Online, these days, you can watch a ballet, go to college, learn to make clafoutis, read 50-year-old magazines, purchase scuba gear, plan a trip to Austria, change your investment portfolio, check your blood work, order lunch, read the newspaper, and listen to last month’s radio. But post on Facebook or Twitter a snide joke you would have made to your friends after that ballet performance twenty years ago, and you’re apt to fall afoul of convention. Just try surprising your Facebook friends with a political wall post.
Sometimes, it can be hard to tell which is shriller: the hate of yesteryear or this new crazy love. “Facebook may have replaced Disneyland as the happiest place on Earth,” says Joseph B. Walther, a Michigan State University professor who’s been researching Internet interaction for decades. “Even though one individual may be griping about something, all their friends come to their aid and support.” Like many researchers of the web, he’s quick to note that, in broad terms, the Internet of today is as mean and inhospitable as it has ever been: Scams thrive, bullies abound, and every form of bigotry imaginable has taken hold. We’ve learned to steer clear of this murky web but can’t help driving right toward the sunny one. Is that a good thing? Even an 8-year-old knows that Disneyland isn’t healthy every day.
You’d think a change in manners would follow from a change in mood, but the causes of the web’s transformation are largely structural, and they boil down to three key shifts—each of them notably long-term ones. First is the medium’s sheer growth. As of the 2010 Census, nearly 85 million American households had web access, many of them now with smartphones, too: This dilutes unpleasantness strictly as a matter of volume. Second, the web has grown into a more commercial venue: What was formerly a free-for-all is now a place where ads and goods are sold and nastiness is a threat to good business. Last is the rise of the social web and the importance of web reputation. Unlike the early Internet, which was powered by anonymity, today’s web is a familiar place: Instead of going online to hide from the real world, we venture onto the web to partake of it—and to be seen partaking. Where there used to be a lawless place to escape to, there’s now only the cuddly, applauding web—or the fantasy of trying to live a complete life without it.
This marks a curious inversion of the growing pains the early web faced. Guy Macon, a self-taught engineer who works at home in Orange County, got online early in the nineties and was a devoted student of the old Usenet discussion groups until, late in the century, trolls began overrunning them. Eventually, he compiled the most flamboyant insults he saw into a single screed, which he posted on message boards around the Net:
“The only thing worse than your logic is your manners. I have snipped away most of your of what you wrote, because, well … it didn’t really say anything. Your attempt at constructing a creative flame was pitiful. I mean, really, stringing together a bunch of insults among a load of babbling was hardly effective … Maybe later in life, after you have learned to read, write, spell, and count, you will have more success. True, these are rudimentary skills that many of us ‘normal’ people take for granted that everyone has an easy time of mastering. But we sometimes forget that there are ‘challenged’ persons in this world who find these things to be difficult.”
Macon is a Quaker. His “insult file” was meant to defuse conflict by mocking the difference between online behavior and the civil tone of normal life. He won some battles but lost the war. Macon watched in horror as virtually all Usenet groups were overtaken with mean missives. Along the way, some frisson of intimacy vanished, says Macon (who today helps edit Wikipedia). “When I started getting on the Internet, it was like, ‘Oh, boy, there’s five people all talking here—that’s neat! We’re in different cities, and we’re talking to each other!’ ” he told me. “Now it’s like drinking out of a fire hose.”
Yet Malcolm R. Parks, a scholar of Internet interaction who teaches communication at the University of Washington, points out that such a wild rush also brings the moderating power of the mainstream—a good thing because it helps to dilute nastiness online. “If you look back fifteen or so years, what you have is largely a set of young people and innovators—people who are early adopters of technology,” he says. “By definition, people who adopt technology earlier are doing something that’s nonconformist”—a profile that includes a lot of striving, petulant types. “Those people probably got online earlier, because it was a great venue for them to be assholes. But it turns out it was also a great place to be a caring, sensitive person; a supporter; an information seeker; and all kinds of other things that brought hundreds of millions of other people online and watered the asshole factor down.”