The Unbearable Childishness of the Web

15 Dec ’06

David Pogue, one of my favourite tech writers, writes on the loss of online etiquette, and wonders why. Various theories are offered, but I think David nails it on #1: “On the Internet, you’re anonymous. Since you don’t have to face the person you’re dumping on, you don’t see any reason to display courtesy.” Anybody who’s ever been in a car understands this behaviour instinctively. We are, when offered anonymity, too often utterly underwhelming in our regard for others. Or, put another way, very unlike Jesus Christ. A lack of consequence to anonymous interaction inevitably leads to an avoidance of personal responsibility for one’s actions, with fairly predictable results. And so, what was in the early days of the internet a mere trickle of incivility has become a raging torrent of unrestrained, frustrated, adolescent angst. And on the Web, everyone can hear you scream. (Mea culpa – I also point the finger at myself.)

I’ve been here before (we all have, of course). Two years ago I gave up on the political blogosphere (as a reader; I was not a writer) for similar reasons; at the time I wrote “Next time, with adults”. Corrosive behaviour in the political ‘sphere is not just about anonymity of course; there are many in that world who are quite delighted to take off the mask before they throw their Molotov cocktails. And it’s become trite now to comment about the loss of civility in political debate generally. That experiment was a profound disappointment, but a lesson learned. I love reading about politics, but shrill extremism, of any political stripe, is not my cup of tea. I saw then that the ‘sphere, at least in its early incarnation, was not going to produce the political writing that I wanted to read (back to The New Yorker and newspapers). (And as for the rest, well, one can only stand by and watch as Demagoguery 2.0 explodes in the mainstream media – as a new generation of silvery-tongued pretend populists learn that the ordinary disappointments of a middle-class middle-aged life that so profitably fuelled talk radio can be exploited for TV profits also. These days, meanness is very profitable.)

This is a life. It has a beginning, and an end. And there are choices to be made about how to spend the days between. These days, that cheapening of discourse seems pretty corrosive, and increasingly that corrosiveness doesn’t feel like a positive use of time. Wading through the muck that David describes has lately actually seemed nasty, brutish and quite pointless. Indeed, regular readers may have noticed that posting here has been scarce recently. Well, David’s post is a pretty good summary of why. For the next while, as an experiment, I’ll be spending less time reading – and writing – about Web 2.0.

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