On Twitter, where the wonks and witty people are supposed to live, you find yourself lost again on a great plain of goodwill. John Doe, crossing the Twitter threshold, becomes “the brilliant @JohnDoe,” doing “wonderful” things. Videos that crop up are “amazing” or “hilarious”—sometimes both—and “excited” feelings prevail, especially when people are doing things that you cannot. (“Excited to be chatting with the brilliant Marshall Goldsmith at Per Se!!”) Inspiration triumphs. (“Sitting with Angelina Jolie @ #SaveChildren event! So inspiring, people helping humanity.”) Even when it doesn’t, though, people give thanks. (“Thank you needed this!!!” “no thank YOU!”) If you are in a mood to spread the love, which, probably, you are, it’s no problem to pass along your favorite tweets, nicely neutralized. “Retweets aren’t endorsements,” people say, like a newspaper claiming to run George Will’s column just because it happened to be lying around. The more you look, in fact, the harder it seems to find anything on the web that doesn’t read like an endorsement. It’s enough to make a web curmudgeon desperate for a little aloofness or even a few drops of the old bile. When did the Internet get so nice?
Years back, not long after the dinosaurs stood tall among the ficus plants, web interaction was hailed as the savior of contemporary democratic life. Where once the country had been at the mercy of gatekeepers and corporate connectors, it would now be open for intellectual growth. “Digital highways” would set paths for “free speech,” the thinking went, and “free speech” would give power to “ordinary people.” The dream did not endure. By 2000, 44 million American households had gone online, but the web had grown into a fairly terrifying place. The New York Post, not traditionally a publication given to propitiation and restraint, ran a piece praising the web’s foot soldiers who fought a war online against “stalkers, pedophiles, and pornography.” If we eliminated those contingents, though, would anyone be left?
For most of the ensuing decade, worry remained deliriously high-flown, often with good cause. In 2009, a Boston medical student named Philip Markoff was alleged to have bound and robbed three women (killing one) who had advertised their services on Craigslist—earning him a spot among “Craigslist killers” and making him a poster boy for the Internet’s dark side. (He killed himself in jail before trial, writing his ex-fiancée’s name in blood in his cell.) Other suicides—like 13-year-old Megan Meier, who hanged herself in her bedroom closet in 2006; 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who killed herself in January 2010; and Amanda Todd, who released a heartrending video of complaints on YouTube before killing herself last month, all said to be the victims of online bullying or abuse—have driven home the grim potential of digital life gone wrong. And those were only the worst of the bunch. The Internet was an unpleasant place even when death didn’t loom: Any long-standing web user knows how quickly message-board and comment-section debates could devolve into something like hate speech.
Is that old armor still required? When a video circulated this summer showing a partially deaf bus driver, Karen Klein, being verbally abused by her elementary-school charges, it might have proved the Internet’s uncaring eye. This time, though, people cared, and in fact they cared so much that on Reddit, the social website known for its sarcastic, unforgiving tone, users tried to set the wrong right. “Lets give Karen a vacation of a lifetime, lets show her the power of the Internets and how kind and generous people can be,” a user called Heavyballsareheavy posted on the site, including a link to a fund-raising page. Others joined in and, ultimately, raised more than $700,000 for Klein’s retirement: a stunning triumph of coordinated goodwill. Once, the Klein kerfuffle would have seemed a strange anomaly; now it’s the high point of an Internet culture in which do-goodism, social activism, and upbeat entrepreneurialism reign.
There’s less and less patience with anything else. On the day Sandy hit the East Coast, an account called @comfortablysmug began issuing terrifying Twitter dispatches, making a bad situation sound even worse. “BREAKING: Confirmed flooding on NYSE. The trading floor is flooded under more than three feet of water”; “BREAKING: Con Edison has begun shutting down ALL power in Manhattan.” All the news was false, and, a day later, BuzzFeed writer Jack Stuef outed the account as belonging to Shashank Tripathi, the campaign manager for congressional candidate Christopher R. Wight. (Previously, he was a notorious antagonist in nymag.com’s comments sections.) The Internet went mad; Tripathi, who resigned after the outcry, was called “a narcissistic sociopath,” “Sandy’s worst Twitter villain,” and, in one case, “Sir Frankendouche.” He’s not the only troll to be shamed over the past few weeks. After Obama’s victory, Jezebel began flagging Twitter users’ racist tweets to call out their purveyors. BuzzFeed did the same under the heading “31 Worst People on the Planet.” Years ago, in certain circles, that title might have been an online badge of honor, but now it’s unequivocally a scarlet letter. The web has not just started championing the good; it has begun policing it.