Our society has become dominated by new kinds of media. One one level, we have a return to the image, in replacing or subverting or altering the written word, by way of cable tv, 24/7 news, Youtube, numerous streaming services, etc. But that isn’t quite correct. Even as the image has retaken territory within the psyche and the media world, the 21st century has seen a simultaneous rise in the consumption of text. More books are being published now than ever before in history. That is on top of the endless and overwhelming stream of news articles, long-form essays, the blogosphere, social media, email, and texting. There are comment threads on Reddit that are so long that, if printed out, would fill an entire multi-volume encyclopedia.
All media has increased, as unmediated experience has gone on a rapid decline. Even when people are together physically and in person, there are quite likely to be multiple devices that are offering diversion and distraction. In the middle of a conversation or debate while sitting with friends at home or chatting with a coworker over lunch, someone is likely to settle an issue or answer a question or throw in a factoid by turning to their smartphone. All the world is at your fingertip; well, all the world that conforms to the constraints of new media. Our minds are constantly aflutter with both word and image, if not so much the direct human relating that defined humanity for so long. If media is the message, what does it mean to have all of this addictive, compulsive, and obsessive, immersive, and always accessible media?
There have been a number of scholars who have explored how changes in media are closely tied into changes in culture and mentality — there is Marshall McLuhan, Walter J. Ong, Julian Jaynes, and Jean Gebser, to name a few. All of them agreed that media has the power to destabilize and transform societies, but none of them had formed their theories in analyzing media in the 21st century. They were prescient in many ways, that is true. Still, I’m not sure any of them was able to come close in predicting the full extent and impact of what media would become in the not too distant future that we are now living in. How could they?
There is something strange about the internet, in particular. There is such an ease of access to other humans, in being able to talk with people anywhere in the world. Even for those who only speak one language like English, much of the world’s population can communicate with them. But this means most interactions online have an arbitrary or random quality about them, in that the price of admission is low. It can feel like there is little at stake. The connections made are usually fleeting with the people interacting likely never meeting again. The quality of sitting alone and silently with text on a screen has similarities to talking to oneself or being lost in one’s own thoughts — it creates shallow intimacy, a sense of sharing that is only words deep. Besides, such sharing is rarely reciprocated, as there is this constant reticence and pulling away from these shadowy others lurking at the periphery of one’s mind (personal space is amorphous, shifting, and porous when online; this can be unsettling).
The human desire to connect draws one in, but typically leaves one dissatisfied or worse. It creates social conditions that are extremely unnatural, distorting, and anxiety-inducing. So much of the normal context of interactions are removed, not only the sensory experience of lived perception and behavioral observations of being in the embodied presence of others but also the shared environmental and cultural context that offers cues, norms, roles, expectations, and such. Even videos, be it Youtube or Zoom, create an odd situation in the hyper-focus on the face; and seeing one’s own image while talking lends an agitating self-consciousness, as if one is performing on a stage.
Text without video isn’t better as it can lead to an insular unawareness of others, as if one is talking to oneself while the people on the other side of the screen aren’t quite present or, at best, that they are a mere audience to one’s monologue (this is magnified by the tendency of text to induce abstract thought, whether in how people get caught up in ideologies or in how they reify their ideas, in either case making it harder to differentiate between thought and reality). Along with anonymity, this is a probable contributing factor to disinhibition in people acting in ways and saying things they otherwise would not. If one expresses online that one’s feelings were hurt as one might do in normal life with a friend who said something unkind or careless, one is unlikely to receive sympathy or even acknowledgement, much less an apology and contrition — to expect any human warmth from other humans online is treated as naive, pathetic, and laughable. That is how low our standards have become.
The human quality that exists in almost any other situation is missing when people pull on the masks of their online identities. That latter issue is most apparent in a blog such as this. The blogger is an unknown entity, as is each new commenter. There is often a heavy guardedness to such interactions where everyone is ready to retreat, attack, or evade — sometimes a near total lack of the basic goodwill and casual trustfulness that is more common in person, the lack occasionally verging on paranoia about the intentions of the other. The internet can be a harsh and unforgiving social environment, a playground where our worst impulses are unleashed.
