A few weeks ago Richard Dawkins changed the way the bulletin-board on his website functioned. He was shocked by the reactions left in the comment boxes, which were often abusive, angry, and even hysterical.
“Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, overreacting so spectacularly to something so trivial,” he wrote. “Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people?” There must, he felt, be “something rotten in the internet culture that can vent it”.
Why is the internet a breeding ground for such venom? It’s not just the anonymity afforded to those who respond, or the speed with which the responses can be posted. It’s also the feedback mechanism that allows members of internet groups to reinforce for each other both their best convictions and their worst prejudices.
James Harkin describes the process:
The paradox of the “wisdom of online crowds” is that it only works in clubbable, relatively small groups of like-thinking minds. The reason why the richest and most productive audiences online are for the most arcane subjects – on the relationship between economics and law, for example, or how to care for cats – is because everyone involved feels part of an exclusive club dedicated to finding out more about the same thing.
However, it’s for exactly the same reason that many of these clubs can become breeding grounds for vicious tribalism. The brevity required for communication on Twitter does not lend itself to decorous etiquette, but neither is it the soul of wit to circulate snide, snarky tweets to an enthusiastic group of followers.
Too often the online audience separates into a series of rival gangs, each of them patting each other on the back and throwing stink-bombs at the other side. In this environment civility can disappear, with the result that those who do not take an extreme approach in offering their views decide that online forums are not for them.
When everyone is reinforcing everyone else’s opinion in an online echo-chamber, there’s little need to state a case or debate one’s opponent. It’s easier – like the schoolyard bully – just to abuse them. The other problem with online “communities” is that decisions about quality often become snagged in a highly conservative and self-reinforcing feedback loop in which everyone queues up to follow the leader.
So it’s hard to keep a website or blog running that will genuinely be a place of dialogue and discussion, rather than just a tribal meeting point.