The Internet, like your dentist’s assistant, is never kinder than when disaster strikes. On normal days, the kind on which you glide across an afternoon on too much coffee and a midweek buzz of anomie, you might not notice the deep and pervasive treacle of online life. But when a tsunami hits Japan, an earthquake crushes Haiti, or an embassy attack leaves foreign servicemen dead, even the most calloused tweeter goes soft inside, and every laptop turns into a small news service all its own. Sorrow pours down from the loftiest peaks. Help shines through each browser window. At such moments, the web becomes a nurturing and shining place, and every stiff-jawed critic seems to want to send you forward with hugs and a smile.
On October 29, as Hurricane Sandy swept into New York and New Jersey, the web became a news ticker and sound box amplifying public concern. With few people venturing outside and many rubbernecking on reports and footage of the worst, those who broke news became de facto moderators of our anxieties. First came the photographs: the waters of New York Harbor rising up into Battery Park, a lovely Instagram-ized shot of the Hudson breaching its banks. Then came the dire reports: a man killed by a falling tree, the Con Ed plant explosion. Finally, the friendliness arrived: This wasn’t disaster porn but a startling flood of goodwill. In the hours after Sandy made landfall, noted online wits doffed their aloof masks and hung their heads in solidarity; those who seemed insufficiently somber got chastised. The key word of the storm became hunker—a term that nearly oozes honey glaze and cocoa. “Much of the seen-it-all and isn’t-it-dumb seemed to leak out of my Twitter stream,” the media critic David Carr wrote a couple of days later.
For those of us who learned to love the web best as a hostile, predatory, somewhat haunted place, this kindness is startling—but not as startling as it might once have been. These days, life online has become friendly, well mannered, oversweet. Everyone is on his or her very best behavior—and if they’re not, they tend to be quickly iced out of the conversation. The sweet camaraderie that flourished during Sandy isn’t just for terror and crisis anymore; it has become the way the Internet lives now.
And it’s made converts of even the most truculent cases. In mid-October, Perez Hilton, the famously snide online ogler of celebrities, decided to turn over a new leaf, and delivered the message in song. “I resolved I must be kind!” he sang onstage at a 42nd Street theater, the New York Times reported, part of a recent public shift he’s tried to make toward a friendlier, gentler approach to celebrity culture. (It meant a lot to publicists.) Gawker, once considered the reigning champion of snark, has similarly moved away from its claws-out mission and toward more earnest investigative efforts—often with the aim of making the world a better place. Among the site’s most notable stories this fall was the outing and shaming of Reddit’s ViolentAcrez, one of the Internet’s most notorious trolls. (Gawker and Hilton’s site are surely catering to the market in some sense, but the market itself may be changing: For years, it was their meanness, not their generosity, that earned them page views.)
Our relationship to news and public figures isn’t the only thing that’s changed. We are endlessly flattering one another, too—sharing everything we do with everyone we know, and reflexively praising every biographical detail that comes over the transom to us. There is always sunshine to be found on the web, and usually we find it—trading compliments or loading our Twitter feeds with people whose goals, opinions, and politics mirror ours. Campaigns may be mean and cacophonous, but we tend to construct echo chambers for our own parties’ triumphant choruses. What is that noise? It’s the sound of one hundred million backs being slapped, and it’s getting louder.
Ten years ago, the web offered the worldview of a disaffected apparatchik and the perils of a Wild West saloon. Brawls broke out frequently; snideness triumphed; perverts, predators, and pettifoggers gathered in dark corners to prey on the lost and naïve. Now, though, the place projects the upbeat vigor of a Zumba session and the fellow-feeling of a neighborhood café. On Facebook, strangers coo at photos of your college roommate’s South American vacation. Op-eds—widely praised—are generously circulated. And warmth flows even where it probably shouldn’t. Today, you find that 27 human beings have “liked” an Instagram photo of your little sister’s breakfast muffin. You learn your best and smartest friend in high school—a girl you swapped big dreams with before falling out of touch—just married some guy with enormous bags under his eyes and the wild, deranged grin of Charlie Sheen. You are vaguely concerned, but the web is not. “Congratulations!!!” someone has written underneath the face of Crazy Rictus Man. “luv you guys!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” enthuses someone else. You count the exclamation points. There are sixteen. You wonder whether there is any Advil close at hand.
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.
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.”
There’s increasing variety within a single online life as well. Most of us now use the Internet for work e-mail, personal e-mail, Gchats, Facebook interaction, Twitter postings, private Skype calls, and so on, often in the course of one day. Occasionally, there’s confusion changing registers, but mostly we have no problems triaging our styles of expression. “You can’t adopt the behaviors you would have in a loud bar when you go to see the Chicago Symphony,” says Zizi Papacharissi, a University of Illinois, Chicago, professor who researches online life. There is a word for this: socialization.
