I wanted to recount three stories of online communication and draw some conclusions. I think it’s worth thinking about because of how much of our lives we spend online, and how many romantic and political decisions are made online. That prompts fear and worry, on the one hand, but attraction on the other for reasons some good, some bad, and some mixed.
First story: story of the angry trolls. I have accumulated a lot of online facebook followers over the years and don’t know who many of them are in real life. Usually they are people who liked some sort of art or entertainment that I put out there. A few months ago I made a joke online supporting a boycott of Uber, which seemed to be involved in some shady price-gouging. There were some obnoxious posts making fun of me and accusing me of being a stockholder in Lyft. The last part was untrue and was known to be untrue by the person who posted it, so I deleted it. Then I went to the store to do some grocery shopping. While I was waiting online I saw my feed was filled up with personal attacks including altered photos of me, from two people. I googled how to block them and blocked them and deleted all their posts. I wondered what the story was — why would people who want to interact with me online lie about me and end up getting blocked. What good did it do them?
Second story – story of the Islamophobia debate. I got involved in a twitter debate about whether or not Sam Harris was Islamophobic. Somebody I didn’t know with a weird twitter handle argued with me and gave me the challenge “Can you give me one example of people blowing themselves up who are not motivated by a promised afterlife, from religion in general, and often Islam in particular.” I felt his whole take on Islam was quite bigoted, but a challenge was a challenge, so I suggested Cato the younger, who killed himself because he didn’t want to live in a world where Julius Caesar was in power. My online debate partner said, quite reasonably “That was suicide but he didn’t bring anybody down with him.” I responded “Sure but that’s just cause he didn’t have access to a suicide vest. The Romans participated in political assassination and if Cato could have brought Caesar down with him, he would have.” But I knew this was pretty weak on my part. My unknown debate partner would be justified to say “Look we are talking about real things that actually happened, not some made-up counterfactual situation where Cato the Younger had access to a suicide vest.” So I was driving to get some milk and wondering “Hmmm….homicide plus suicide plus atheism…” And then I thought “Aha! Dylan Klebold!” So I pulled over to a side street whipped out my phone and tweeted back. I had a great counter-example of a murder suicide not motivated by religion.
Third story – I reposted an article about how the ultra-orthodox in Israel are alienating US Jews. A friend of mine from high school said this was the sort of thing that alienated him from his Jewish faith. An online acquaintance — a religious woman and political commentator posted that if that was the sort of thing that shook my real friend’s faith then he had no faith to begin with. I am pretty non-confrontational but I thought — why not put my foot down. I told my online acquaintance publicly and privately that she shouldn’t attack people’s faith to defend her political position. She agreed and posted a nice apology though I don’t think my real life friend cared. He felt she had shown her true colors. The online acquaintance felt bad — she feels she is a compassionate person and that her zeal had been misunderstood. I also told her she can’t respond to people’s points with stickers of somebody vomiting into a toilet bowl, and had to restrict herself to rational arguments. She agreed she would.
What do these stories teach me about online communication?
One is that it is fun and has a game-like quality. When I came up with my counter-example I felt a feeling of triumph. I scored a point against an opponent whom I had never met, but I felt a rush of dopamine as I do when I win a chess game or see a tweet get a lot of likes. This game like stance is a guarded stance — you don’t feel that the online response can actually hurt you. And yet people can really get hurt. Actual lies can get spread, and actual enmities can form and fester. That’s why the “troll” strategy is appealing — act in such a way that you can really hurt others, but don’t let them know you well enough that they can really hurt you. Sun Tzu really. I’m not saying I was a troll but my activities were troll adjacent because my interactions were more about winning an intellectual game than really putting myself out there.
My conclusion is that when you are willing to show vulnerability you can actually accomplish something, as I think happened in my third story. When you try to treat things as a game you at best can just win a game, at worse can do real damage. As Plutarch says “Though the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest, the frogs do not die in jest, they die in earnest.”
Of course the ability to protect yourself, hide behind a fake persona, and treat interactions as a game is in no way limited to online communication. You can be real online and fake IRL. Whole fifty year marriages might as well take place in a chat-room for all the actual honesty that is on display.