A seemingly random twit from someone you don’t know, never heard of before, comes at you. Your [insert expletive of choice]. Yes, I spelled “you’re” wrong on purpose, as it usually goes hand in hand with the balance of the twit. And you scratch your head, wondering why some random person on the internet has decided to call you a mean name.
In the New York Times Style Section, Nick Bilton says it’s reached “a cultural boiling point.”
Sure, the topic of cyberbullying is not new, but it feels different this time. The debate is happening everywhere: on radio shows, movies, books, talks, TV shows, blogs, book reviews and especially on social media.
It feels different? That’s the precursor to “because this time it happened to me and hurt my feelings.” And indeed, Bilton goes there.
Women, Ms. Shine said, are often ridiculed on social media in ways that most men do not experience, sometimes being threatened with rape, having their addresses and Social Security numbers posted publicly, being sent death threats, having intimate photos uploaded and being called ghastly names.
While social security numbers posted publicly would seem to cross a line that no one can accept, as it’s the foundation of identity theft, the link fails to bear out that this is a real problem per se, even though it’s certainly a potentially serious problem, as is doxxing in general. But this slice of twisted internet behavior, revealing publicly information designed to do harm to an individual, can be identified as a particularized wrong.
Yet, it all raises two realities on the internet, that there are sick, demented people out there with keyboards and internet access, and they will do the sorts of things that sick demented people do. They will threaten rape, call others “ghastly names” (and they are, indeed, ghastly). They will do whatever they can to harm their perceived “enemies,” and it can be extremely harmful, wholly unjustifiable, and just beyond the pale of any acceptable behavior.
I never realized how many sick, demented people there are until the internet showed them to me. But is there anything to be done about them? They fall into a separate category from those who aren’t flaming nutjobs, who can’t hide behind whatever flavor of mental illness guides their actions. Until there is a sanity test for buying a keyboard, they will be among us.
But what about the rest of us? There is certainly the disinhibition of those who are anonymous, who can attack without repercussions. But there is also the ability to speak truth to power from anonymity. It cuts both ways.
There are people who seem to pile on to whatever frenzy is happening at any moment, but that’s how it appears from the outside. For the people doing the apparent piling, each one is an individual who made an individual choice to get involved or not, say something or not.
“On the Internet we forget that people are dimensional.”
True, but that goes both ways. The person on the receiving end is dimensional. So too is the person on the sending end. Just because they are reduced to an internet persona, because on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, doesn’t mean that each person doesn’t have their own thoughts and feelings. Some feelings are hurt. Some feelings are outrage. Which one is wrong.
Curiously, Bilton cites to Anil Dash, who derided the notion that such a thing as cyberbulling was any different or more real than any other bullying. Then again, Dash showed no reluctance to indulge in silencing those who hurt his feelings online. But as quoted by Bilton, Dash’s hypocrisy becomes manifest.
Whether it’s an online army of one or 1.2 million, people often believe they are doing the right thing by joining the mob.
You show your proof of membership in a community by criticizing the most erratically,” said Anil Dash, a tech entrepreneur and blogger who has been on the receiving end of racially charged Twitter mobs. “There’s a social dynamic that says ‘Let me show that I belong.’ And there is a reward structure for being even more inflammatory.”
Mr. Dash noted that online mobs can sometimes serve a public good, as in cases when the powerless are given a voice to hold the ruling class accountable.
So it’s cyberbullying when it happens to you, but it serves a public good when it happens to someone who you believe deserves it.
There is a point here, that Bilton is right that we are all cyberbullies, to the extent that word means that our online speech will hurt someone’s feelings. The viciousness of the crazies is offered as an example of why the hurt feelings caused by the non-crazies, those who don’t threaten rape or reveal social security numbers but still hurt feelings by being critical, must be stopped, but they are two very different problems.
The twitters, the reddits, the facebooks are trying to do something so that people’s feelings are not hurt as often and deeply as they seem to be now. There is nothing inherently wrong with attempting to make the tubes more friendly and less vicious, but no one has yet come up with a way to distinguish between the rightfully indignant and outraged, the “public service” Dash exalts, from the cyberbullies whose sting he’s felt.
The reason for this seems quite plain: if you’re on the giving end of critical internet engagement, you believe yourself to be entirely right and justified in attacking someone for doing something you feel certain is bad, evil and wrong. If you’re on the receiving end, it sucks, and you are hurt, offended or worse. In the worst case scenario, jobs are lost, lives altered; people are even driven to death. The problem is that when criticism is leveled, it’s never known whether it’s just the random mean twit that you shrug off or the start of an avalanche that will bury a dimensional person for one inadvertent statement.
The internets are a tough place, and raised a great many questions about who we are, how we deal with each other and what, if anything, to do about it. As for me, I just ignore random idiotic twits, chalking them up to the fact that there will always be someone “out there” who’s going to hate you or what you say. With the internet, they now get to hear you and you get to hear them. The only way to silence the hurt is to silence the internet.