The downside of having chimp brains and just 140 characters: A theory of Internet nastiness

On a long car drive this weekend, I happened to listen to this brilliant This American Life podcast: If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS. Stories of why otherwise nice people say awful things on the Internet.

Those of you following me on Twitter Thursday and Friday will understand why this was cathartic. (If not, don’t worry about it, it’s not the point of this post or a very big deal.)

Rather, in the midst of nastiness, @dadakim tweeted something that at first I found off topic: “This=sometimes how it feels to be a woman with an opinion on the internet.”

I will say this: If you are remotely skeptical of that statement, you should listen to the TAL podcast.

I am forced to update my theory of Internet nastiness. Previously I ascribed nastiness to the same instincts that make us nasty gossips. In haste, in irritation, and in private we tend to say things that we would never say in front a wider audience, or to a person’s face. For some reason people seem to engage their gossip brain on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs rather than their “I’m speaking to you directly” brain.

The Internet is curiously dehumanizing. You have to teach yourself not to write like that, and on the receiving side coach yourself not to read it too seriously (or at all). Both are difficult. For me the first is easier than the second.

I still buy my theory. But this isn’t quite sufficient to explain the frequency and maliciousness of attacks against women.

It’s tempting to look at the anecdote from TAL–a reformed troll who comes to understand how his insecurity feeds a loathing of women, and how the dehumanizing Internet lets him relieve his own anger without understanding the consequences. But deep-rooted misogyny seems like too simplistic an answer to be full or correct.

I am guessing many have thought about this subject and would be interested in pointers. Especially science on the subject.

13 thoughts on “The downside of having chimp brains and just 140 characters: A theory of Internet nastiness

  1. it’s selection isn’t it? say x% of men are angry misogynist turds (I would not hazard a guess about x) the internet is global filter gathering these turds and delivering them onto the twitter feeds or comments sections of women. x could be a very small number and the internet would still serve up a gigantic volume of turds

    and something similar is at work with w.r.t. haste and irritation, suppose each of us is irritable only x% of our waking lives, the probability of writing a blog comment or nasty tweet increases at those times

    the question isn’t necessarily what is it about the internet that makes people into turds – there were turds out there anyway, the internet just brings you into concentrated contact with them.

  2. “Rather, in the midst of nastiness, @dadakim tweeted something that at first I found off topic: “This=sometimes how it feels to be a woman with an opinion on the internet.””

    -Yet, men with opinions are harassed more on the Internet.

    “I still buy my theory. But this isn’t quite sufficient to explain the frequency and maliciousness of attacks against women.”

    -And the men?

    Man, your ideological blinders are really hurting your vision.

    I think a substantial fraction of trolls fully understand the consequences of their behavior. They do it either due to exhaustion or for the lulz.

  3. @Chris – I have no scientific references that reason out this phenomenon but I’d be very interested to see it if it exists. And thanks for the TAL recommendation – I have that episode sitting in my downloaded podcasts so will definitely have a listen.

    @E. Harding – What stats show men are harassed more on the internet? And is the abuse of the same seriousness (i.e. threats that they will be raped and have their throats slashed)? From what I’ve observed in a decade or more of internet use, this is not the case. My reality is that (as Chris remarked) women are abused with more malice and more often than men online, so I’d be interested to see data suggesting the contrary.