21
Aug 2010

Hostile by default?

There were a couple of web forums that I used to participate in which I gave up on last year. I enjoyed the cut-and-thrust of debate and the social aspect, but in one case the political slant of the forum shifted ground and I began to feel my views were less than welcome. The other I abandoned because it became infected by the hostility that appears to characterise so much of internet discussion.

I have since rejoined the former, but a recent visit to the latter revealed that it has descended into little more than a perpetual shouting match. And it’s far from unique. Take the discussions on any high traffic blog, or on news sites that allow comments, and you quickly discover a tirade of insults, accusations and outright nastiness. Any attempt to highlight this unnecessary unpleasantness is itself greeted with accusations of pomposity or passive aggressive behaviour. The participants on these forums have actually created a world where the expectation of civility is unacceptable and is met with incredulity and accusations of aberrant behaviour.

The hostile pose

And there’s a sense in which this saddens me. The internet is an amazing communications tool. Yes, it’s full of pornography, commercial advertising and enough hot air to rival a political convention, but the facility it offers for the exchange of ideas and the discussion of alternative viewpoints is extraordinary.

Yet we are squandering that opportunity.

Decent, intelligent people should be capable of discussing contentious issues without making snide personal remarks. On the internet, hostility has become the first resort rather than the last. And while people point to the anonymous nature of the medium as the reason for this, I’m forced to wonder why that very anonymity doesn’t counteract it. Is there really satisfaction to be gained from belittling a stranger who you will never meet? Being rude to a ghost in a machine may be easy, but what’s the payoff?

I’m no shrinking violet. I’ve fought my way through tough situations, as have most of us. I don’t get offended or hurt by this obnoxious behaviour, but I do get a little depressed. Depressed that this is how people treat one another by default. When there is no direct feedback involved, no person in front of you looking startled at the level of hostility you adopt for no obvious reason, we appear willing — indeed eager — to adopt that hostility. When it would be just as easy to assume a respectful and civil attitude as our initial starting point.

Such a shame.