Whether you like it or not, The Internet is an amazing thing. Much like the planet we inhabit, there are parts that are not friendly, but, as a whole—as whole as a virtual construct can be—there is some real value to The Internet and the communities that are built within it. You can come to The Internet with any obscure notion, desire, interest, or passing curiosity, and find a wealth of people espousing information about it. The rate at which people turn out amazing art, odd-job excursions, and utterly mundane dips into their personal lives, is beyond any one person’s imagination.
The Internet also includes the things you don’t like or agree with. It also contains things that are objectively terrible. It can be a harrowing experience when you come face to face with the dark horrors of The Internet, but, if you can manage a stance of ever-skepticism, you may come out a more enlightened person.
The Echo Chamber
The Internet is a lot of things, the worst of which is the echo chamber. Humanity has a deep proclivity for tribalism; it is the basic structure we have followed ever since our distant ancestors broke off into packs and spread across the planet. Tribalism is the only reason humanity exists today and it is buried deep within our psyche. You can’t really blame someone for taking part in the system—for awhile, at least.
The problem is that it feels so good to be in a tight knit group of people that share the same views as yourself. Religion has thrived on the euphoric aura generated from such gatherings. It feels great to know, and be known, as a person singularly defined by a phrase, a word, a cause, and be united in it. It’s simple, elegant, and intoxicating. The safety you find, when you look at your neighbors and “know” they mean you no harm, that they are there to help and secure you—even if it’s a false security—is a hard thing to break away from. Our natural instinct is to wallow in it, submerge ourselves and never look back; it creates a positive feed back loop that numbs us from the true damage being caused.
We turn insular without realizing it. It’s too easy, when buried beneath six feet of identical opinions, to forget about everyone else. Why should you ever look away? These groups, be they gamergaters, religious fundamentalists, or any other type of over zealous community, are united by a single trait: they found a group to echo their own feelings perfectly. It feels like puzzle pieces snapping into place as you dump out the box.
The nature of The Internet gives us the option of looking elsewhere for that perfect glove within seconds. One group may like calico kittens more then smokey grey ones; refine that search, look again, find that perfect group. It is out there. These groups practically self-cultivate because it’s so easy to find the one that fits. Even if there is some small voice that proposes a different idea they can be muted, ignored, or blocked. The efficiency with which we can silence all objections is profoundly affecting.
When these groups form and face the differing opinions of others, things get ugly. It doesn’t matter what the original “cause” was. Any altruistic intentions are slowly perverted into something else. From the inside, as countless voices roar out in consent, it all feels very logical. From the outside, where you can still see dissenting opinions, it only looks like madness: a wild furor steeped in selfishness. Those calico lovers, as they are joined by only other calico lovers, will start declaring smokey grey kittens abhorrent. As the group grows, and more voices join the fray, so too does their derision for things that are different. All these people here agree: we all know calico cats are the best; those other cats just make us uncomfortable. They shine cute, fuzzy lights on that dark corner of The Internet, it makes them look inward for a moment, makes them think they could be wrong: it hurts. What if all the kittens are adorable? That can’t be right, look at all these people who agree… A cycle of acknowledgement and denial that builds leathery scar tissue against the outside world.
Before The Internet, it was much harder—impossible in some cases—for these groups to form. You would have to gather in person, see other people, see the looks on their faces as you talk. That’s what is missing: the human element. It’s a powerful force that we check at the door when we go online. So, when someone comes in and says, “Smokey grey kittens are clearly better,” people will get angry at their words. But, on The Internet, those words are that person’s anatomy, their face, their entire purpose, because it’s all we see. Those words become persecution against the group. After the cycle has gone on too long, even the human element is ignored. It bleeds over into the real world. A person can be consumed by the singular cause that the group has built and everything different becomes an attack against it.
We Love to Act Persecuted
Persecution, when fabricated, makes us feel important, makes us feel like a martyr. There is real persecution in the world. Someone liking smokey grey kittens and telling you about it is not persecution. Threatening physical harm, or actually attacking someone, because their opinion is different from yours is persecution.
