Us vs. Them: What’s Wrong With You People?

Internet, we need to talk. In a nuanced, thoughtful, intelligent way. I don’t want this to turn into some kind of knee-jerk confrontation. But it will, won’t it? You’ll end up citing the Nazis while frothing at the mouth, won’t you? That’s what you do. Every. Single. Time. What’s wrong with you, Internet? Why can’t we just agree to disagree? By which I mean, of course, agree that you’re an idiot.

There’s incensed Internet drama everywhere I look these days. Journalism drama. Publishing drama. GamerGate. Oh, GamerGate. I’ve tried to make sense of you, I really have, but every attempt drives me back to the immortal words of Cracked:

“Gentlemen,” we said amid the stunned silence, “do you realize that if what they’re saying is true, then this is still the most pointless fucking bullshit anyone has ever forced us to read?”

I love you, Internet, but sometimes it seems like you’re mostly an outrage factory. A hate-inducing tweet or blog post appears, and everyone in its target audience attacks like a school of piranha, erupting into vituperative geysers of rage and scorn — usually without ever clicking through to the primary sources, which often tell a rather more nuanced tale.

This is even true when the subject in question is objectively morally meaningless. Don’t even get me started on the petulant conniptions thrown in the comments whenever TechCrunch writes about either Android or iOS with anything less than worshipful obeisance. Why do so many people treat their preferred smartphone OS with the fervent loyalty of religious fanatics?

Why are you so prone to this endless seething miasma of stupid fury, Internet? (To be clear, I am not at all calling on people to be nicer. I’m calling on them to be smarter.) Is the fault in ourselves, our stars, or the architecture of our social media?

I think it’s fair to say that social media exacerbate certain cognitive biases in ways extremely deleterious to meaningful conversation. Confirmation bias. Ultimate attribution error. Filter bubbles. And, especially, survivorship bias — ie, people involved in Internet drama are almost invariably outliers, because most people can’t be bothered with that crap. (Adam Savage says “the Internet hates women,” but I think/hope that’s slightly unfair; the Internet just seems to have a special hate for women, because angry misogynist losers are disproportionately represented.) Add those all together, and we have a piquant recipe for today’s endless series of empty online trainwrecks.

But I think that’s too simple, too low-level. There’s something larger going on here. Is it like the hygiene hypothesis for allergies, in that modern Western life is so devoid of any actual struggle that people have to seek it out online to feel alive? Or is it the polar opposite: so many people are so ground down by the day-to-day inhuman bureaucratic brutalities of modern life, barely hanging on amid debt and endemic inequality and the jagged wreckage of their broken dreams, that they turn to the Internet as the only outlet for their transferred, repurposed rage, since there’s little-to-nothing they can do about it in meatspace?

I realize this sounds paradoxical, but: I suspect it’s some combination of the two.

We all want to believe we’re right, and we all need struggle in our lives. What’s more, most people are indeed a member of one or more systematically oppressed or marginalized groups1, and fighting whatever structural persecution your in-groups are subject to seems like a pretty meaningful and important thing to do, right? Absolutely! With you so far.

But on some level everyone wants to feel oppressed — it bestows a sense of righteousness, and justifies all their failures — so virtually everyone winds up participating in the online Persecution Olympics, to the extent that even “traditional gamers” try to present themselves as a kind of online nation victimized by a systemic conspiracy of persecution and oppression. (Yes, yes, Not All Gamers. I know.)

Meanwhile, paying attention to oppression that only affects your in-groups means ignoring all the oppression that affects virtually everyone. Crony capitalism. Venal government bureaucrats. (Of course left-wingers will deny the latter are such a big problem, in favor of attacking right-wingers, while right-wingers will deny the former really matters, while attacking left-wingers.) Oh, yes, and advertising, too, the fuel on which all social media runs.

I don’t blame you, Internet. On the contrary. In most circumstances, you’re an enormously powerful force for good. You’ve just brought out two worrying facts endemic to humanity: we automatically adopt us-and-them mindsets, and it’s always more instinctive to fight for your in-group(s) than for everyone.

But spare a thought for actually constructive actions, and/or more universal struggles, next time you’re tempted to join in on some kind of online Pavlovian persecution pile-on, the vast majority of which is only ever seen by the choir of your personal filter bubble, and accomplishes nothing but an ephemeral hit of emotional validation. Or better yet, step out of that perpetual vicious circle for a moment:

…and go for a walk in the woods instead. Who knows, you may come home inspired with a way to actually make a real difference, rather than indulging in dumb, tedious, meaningless online venting.

1I speak as someone who actually isn’t; straight white Canadian men have never been systematically oppressed by anyone, ever.

Image credit: Wikimedia