Pond scum

Spend much time online and it would appear that America is becoming a cesspool of hatred. General Mills creates a commercial featuring a bi-racial family and the YouTube comments go crazy with people criticizing the commercial. Justin Bieber behaves badly (a fine celebrity tradition) and in just a few days the White House is presented with a petition signed by over 180,000 people demanding he be deported (Mr. Bieber is Canadian). In fact, pick just about any article on a news site—even the most dull, non-controversial of stories—and there are bound to be a few people raging about something in the comments.

It’s hard not to find it all depressing. I used to despair over the levels of hate displayed online—I still find it hard to deal with. But there are reasons why we shouldn’t worry too much. There is indeed a Troll Nation, but the population is much smaller than it appears.

Scum rises to the top: Think of the last time you bought something online. Were you satisfied with what you bought? Did you leave a positive review? Did you receive excellent service at a store or restaurant lately? Did you speak with the manager to compliment the person who served you?

While there are people out there who will go out of their way to spread good feelings or good news, the majority of people will only make an effort to report something if it’s negative. It’s human nature. It’s easier to surprise us with bad things than with good things—we have fairly high expectations of others, really. When good things happen we don’t get worked up about it. When bad things happen we’re ready for war.

Take the Cheerios commercial, for example. On its face the commercial was good, but nothing spectacular. The average American wouldn’t even register that the family was multi-racial, or if they did it didn’t rise very high in the consciousness. And, since it’s only a commercial, we as often as not will just forget about it and move on.

Only those for whom the commercial incited a strong emotional response would ever go so far as to look up the commercial again on YouTube. And, as I said, it was a decent commercial, but not particularly clever or memorable on its own merits. So the only people likely to go hunt it down on YouTube would be those who found it offensive—they would strongly outnumber those who had a strong positive response, at least.

When the controversy began to catch wider attention it’s likely the number of negative comments on YouTube were high, and vastly outnumbering any positive comments. That would have made it appears as though the vast majority of Americans were offended by the commercial. But, judging by the subsequent outpouring of support after the negatives came to light, such is clearly not the case. America, on the whole, does not have a problem with multi-racial families.

Comments are not an unbiased survey: The other side of the above is that America is so used to polls, surveys, and random sampling it’s far too easy to view comments as a cross-section of public opinion. As discussed above, this is a logical error. Self-reporting is nearly never unbiased. If people don’t have a strong reaction to something, positive or negative, they’re not likely to comment.

I just looked up a new movie trailer on YouTube. It had 3.4 million views. About 100,000 people registered a “thumbs up”; only about 700 registered a thumbs down. 22,000 people left comments. So maybe 3% of all viewers registered any opinion at all. That’s not a very large sample, but even if it were, the negatives were quite few compared to the positives. But that same proportion of negatives, if carried over into the comments, could keep the thread appearing quite negative. That 0.7% might seem much larger than they really are. But compared to the negatives and positives combined, the “not-committed-enough-to-show-they-care” vastly dwarf them all. But they are not recorded anywhere.

There are a lot of different kinds of scum: I’ve not done any formal survey of the negative comments on the Cheerios commercial, but I’m willing to bet there’s a fair amount of diversity represented on just what people objected to about the commercial. While racism is likely the strongest motivator, there are many types of people who might leave angry comments, many not nearly so sinister:

–          Those who hate Cheerios

–          People suspecting “politically correct” motivations

–          People who resent the middle-class lifestyle depicted

–          Persons feeling it should depict a gay family

–          People offended they chose a black/white family rather than white/Asian, Asian/black, etc.

–          People offended by the use of a traditional family (ie. Not a single parent home)

–          People offended by the depiction of gender roles

–          Vegans irritated they used cow milk, not soy/almond/rice milk (yes, annoyingly to the rest of us vegans, there are those)

–          People upset by General Mills’ use of GMO ingredients (I’m guessing here. I don’t know)

–          People who hate big companies or marketing campaigns in general

–          People who just like to stir up trouble, even if it means pretending to be racist

–          People who like to stir up trouble by seeing racism in everything

When comment threads begin filling up it’s quite easy to see negative comments and lump them all in together, but the reality is that people are spouting negativity for a variety of reasons, and while they may view other negative commenters as allies, there may also be little agreement between groups. They may actually hate each other, but for the moment they hate the subject they’re commenting on worse.

Online makes it easy: Let’s face it, most people don’t go around spouting things in person like they would online. I’m very good at keeping my opinion to myself at work unless I know I’m among like-minded people. I generally keep my opinion to myself online, too, though the situation is just removed enough from reality that it’s much, much harder to resist typing up a quick snark-attack. I’ll say thing online I never would to someone’s face.

But compared with many people, I’m a paragon of reserve and self-control. In cyberspace no one can slap your face, no matter how much you might deserve it. This safe distance, often under the cover of anonymity, makes it easy to spew vitriol with impunity. People can indulge their worst impulses and desires without suffering real consequences. Indeed, the fact that they do have to muzzle themselves in public may drive them to lash out online.

But again, statistics suggest it’s still only a loud, obnoxious few doing most of the flaming. Most people are generally good at self-restraint, at least most of the time. But the consequences of commenting angry aren’t yet as obvious or well-known as, say, driving angry. Road Rage is a phenomenon we’re all familiar with. ‘Net Rage is not yet so familiar, though probably more common.

Audience Oversimplification: Another common cause of online rudeness is the tendency to group all our potential readers into two camps: Our friends, who always agree with us, and our enemies, who deserve no mercy. The reality is that our friends include a much broader diversity of opinion than we readily realize. You may have friends who may, in the majority, agree with you, but still identify with those you deem your enemies.

The reality is that within any group there is a wide variety of opinion and commitment. There is no such thing as a “typical” liberal, or a “typical” conservative. You may feel that a friend of yours is a sensible person, and not really one of “them”, yet they may identify with “them”, and may take offense when you hammer on “them”, even on an issue they tend to agree with you on. They may be a liberal against gun control, but they may still get irritated with you when you attack liberals over gun control, because they feel you are attacking liberals, not just gun control (and, frankly, you probably are).

A corollary of this is when we wander into sites where we feel we know no one. The default assumption is that, unless they agree with us, they are the enemy. You will never know who these people are, and never encounter them, so anything goes. The reality is they could be your neighbor, even your spouse. But we don’t care. We’re online.

 

Perhaps I’m just naïve or overly Pollyanna-ish, but I have to believe the nasty people aren’t winning–yet. Yes, they’re breeding rapidly online, an environment well-suited for their survival, but surely sensible people are still the majority. The problem is we’re a silent majority. And that’s because the best way to deal with people like that in the real world is to ignore them. Online, no one can hear you ignore. Ignoring someone takes the effort of actually responding or commenting—to someone else. It takes work, and hence the situation is less likely to change.

I fear in the long term the jerks will win, either because we’ve all given up and become jerks, or because all the sensible people have found safer places to go.

 

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