It can be easy to mistake a difference of opinion on The Internet as an attack. I know this because, if the opposite were true, nobody would ever do it. It’s much harder to step outside your own argument and analyze what a person is actually trying to say. Instead, people will look for more to build up their own argument, hoping that a taller tower to shout from somehow makes them more right. One quick search can lead you to other dark places where the cycle of echoes and faux persecution has already played out. Their insane breaking points exist long after the groups have crumbled and stand as monuments to point at while yelling, “See! Look at that! Look at what they said!” It all feeds back into newly formed groups and becomes fresh launch pads for reaching increasingly outlandish heights.
The trick is recognizing it in ourselves when we are imagining it. Let’s face it, a lot of us are not very well spoken. Even more of us are worse at being well written. Language is a tricky beast; without the context of our tone, facial expressions, and gesticulations, many things can get lost in translation, and, when exchanges start to heat up, things only deteriorate further.
The Lunatic Pundit
This only gets worse when you have enigmatic people producing videos or writing vicious tirades with cherry picked information to conflate an already bloated problem into a fever pitch. These indulgent propaganda pieces are, thankfully, easy to spot.
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, there is a high probability you are being pandered to. These predators of circumstance are seeking to ingratiate themselves with a group or cause and climb the social hierarchy that forms within it. They feed people the faux persecution that makes them feel important and many quaff that up with reckless abandon.
As much as popular media has disseminated the erroneous idea that the cartoonish, mustache-twirling villain exists, it doesn’t. It just makes for immediately engaging stories that are easier to digest. Even the pandering pundits that stoke the flames of internet fury have some moral ground they are trying to stand on, shaky or broken as it may be. They live as scarecrows aggrandized by the very groups that insulated and corrupted them. They are the embodiment of a cause so wrapped up in its own minutia they can no longer see the outside world.
These misguided human beings do not belong solely to the fringes of The Internet. You can see it in the angry bellowing of sports fans as they scream at people with different colored jerseys while they riot and loot because their team lost (or won, in some cases). You can see it in religious movies and books created to vilify the “evil atheist”. You can see it in government proceedings as people cling unflinchingly to a political party’s stance, regardless of the fall out. It is a time-worn pattern that has played out countless times.
The Internet is a High-Performance Vehicle
The first time we hop online, we are given the keys to an information supercar, and we don’t even need a license to drive it. The roads we traverse are rife with hyperbole in the culture of extremes The Internet has cultivated. These extremes feed fuel to fires that are already rampant with digital petulance. With inexperienced drivers at the wheel—and a minimum required velocity somewhere near the speed of sound—it’s no wonder we have so many head-on collisions.
As children the world is constructed on a rigid structure of black-and-white, good-and-evil, and right-and-wrong. Unbreakable tenets bestowed upon us by the media we consume, and the parental stylings of our elders that leave no room for discussion. The truth is far more complex: two little slivers of black and white, separated by a vast gradient of grey spanning the breadth of human existence. The actual countable examples of clearly good and clearly evil are lilliputian in the face of things that can’t be categorized as such. Only when we are forced to be reductive about the outcomes of our actions can we label them so frivolously. Such recklessness is a recipe for disaster.
When we get behind that wheel, jam the accelerator, and rip off towards the horizon we blindly label things based on face value. We’ve barely perceived one issue before another one screams by our window. It’s too much for a mind raised on a black-and-white perception of the world. It can be terrifying and exclusionary for the most worldly and mentally secure of us; the effect it can have on the sheltered or mentally burdened is far more dangerous. The echo chamber is a welcome but, ultimately, damaging sanctuary.
The Duality of the Internet
It’s a common utterance, “The Internet is a terrible place.” But The Internet is, in essence, the distillation of the duality of human nature. A refinement of the beauty and darkness we are all capable of; a vanity mirror turned on the face of our own nature. The anonymity bolsters our intentions and the cliques we form multiply them. With the human element removed, we weave through tangled vines in blackened caves. Some lash out mindlessly from one anonymous dark place to another, giving little thought to who is receiving the blow. They never think, in a moment of quiet reflection, maybe I should turn on the lights. Because they can’t hear themselves over the noise of the mob, the roar of the engine, and the deafening sound of culture clash.