Another word to keep in mind: commodification. Like the sixteenth-century Renaissance, which was incited less by a sudden burst in creativity than by a boom in the European business sector, today’s flourishing web has profited from corporate self-interest. “A lot of the places where people might spout off, say nasty things, and the like are commercial sites with a business model built around people coming to them,” Parks explains. Several of his students now find their first jobs as gatekeepers and monitors for comment sections and other interactive forums.
Facebook was among the first sites to realize that these habits offered a large-scale commercial opportunity within the existing framework of online social life. According to a 2010 account by director of engineering Andrew Bosworth, the LIKE button took shape in the summer of 2007 as the “awesome button.” (“Like” seemed bland.) But by the time it finally went live, in early 2009, it was nearly ready for online commerce. Soon, users “liked” not just posts but ads and “sponsored stories.” These “endorsements” were implicated in class-action suits, in California and New York and later nationally, with the plaintiffs claiming that minors whose names and images were associated with “liked” products were being commercially exploited.
These days, that seems like a quaint thought. Today’s webby world is one unconflicted about commercialization and remarkably unsqueamish about blunt salesmanship—a place where authors blithely tweet their favorable reviews, and acerbic ironists and stand-up comics turn unflinchingly to self-promotion. The closest to “underground” that the new web gets may be Kickstarter, whose funding projects have raked in a collective $354 million since 2009 (all without the taint of crass commercialism). If you draw in thousands of dollars on Kickstarter, you’re an artist with supporters; if you had tried doing the same by contacting your friends directly, just a few years ago, you’d be a mooch and creep. This is the age of privatized sociality—a moment when social life is actually shaped by one’s own market interests.
For years, the arrival of market forces in a community announced a growing-up process, the start of the Real World: Hard choices were required; the possibility of failure loomed; only the best would survive. Yet on the web the opposite is rapidly becoming true. We are all children now, hanging our crayon drawings on the wall and cooing indistinguishably over the collective effort.
Shouldn’t we mind being addressed as 6-year-olds, though? Why have we taken this unctuous treatment in stride? The truth is that the sweetening of the online space scarcely stands out these days.
Imagine a world in which good manners and the beau ideal trump all, and you have basically imagined the mood of 21st-century American life. New Yorkers once carried mace; now we sit at home in cardigans and pickle cabbage. Angry young men while away quiet hours playing Angry Birds. The big song of this summer—“Call Me Maybe”—was light, reserved, and deeply polite. (“Here’s my number / So call me, maybe?”) How, exactly, did we get here from “You Shook Me All Night Long”?
One answer is that the tide has actually begun to turn: First, we put more and more of our real lives online, then we began to take our cues in real life from the web. A lot of recent media has followed a similar path. A moviegoer in the fifties might well have been enchanted by the genteel, chaste, well-ordered world of Technicolor cinema, but he was not fooled: You could buy clothes like the people in High Society, but you couldn’t expect their lives; you could enjoy Nat “King” Cole’s courtly manner and canned jokes on his TV show, but understand that this behavior was theatrical, adopted for the camera. At some point, though, these theatrical affectations, inhibitions, and conventions fell away, and we began losing our sense of remove from the cultural life that we saw onscreen. The great lie of reality TV is not that it’s spontaneous but that it’s turning the lens on a world that actually exists.
That’s been the path for online life, too: What was once its own strange and performative place is becoming, ever more, our window onto the national culture. But given the wild outpouring of praise online, one has to wonder how much of what you see is just a public put-on. “OMG your Cartagena vacation looks AMAZING!!!”: Is this an expression of envy, interest, or a desire to have me shut up about it? The distance between earnestness and disingenuousness is vanishingly small, and—more alarming still—seems to matter less and less.
If anything, these days, we risk regarding the web as too much of a cultural mirror or, at least, a mirror pointed in the wrong direction: Good faith has become indistinguishable from good speech, and agreeable words risk outweighing the actions that push them toward fruition. In truth, crucial decisions are never quite as simple as an exclamation-filled post of support. We’ve just emerged from a bitter election season through which many of us moved forward fueled by like-minded applause, seeing only what we wished to see. Yet what comes next isn’t a cuddle; it’s a struggle. As Sandy reminds us, progress requires strain, discord, and difficult choices. Even the worthiest environmental initiatives come at a cost. Organics can leave a greater carbon footprint than canned food; local produce can cost jobs somewhere far away. Believing in something means being prepared to disagree about it—to fight over it. But who wants to give a thumbs-up to that?