Essays on Technology and Culture

Don’t Blame the Internet for Bullies

Musician Amanda Palmer recently posted a very intense missive to her blog about online bullying. [1]

I did something, and I don’t know exactly what possessed me to do it, but I did it. I typed “hate a…” into Google. I was going to type “hate amanda palmer” into the rest of the field to see what came up, but Google auto-filled for me. It auto-filled “Amanda Todd”.

“Who is Amanda Todd?” I thought.

Probably an actress. Or a teen celebrity girlfriend of Justin Bieber.

These are the types people who people typically like hating.

I Googled her name to find out what kind of celebrity she was.

She’s not a celebrity. Well. She is now.

She’s an ex–15-year-old girl who became specifically famous for leaving a sad, desperate YouTube clip behind before hanging herself a few months ago.

Reading this made me thing about something I’d read elsewhere, on ex-Futurist Jaron Lanier, and his reversal on the Internet.

As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.

It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.

Surprisingly, Lanier tells me it first came to him when he recognized his own inner troll—for instance, when he’d find himself shamefully taking pleasure when someone he knew got attacked online.

While some might brush off Palmer’s discovery as simply the cruelty of children, this sort of thing is not exclusive to children. Or the Internet. [2] This is a fundamental problem of human nature technology exacerbates, not a problem endemic to technology. What makes Internet bullying more insidious is that you often can’t put a name and face on your attackers. Even on Facebook, it’s easy to become someone else, and without seeing someone face-to-face, it’s equally easy to become a jerk. [3] Still, I can’t stress this enough, people have been jerks since time immemorial. Blaming the Internet for the problem is like blaming buffet restaurants for obesity. It’s not helping, but it’s far from the underlying symptom.

Rather than condemn, we should ask what can be done? Then again, is there something that can be done? I don’t want to take a defeatist attitude, but I’m not sure anything can be done to stop people from deliberately hurting others, online or in person. Solving fundamental problems of human nature are beyond me—one guy, a blog with a limited audience, and some experience in being bullied is unlikely to change the world. However, I would like to propose two things that can help mitigate the impact of the inevitable.

1. Don’t Feed the Trolls

Don’t Feed the Trolls” is a piece of advice as old as the Internet, if not older. Sadly, it’s often very hard to do. People, especially children, never know what is going to incite someone to attack you. Expressing even the smallest opinion leaves you open to attack. When the wolves start sharpening their fangs, that’s you’re cue to disengage. Run the other way, and don’t say anything. At least online. The sort of people who attack you online have a short attention span. If you can get away early, and stay away, they’ll move on to an easier target.

2. Be Pre-emptively Private

Anonymity is a double-edged sword. If they don’t know who you are, that limits what they can do to you. Don’t put anything out there that you do not want associated with your name. It’s simple, basic Internet security practice, but if you didn’t grow up with this stuff like I did, you don’t think of it. In fact, I learned some of this the hard way, as a teenager—and as an adult—but that’s a story for another time. Our lives on the Internet are lived in public now, quite the difference from how it was when I first got online. However, Facebook and Tumblr can’t read your mind. People only see what you post, and we need to learn to post with discretion in mind first.

I’d also like to suggest something to parents on the Internet: be aware of what your child is up to. Look over their shoulder. Be aware of what can happen, step in before things get too deep, and do what you can to minimize damage before it happens. Kids will do stupid things, make fools of themselves, and be attacked. Only now can it happen on a global stage. Your job is to pay attention, and not let it get to that point. Surviving adolescence is hard, but it’s not as hard when you provide a support system, and that goes for things online and off.

This feels slightly defeatist, but I see little in the way of options at the moment. I’d like to have a discussion about this with anyone with experience in these matters, whether academic or otherwise. Please use the contact form to reach out and say your piece.

  1. Ms. Palmer’s post has been edited on here for proper capitalization.  ↩

  2. I have my own story of pre-Internet bullying that will see the light of day on here in time.  ↩

  3. This is best encapsulated in, of course, “John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory”, which I’ve linked to before. See also, Internet Tough Guy Syndrome.  ↩