More often than one would prefer, people online say what they otherwise would not and in ways they would not if they were talking to a living, breathing, feeling person right in front of them. Such ways of treating others can come across as quite unfriendly, often passively indifferent and apathetically unsympathetic, but sometimes downright cruel or trollish, aggressive and confrontational. Yet at other times, one leaves a comment and gets no response at all, even when attempting to be friendly in inviting connection. And because of the practice of drive-by commenting, even responding to a comment won’t necessarily elicit dialogue. This kind of behavior of one-way talking would never happen in most other situations in life (Would you drive around your town yelling at strangers? Would you knock at people’s doors, blurt out your political opinions or pet theory, and then run away? Would you harangue and criticize random people at a store and then act shocked or outraged by their negative response? Would you stand on a street corner giving a monologue to a passing crowd about your relationship problems or the movie you just saw?). One-way behavior in general is indicative of power inequality where one has no social obligation or moral responsibility to the other who is perceived as inferior in value or of lesser position. This othering effect can be quite profound and disconcerting.
It’s not only strangers that are pulled into this great weirding of new media (the “great weirding” is related to what some refer to as the “global weirding”). Similar interactions or rather non-interactions happen with people one personally knows, including family. You text, email, or Facebook chat someone as a friendly gesture of conversation. Under normal conditions in talking face-to-face, this person you know would immediately acknowledge you said something and respond. But the social norms of relating well don’t translate outside of the directly interpersonal sphere. One loses count of how often no response is ever given, even when it shows the person viewed what you sent them. Could you imagine meeting your brother or a neighbor you’ve known for years, casually saying something to them as an easygoing conversation-starter, have them stand their silently as if you said nothing at all, and then watching them walk away as if you weren’t there? Yet that is the equivalent of what happens with new media on a regular basis. Most people don’t seem to recognize how utterly bizarre this is.
This lack of basic recognition of another’s humanity, of course, is far worse with those met online without any prior personal contact. Most of the internet is not people fighting but ignoring each other, as if people of different identities, views, and ways of speaking don’t matter or don’t exist. A large part of online commentary occurs with little or any response — it’s echos in the void, a vast seething swarm of humanity mostly talking to themselves or else to those who already agree with them, which is the same difference. That is how it can feel at times. Maybe this is why so many seek out conflict, simply to be acknowledged at all. This is how people can become trollish without consciously intending to do so. Trolling is often more of a mentality one falls into than an identity one embraces. Any attention can be good attention, to all those isolated individuals hidden behind their keyboards amidst the lonely masses in their not-always-quiet desperation.
We humans are social creatures — we need the social as we need air and water; we long for human contact and relationship. Here is the rub: Social conditions determine our social behavior. But millions of years of hominid evolution happened in a far different kind of environment than we’ve created in recent generations. Social behavior requires social input. Mindreading others (i.e., social cognition) requires the development of a mental map of others. This is called theory of mind, but there is an interesting and informed speculation. It appears that, as children, we develop a theory of mind of others before we develop a theory of mind for ourselves. That is to say our self-concept is a model that mirrors and internalizes our developing perception and understanding that comes through relationship. The other becomes the self. And so the others we are surrounded by are powerfully influential — as your mother told you, pick carefully who you associate with, including the strangers you interact with. “Let me explain,” writes Augustin Fuentes (Are We Really as Awful as We Act Online?).
“We’ve all heard the diet-conscious axiom “You are what you eat.” But when it comes to our behavior, a more apt variation is “You are whom you meet.” How we perceive, experience, and act in the world is intensely shaped by who and what surround us on a daily basis—our families, communities, institutions, beliefs, and role models. These sources of influence find their way even into our neurobiology. Our brains and bodies constantly undergo subtle changes so that how we perceive the world plays off of, and maps to, the patterns of those people and places we see as most connected to us. This process has deep evolutionary roots and gives humans what we call a shared reality. The connection between minds and experiences enables us to share space and work together effectively, more so than most other beings. It’s in part how we’ve become such a successful species.
