Online Communication

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.


6 thoughts on “Online Communication

  1. Well said. I’ve encountered a few rude or crazy people online, but nothing to the extent of what you described.

    My brilliant niece came up with an outstanding list of rules for online interactions:

    “* Don’t expect online friendships to substitute for real, face-to-face friendships. It rarely works.

    * Online friendships work best when they supplement real-world relationships with the same people. We evolved to need face-to-face encounters with other people. Our biological and psychological needs for human contact are left unsatisfied by relationships that consist only of words flashing across a computer screen. If you’re lonely, go out and meet some people. If you’re shy, it will be harder but you can do it.

    * Don’t expect an ‘online life’ to substitute for your real life. It won’t work. We aren’t built that way. You can spend 24 hours a day online, but it won’t make you happy. It will just make you empty and sleepy and in serious need of a shower.

    * Don’t expect to be a different person online. You are who you are. And that’s good enough.

    * Don’t base your self-respect on how many people are in your friends list. Those people who have 500 ‘online friends’ barely know any of them. Are those real relationships? Remember the old saying: ‘Friends will help you move. Real friends will help you move bodies.’

    * Don’t spend so much time online that it takes you away from your real life. No matter how bad you think your real life is, it won’t get better if you run away and hide in Facebook. Live your life, make real-world friends, study for your classes, work, play, and have fun.

    * Nobody cares that you just brushed your teeth. Give it a rest with the minute-by-minute status updates. Nobody’s life is that interesting. Mine sure isn’t.”

    I would add:

    * Please do not feed the trolls. Trolls’ one and only goal is to provoke an emotional reaction. Don’t give it to them.

    • By that definition of trolls, anyone pushing for a moral position is a troll. Unless morality is somehow beyond emotion?

      To me it’s like the Joker in the Dark Knight – he actually says things about society that are fairly accurate. But he says them to just make society burn.

      This is not the same as saying things that are problematic about society in an effort to build society/a better society. But it can seem the same at the time.

  2. Michael James Jelleberg says:

    Rule 29 of the internet basically states that people are often not who they appear to be on the internet. The internet allows people to act however they want, pretend to be something they are not, perhaps a suppressed person unleashing themselves, perhaps people acting far out of character for fun. It can range all the way form a normal person acting belligerent all the way to men “catfishing” other men when they are pretending to be women for money. So, even our closest online friends can be anything from slightly disingenuous to complete frauds because they aren’t seen in real life; yet many real life acquaintances can wear a mask almost as well as some of our online acquaintances.

    The first story is easy to understand, and it is quite common. Part of it is indeed trolling, some the joy of flaming, and I think in some of it we get to see tribalism in play. 4Chan was famous for raiding, as well as other image boards, and in truth many had some real reasons and some of them even perhaps good, much of the spirit of the raids was more like barbarians raiding a village or camp or city more than an organized crusade. They seemed more happy to be part of the group raiding and conquering, to be part of the internet tribe, than any cause in and of itself. Were those people who harassed you trolls, or very serious people very serious in defending their ferry service, or were they young men enjoying their internet battle? Many of these people are far more akin to rock throwing vandal children than about anything else. Perhaps they were fighting for Uber, or perhaps they simply enjoy internet fighting and using such common internet tactics, and were just looking for a person and excuse to do so?

    As for the last example, the internet has a great problem with context and voice, due to lack of tone. As stupid as emoji’s sound, they do help give messages voice and context, making a bantering joke clearly about banter and light hearted ribbing, which could often times be taken as a threat on the internet because of lack of tone. Also, since we don’t meet these people, we don’t know as much about them, and can’t tell if they are joking or being threatening. If someone said similar offensive things in real life, and you had known this person for a long time, even that would change your perception of the person and the action, at least more than likely. Your friend in real life is an old and well known friend, so the extent of his feelings is better and more certainly known to you. We know our good friend is really real, and most certain he is who he is, but the online person acting polite to rude may not be anything close tot he actions and image.

    In any case, indeed the world of online dialogue is incredibly interesting. There is great fun, vitriol, completely fradulent sociopaths, sometimes real discussions and very real lessons, shitposting, realposting, feelposting, and everything you can imagine. Maybe none of your internet friends are real, or who they say they are, or maybe they are really well programmed spam bots, or most scarily of all, your real friends you just don’t see in person. I’m glad to meet all sorts of people from my tiny enclave in the hills, great to study the effects of anonymity on people in cyuberspace, to observe man, manipulation, and all sorts of types and senses of humor I would not otherwise see. Most of all, because i understand how fake the people and the images can be, I can enjoy it all, friend and foe, truth and fraud alike. I suppose because i’m a warrior and a fighter, the trolling and the flaming are something I handle easily, and the uncertainty and fear of the internet and its people don’t bother me. I’m not shocked anything, or anyone, and see the potential turn of anyone or thing coming as expected.

    So, you have seen the highs and the lows, the bitter attacks of trolls, the taste of victory in debate, and the authority as moderator to settle misunderstandings of good people. And, too, the effects it has on the real people behind the screens, which is something the other person never gets to see personally, understand, to regret the pain they have caused, nor to enjoy it truly if they are cruel. But, it could give us hope that some of the good we do on the internet might actually help real people we don’t see as well.

    As for you Eric, i consider you an online friend, I’ve enjoyed the chats and the articles you have posted. I think we became Facebook friends because of Drinky Crow, and I may have chatted with you when I was still a drinky drunk myself. You post well and politely, conduct yourself very well, and are a model netizen. Perhaps some of my stunts and tactics have kept me from such a title, you have done well as an internet intellectual. Not everyone roasts other people on the internet to a crisp, and in your case, that’s a very good thing.

  3. Thanks! I blame the trolls for saying something they know to be false. For me it doesn’t matter if you tell a lie in person, if you leave it carved in a tree, or post it on a network of computers.

  4. The issue I find is that I try to use ‘when in Rome’ and match my interlocutors level of engagement. But I eventually realised often people say things they would not say face to face (it’s like dogs barking at each other from behind a fence, but suddenly the fence runs out – so they run back to the fence and keep barking), so I wasn’t matching the person, I was matching their behind the fence attitude.

    Like, I think ‘Well, normally I wouldn’t say X, but then again people in real life don’t go about saying Y, so of course I don’t say X’. But then again I eventually realised most of these people would only say Y online. It’s weird. It’s talking with phantoms.

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