Why people act like complete assholes on social media comment threads
If people interacted in person the way they interact online, the civil fabric of society would quickly unravel. Screaming profanities from rooftops would be the norm; badmouthed brawls would break out in the streets everyday at high noon; neighbors would start clobbering neighbors with garden gnomes — bleeding, slobbering on each other, howling like mad dogs.
It would be chaos. And it wouldn’t be long before bullets started flying instead of insults.
Yet that kind of trollish, confrontation-driven behavior has become the social norm on social media. Digital discussions often devolve into slugging matches between bull-headed cyber strangers completely uninterested in meaningful discourse. Shit-headery in the world of social media is fast approaching critical mass.
The seemingly obvious explanation is anonymity. Because people can’t see each other, there are fewer consequences to slinging insults that would otherwise get you socked in the face. But Cliff Lampe, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, doesn’t think it’s that simple.
“The role of psychology is actually a lot more complicated than people think,” he says.
Lampe has studied online communities for over two decades, supporting sites such as Slashdot, Facebook and Wikipedia. And he thinks that the anonymity theory over-simplifies the deeper psychological motives people have for acting like assholes online.
“I like to think of online discussions as an attention market,” he explains. “A lot of people are motivated to say something in an online community because they want to hear what others think about it.”
The problem is, when someone says something to another person’s face, they get a lot of nonverbal communication cues in response — hearing reactions and able to see what facial expressions and body language are conveying.
Online, all of those cues disappear. Instead of that rich wash of visual cues one gets from an actual in-person interaction, they only get a like. Or an up/downvote. Maybe a comment.
“Because the audience is so invisible in social media, my theory is that it really drives people to act extremely in order to maximize their signals,” says Lampe. They ramp up the potency of their opinions and amplify their voices for the sake of shock value.
And the louder and more exaggerated their statements, the less likely a civil discussion is to follow.
Lampe is quick to point out, though, that “civility” online doesn’t necessarily mean politeness. It isn’t a lack of manners that makes online discussions so counterproductive so often, he says, but a lack of constructive effort.
“We may disagree [online], but we have to find a way to come to some sort of agreement so that we can move forward,” he continues. “It might be that we’re mad at each other, it might be that we’re rude to each other even, but we have to collaborate toward a goal.”
So, maybe the antidote to this confrontational online culture is a little direction — a more defined purpose for online communities like Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. Some deeper and more meaningful objective than merely fishing for attention.
That’s not an impossible goal. It’s just a little bit like asking a leopard to change its spots. The question isn’t so much why, it’s how?
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