“But the “who” that constitutes “whom we meet” in this system has been changing. Today the who can include more virtual, social media friends than physical ones; more information absorbed via Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram than in physical social experiences; and more pronouncements from ad-sponsored 24-hour news outlets than from conversations with other human beings. We live in complicated societies structured around political and economic processes that generate massive inequality and disconnection between us. This division alone leads to a plethora of prejudices and blind spots that segregate people. The ways we socially interact, especially via social media, are multiplying exactly at a time when we are increasingly divided. What may be the consequences?“
This is where new media short-circuits our normal cognitive and affective functioning. If we can’t fully experience the other with all of our senses, our ability to read them is crippled. Pushed to the extreme, our ability to read ourselves can also go offline as we go online. The signalling we depend on disappears and so might much of our self-awareness. The person on Twitter or wherever might not be an intentional asshole or troll. Rather, in a sense, they might be lashing out in social blindness. And the same goes for us. That is the thing about the internet. It creates the social conditions of social unawareness for people who likely have little ability to handle this well. Someone who spent their whole life blind can walk down a city street and not get run over. But put blindfolds on crowds of sighted people and they’ll be running into each other and they won’t be happy about it. Then imagine what happens when you also put blindfolds onto those driving the cars. Well, that is what the internet is like.
By the way, some studies indicate that internet trolls may not be as socially blind as some but they are psychologically deaf, in not emotionally hearing their targets and victims except in the most exaggerated forms of emotional response. Interestingly, though lacking affective empathy, trolls actually measured high on cognitive empathy, which is to say they understand human behavior well enough for purposes of manipulation while being emotionally numb to the consequences — to put it simply, they know where to jab the knife for greatest hurt (Evita March, Psychology of internet trolls). On the other hand, “trolls displayed low levels of emotional and social intelligence” (Neil Graney, Is internet trolling simply replacing the violence we used to see on the football terraces?). Trolls are both stupid and smart in relating to others — call them stupid-smart. The other person remains psychologically unreal to them and so they just don’t get what all the fuss is about (it’s all about the lulz). Keep in mind, though, that anyone can be prone to trolling, particularly when a precedent of trolling has been set in a particular situation (Justin Cheng et al, Anyone Can Become a Troll) — this is maybe why trolls seem to proliferate and take over comment threads. It’s a virulent mind virus.
Outright trolling behavior (Dark Tetrad: psychopathic, sadistic, narcissism, Machiavellian) aside, what we perceive as anti-social behavior may often be better understood as non-social behavior, that is to say normal responses to abnormal conditions. It’s a reality-warping effect. We become disconnected to a radically extreme degree because most of the key markers of reality perception are missing; and so we relate without fully relating, something we’ve all experienced in the regular irritations, conflicts, and miscommunications of the internet. What one sees on a screen might not feel psychologically and viscerally real, even as intellectually we know there are real people involved living real lives in the real world. This effect can be subtle in unconsciously creeping up on us after spending long periods on the computer or scrolling our smartphone, as is common these days between work and home. It can take immense effort of reality monitoring (combining self-awareness and social awareness) to counter this sense of derealization. About why this psychological slippage happens, Alan Martin wrote (Online disinhibition and the psychology of trolling):
“Psychologist John Suller wrote a paper on this in 2004, entitled “The Online Disinhibition Effect”, where he explored six factors that could combine to change people’s behaviour online. These are dissociative anonymity (“my actions can’t be attributed to my person”); invisibility (“nobody can tell what I look like, or judge my tone”); asynchronicity (“my actions do not occur in real-time”); solipsistic Introjection (“I can’t see these people, I have to guess at who they are and their intent”); dissociative imagination (“this is not the real world, these are not real people”); and minimising authority (“there are no authority figures here, I can act freely”). The combination of any number of these leads to people behaving in ways they wouldn’t when away from the screen, often positively — being more open, or honest — but sometimes negatively, abusing their fellow internet users in ways they wouldn’t dream of offline.
