The recent uproar over the change in Facebook privacy settings was based mostly on the ham-handed way the company went about it: In their announcement to users, the social network implied that the changes would make profiles more private, but in fact made many profiles less private by exposing friend lists and photos. Which means more users will have the ability to click on more pieces of information, making for a potential page-view bonanza. But that motivation aside, the move signals yet another blow to the concept of online anonymity, moving us closer to the reality of personal transparency. And when forced to identify themselves as, well, themselves, people are a lot more careful about what they say online — and the Internet starts to become a more friendly, and perhaps cloying, place. Welcome to Mayberry Online.
For years, the Internet operated in the vein of the classic 1993 New Yorker cartoon that was captioned, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Anonymity — whether in a chat room, on a blog, or in a comments section — was the norm. No longer. It’s a move that’s being driven both by users, who have been moving away from having “online” identities to operating with their “IRL” (in real life) identities, and by the founders of social-media platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, who see advantages in encouraging people to be their “real” selves. But one of the perhaps unintended byproducts of the shift is a new culture of online politeness that some see as long overdue and others find to be obnoxiously saccharine.
Take what happened a few weeks ago, when Slate blogger Mickey Kaus noticed something odd about Twitter. He’d posted a tweet ribbing CNN President Jon Klein for canceling Crossfire, but when he checked back to see if Klein had responded, he noticed that his post didn’t show up in Twitter’s search function. The results were mostly, Kaus wrote, “a tame (and lame) series of attaboys, welcome-backs, and this-is-what-he-saids.” Then Kaus tried another experiment: He searched the names of celebrities on Twitter, like Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, and Alyssa Milano, and found that nearly all were blandly pleasant. And so Kaus surmised that Twitter was “curating” the search for its celebrity tweeters. He was never able to get a confirmation or denial from anyone at Twitter (the company was likewise unresponsive to Daily Intel’s requests for comment). But what if Twitter isn’t censoring? (“That would confound my faith in the bad behavior of the American people,” says Kaus.) It seems like an almost scarier proposition — the idea that the freewheeling, anything-goes ethos of the Internet has given way to a bland echo chamber of ego-stroking. But maybe that’s what’s happened: On Facebook, we can only “like” things that people post; on Tumblr, there’s likewise only a “heart” button to indicate our approval. Twitter has a star. When people write things on Facebook or Tumblr or Twitter that we disagree with or simply find disagreeable, we can block them without their knowledge of our disapproval, and we never again have to see their posts about how much Going Rogue speaks to them.
In this new world of nice netiquette, technology is designed to make it easier for everyone to love one another. After all, if you’re not your “real self” online, how will Leighton Meester know it’s you who loved her dress at the Teen Choice Awards? Or take what’s happened with online reviews: The average score across the web is now 4.3 stars out of 5. And the more people have to stand behind their real identities, the harder, it seems, it is for them to be consistently critical. It’s much easier to play nice.
Allison Mooney, vice president of emerging trends at media consulting firm Mobile Behavior, says that there’s also a generational divide at work. “I think Gen X is a very sarcastic generation, and sarcasm doesn’t really translate online,” she says. “Gen Y has grown up interacting with people online. They’ve developed different social skills, a different rapport. Being sort of dry, sarcastic, snarky — that’s not going to get you any friends online.” Making friends — whether that’s counted in the number of followers you have on Twitter or Tumblr, your Facebook friends, or how many people “like” something you write — has become the goal. “Social currency is only built around positive interactions,” says Mooney.
Gen Y’s online mentality might be perfectly encapsulated in David Karp, the 23-year-old founder of Tumblr, who says that he designed the platform in a way that ensured that it “didn’t have a lot of avenues for negativity.” Tumblr’s platform doesn’t integrate commenting (users must add the feature to their Tumblrs using an outside service). The only way for a user to put their own spin on someone else’s post is to “reblog” it so that it shows up on their own site; it’s up to the “reblogger” whether or not to add additional commentary. In February, Karp disabled six Tumblrs for “systematically abusing the reblog feature,” he says. Several of them were mostly devoted to critiquing the online personality Julia Allison and her “lifecasting” site, Nonsociety. In an e-mail to Gawker, Allison responded to Karp’s decision: “I am absolutely in favor of ridding the Tumblr community — and the internet in general — of what one of my readers once called ‘mind cancer.’”
“It’s actually why a lot of those [negative] blogs moved over to WordPress,” says Karp. “[They] looked so out of place on Tumblr. It’s just not that kind of environment.”