standing internet community, and immediately begins telling the owners and long-term members of that community what they’re doing wrong, and that they need to change everything to be the way the newbie wants it to be. If you don’t agree with the newbie, or if you tell them no, sorry, we created this place and it’s run according to our rules, then guess what happens? That person basically throws the internet version of a tantrum, and then sends emails to everyone they know maligning the community members, as well as making blog posts stating as much. They also attack community members individually via emails and by leaving nasty reviews on their fan fiction stories…reviews that have nothing to do with the stories and everything to do with their burning hatred of the author (or the group the author is with).
Why do people do that? Because they believe that they’re always right, that everyone else is wrong, and that you should change everything you do because they told you to. They feel that they are entitled to have things their way because nobody ever taught them the concepts of negotiation or compromise. Nor has anyone taught them compassion, or to think before they speak. In a great number of cases, nobody has taught them that you don’t get to the top by magic. You get there by working for it.
Parents today are faced with an unbelievable challenge. More and more of their time is being hogged by their jobs, their financial worries and the five thousand non-home and non-work activities that for some reason they feel the need to participate in. This has the direct result of their children being sat down in front of the television or video game console, just to keep them out of their parents’ hair so the parents can try to get one-tenth of their unmanageable load of daily tasks completed. And in many cases, children aren’t even being allowed to be children. What I mean by that, is that kids not allowed to just be; to play in the yard alone or with their friends, developing a sense of self, an imagination and social skills. To help their parents around the house, thereby learning responsibility and the consequences of not meeting obligations. They’re largely ignored in favor of the parents’ agenda which, at some point along the way, their own children – the future of this country – stopped appearing on anymore. Or the kids are carted around to dozens of after-school activities because, I can only assume, we’re trying to stress out America’s children before they even become adults, and teach them that taking time to stop and smell the roses isn’t important.
While the behavior problems associated with teenagers and twenty-somethings might be able to be explained by all of the above, what’s the deal, then, with those who truly are old enough to know better? Those from my generation, many of whom had stay-at-home moms, or who were spanked when they did wrong, who were held accountable for their words, their deeds and how they carried themselves? For the misbehavior I have seen online has in no way been limited to the generation after mine, and for me that is the most perplexing part of this entire topic.
How does someone in their 30s…their 40s…their 50s…someone who is definitely old enough to know better, and who grew up in a generation that taught you to know better, attack other people online? I can come up with four individuals off the top of my head who each act as though they have lost any sense of morality and decency, that they had to have grown up with simply because of the time period in question. In one case, I believe it’s because the woman is a very bored housewife who for some reason missed out on a typical youth, and is also a control freak. This person has gathered a following of teenagers around her that praise her every word and deed. And that has given her a sense of “Look how much they love me, that means I’m better than everyone else.” So when she finds another group of people who say, “No, sorry, you’re not our queen, but thank you anyway,” she then goes on the offensive and tries everything she can to rip them to shreds.
Why? Because in her mind she, and those members of her personal “cult” who have allowed her to be their leader, are the end-all and be-all to what is correct. Their opinions are the only right opinions, even if those opinions are highly illogical to the matter at hand. The older community which has stood the test of time, withstanding many attempts to tear it down, won’t bow to her perceived superiority. It’s rather like a king who is trying to conquer another territory. When the indigenous people refuse to convert to his beliefs or give up their land and their freedom, what does the king do? He attacks them with the intent of either forcing them to join him or killing them if they continue to refuse to submit to his rule. News flash for those of you out there who missed out on this: we don’t do that kind of thing anymore. We’re a little more sophisticated now than we were in medieval times. There is no single ruler of anything (let’s face it, these days even British royalty is little more than an homage to days past – the queen doesn’t rule anything), and when you’re talking about things in the public domain, you don’t get to set the standards for everyone else.
This article could easily become five times longer than it already is, but instead of beating a dead horse I’ll circle back around to my own opinion of why people misbehave online. There are no consequences for them doing so. There are no “internet police” to react immediately to their actions, like there would be if you got into a public altercation. Yes, you can be arrested for cyberbullying, cyberstalking and cyberharassment. But since so many online personalities go by pseudonyms, unless you have a lot of money or good hacking skills, prosecuting them for these things is nearly impossible.
We all become angry if we see story about a man who abuses his wife, or a woman who abuses her children. We are upset when one woman kills another woman because she was “trying to steal her man.” We are outraged when a man concocts a scheme to murder his wife because he wants out of the marriage.
But we have a double standard when it comes to online behavior. Because each and every one of the motivations behind the acts I just described, are the same motivations that misbehaving online people have. The only difference is that on the internet you can’t punch, stab, poke, shoot or kick your opponent. The only warfare you can wage there is psychological. And that, as we know from people killing themselves due to maltreatment online, can be just as deadly as a bullet to the brain.
Regardless of the psychological reasons, the rationalizations people try to make or the arguments that misbehaving people use as excuses, the point here is, as Mr. Pogue discussed in the post that inspired this article from me, that you wouldn’t walk up to someone in RL, stand nose to nose with them and begin hurling insults and curses, questioning their ancestry or spewing hateful and spiteful and vicious words at them. Not if you had to look them in the eye (and were sober at the time), you wouldn’t. If you would, then you need to seek professional help, because that is not acceptable behavior on the internet any more than it is in RL.
Stop to consider the one thing that I know all of you who misbehave on the internet haven’t considered: Just because nobody questions or goes after you for your bad behavior online, doesn’t mean you’re getting away with it. It is NOT okay to hurt other people, whether with your words or your actions. I don’t care if it’s online, in person, over the telephone or by making a hate-filled movie to unleash your questionable sensibilities upon a larger audience. It is NOT. NOT okay. It is NOT OKAY to hurt other people.
If they disagree with you? That is their right. If you ask for their opinions and they give them to you, but you hate their opinions? Grow up and deal with it. They have a right to theirs, as you have a right to yours. Doing unto others what you would have done unto you isn’t just an old quote. It’s reality.
Nobody in your house may see what you’re doing…maybe even your online friends aren’t aware of it, or because they are also sick and twisted, they’re encouraging you. But let me point something out: YOU are aware of it. YOU know what you’re doing. And not only your victims, but YOU are being harmed by your misbehavior. There being external consequences for your actions, words and deeds is irrelevant. Because whether it’s online or in person, and no matter how old you are or aren’t, and whether you suffer from a mental illness or are just having a really bad day, misbehavior is not okay.