“Internet psychologist Graham Jones believes that to a certain extent the kind of aggressive behaviour often seen online happens in the real world. “Having said that, there is a feature of the online world that makes such negative behaviour more likely than in the real world,” he says. “In the real world people subconsciously monitor the behaviour of others around them and adapt their own behaviour accordingly… Online we do not have such feedback mechanisms. These feedback mechanisms can be body language, facial expressions or more obvious cues, but a recent study at the Univeristy of Haifa revealed that those who had to maintain eye contact were half as likely to be hostile as those who had the eyes hidden. The lead author of the study, Noam Lapidot-Lefler, believes this is because eye contact “helps you understand the other person’s feelings, the signals that the person is trying to send you.”
Some people are more skillful in handling this psychological crippling of online environments. They might have learned greater social intuition about personality and behavior from some kind of atypical life experience or professional training. Or because of some lucky combo of nature and nurture, they might’ve always been extraordinarily calm, accepting, gracious, and forgiving toward others. But for most of us, we continually bump into one another and then immediately blame the other, likely even giving them a good whack to teach them a lesson and complain mightily when they whack us back, that is if we manage to even slightly recognize and appreciate their humanity and existence. One might like to think that one is above average in interpersonal skills and moral character, unlike all those other social morons and lowly reprobates, but the fact of the matter is most people are not above average. And in the social blindness of the online world, the standard social ability of the average is already quite low.
It’s actually worse than described since, as the deficient social signaling can make us socially blind, we can be socially blind to the fact that we’re socially blind, not recognizing ourselves in the mirror of our own projections — a self-enclosed obliviousness and self-reinforcing obtuseness. Imagine all those normally sighted people with blindfolds on and not realizing they are blinded, going about their lives as if they could see. That causes much psychological confusion and interpersonal havoc, further exacerbating the sense of the great weirding and at times magnified to the level of the political and even geopolitical (President Donald Trump being the great example). Welcome to the new media world! Think of it as an opportunity for a steep learning curve. Keep all of this in mind. If you can recognize you’re in a situation of social blindness and surrounded by the socially blind, you are already ahead in the game. Maybe don’t react so quickly, withhold that initial impulse to judge, pause and take a breath. Maybe give the other person the benefit of the doubt and assume the best, as you’d like them to do for you. People sometimes just have bad days, even when the antagonism of new media weirding isn’t involved. Simply put, be kind and forgiving.
We are going to need all the compassion we can muster, as we move forward in this new media society of heavily mediated reality. The changes in media are going to happen faster and faster with impacts and consequences we won’t be able to imagine or predict. It’s guaranteed we won’t handle it well. The stress of society will fracture society even further. It’s possible that our society will survive the threats of collapse and eventually gain a new stability within this media paradigm, although social norms and functional ways of relating well will be slow to develop and take hold. It is highly doubtful that we will see the end of this transition in our lifetime, much less benefit from what might eventually be a positive change. We are in the middle of the storm — tighten the straps and hunker down.
Let’s end on a personal note. In this crazy online world, for those we’ve attacked, irritated, or unfairly judged, for those times we failed to treat others as we’d want to be treated, we apologize for our shortcomings as normal humans stuck in abnormal times. But we know we’re likely to continue to get stressed, anxious, and emotionally pulled into conflict; and so we also apologize in advance for our future wrongdoings and lack of needed understanding. We’ll try to do better, if that helps. In such difficult times, though, one’s best might not be good enough. So, we should be forgiving toward ourselves as well.
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Here are a few things I came across while writing this post:
Internet Trolls Really Are Horrible People
by Chris Mooney
Psychopaths, Sadists, and the Lure of Internet Aggression
by Traci Stein
Autonomic stress reactivity and craving in individuals with problematic Internet use
by Tania Moretta & Giulia Buodo
Internet “addiction” may fuel teen aggression
by Amy Norton
Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?
by Natalie Wolchover
We’re the reason we can’t have nice things on the internet
by Whitney Phillips
The Internet Is a Toxic Hellscape—but We Can Fix It
by Whitney Phillips
by Venkatesh Rao
The Internet of Beefs
by Venkatesh Rao
Crowds and Technology
by Renee DiResta
Status as a Service (StaaS)
by Eugene Wei