The internet is a new medium and like all things contains the capacity to be both gift and curse.
Aggression is more common in internet exchanges than one finds in the real world and for all sorts of understandable reasons, and in moderation, is no real issue.
However, when it degenerates to a Lord of the Flies scenario, as it can and as is increasingly raised by psychologists, it is more problematic. What is it about internet interactions which makes aggression so much more common?
It was interesting talking to a friend last night about workplace relationships and the problematic issue of email exchanges which seem to be a lesser version of the internet exchanges but where people misunderstand each other frequently. This is more common when people are not working in the same office and while there may be some personal knowledge, there is not regular contact or physical relationship.
We wondered if there was a ‘labelling’ going on unconsciously, sourced in the only real information available, which was ‘how the person wrote.’ We are so used to classifying people on how they dress and often on their accent that it seems human nature to want to ‘find a place’ for people or to want to have some understanding or knowledge of them even though the label may be completely wrong. If we cannot be in the same room with them and all we have are their words on the screen then that is what we will try to decipher so we can gain some understanding, or control of the relationship.
People who can be articulate and direct in their email communications are often seen as aggressive, we decided, when in fact they are just being articulate and direct. And any impression of aggression equates with a sense of power and the kneejerk reaction is often defensive, if not aggressive and before long, offence is taken.
If this happens at work where people have some knowledge of each other and in families where people have a great deal of knowledge of each other, and it does, then it is hardly surprising it is so much worse on the internet where there is no real knowledge of each other.
For one thing many people hide behind pseudonyms and in that anonymity obviously feel safe to say what they want in anyway that they want. No doubt the insulation provided by anonymity also makes them more reckless and less disciplined in terms of how they behave and this means the unconscious will be more active and projection more common.
But even where people are known to others there can be a tendency for the cryptic ‘dig’ which is possibly sourced in the fact that it is just so easy to ‘have a go’ at someone online without having to deal with repercussions in the real world, although that is also likely to be fallacious.
Or is it that many do not appreciate the circumstances in which they relate and understand the courtesies required in the written word which are more important because one does not have access to the senses, nor often, personal information, which allows a better assessment of what someone says and of who someone is?
I am sure after many years as a journalist there is a heightened awareness of the power of the written word and the capacity to misunderstand, misinterpret, misquote and misread what someone is saying in ways that most people without this experience, mostly cannot have. What is written on a public forum has the potential to be a legal document and there can be a fine and often misunderstood line between libel and slander and humour and honesty.
And the majority of people interacting on line have no experience of the power of the written word, nor an appreciation for the need to be considered if not cautious in what you write, how you write and to whom you write and perhaps that is why aggression has become a factor, to lesser and greater degrees, in online communications.
Erring on the side of courtesy and consideration and imputing the best of motives to people when assessing what they have said is wise. And if someone you know has embarrassed you by ‘having a dig’ publicly then don’t get into a brawl in public – raise it with them privately.
And just as we choose our friends, we also need to make considered decisions about sites where we comment because while most are absolutely fine, some have cultures of paranoia and venality which are best avoided.
Any online site, like any club, or organisation is as good as its management. Moderated sites can be intensely annoying because they are often selectively over-moderated but unmoderated sites can be a literal nightmare.
Like anything new there is a strong element of ‘winging it’ with social networks and online communication and the reason why so many of the more professional sites have Moderators is because without them, conversation would be more likely to degenerate to the most base level.
As someone who believes that words have power at a frequency level, choose your friends, acquaintances and connections carefully online for aggression and unpleasantness are not good environments for anyone.