I have a confession: Sometimes, I enjoy being mean on the Internet.
Some days, it will creep on me; other days, I’ll see a commenter that annoys me and go straight for the throat. Either way, I’ll find myself with that familiar feeling of a cat batting around its catnip toy, and feeling good about it.
I’ll look around my imaginary social club, looking for validation from the other people in the conversation. The high fives, the looks of awe, the pats on the back. This is the confirmation that I am smart, witty, and rhetorically superior to this sap that I have just humiliated on the Internet.
Call me a bully. Call me a troll. Call me a hypocrite.
It is not a behavior I’m proud of; it is something I struggle with, although when I’m in “the zone,” it feels like I’m not struggling enough.
I know I’m not alone in this behavior. I see it all over the internet. Time magazine recently did an article about the internet’s growing Culture of Mean, but of course that article was written in the third person. We don’t like looking into our own abyss. The trolls and the bullies are always someone else.
I don’t consider myself a troll or a bully. However, sometimes, I contribute to the meanness on the internet. If I know that it’s the wrong way to behave, why do I do it?
I realize that I have a brain that processes things in a certain way, a way that doesn’t seem to be shared by most people. As a child, this way of thinking was called “genius,” and I was called “gifted.” Teachers generally adored me, and my classmates disliked me.
As I grew, my culture gave me two messages. One was that gifted children didn’t fit in with the general population; this was the message that I got both from the rejection of my peers and the acceptance of my teachers and other adults around me.
The other was that geniuses, especially boys, get social credibility by sneering at everyone else. Matt Damon came to prominence in Good Will Hunting, and a classic scene in the film is his take-down of Clark, the pretentious college student who, in turn, is trying to embarrass Damon’s character, Will: “How do you like them apples?” Similar messages are delivered in movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Real Genius, staples of my teen years. Be they hero or villain, intelligent characters in film and TV are routinely some mix of insufferably arrogant and condescending.
In general, male bravado consists of beating our chests and shouting, “How do you like me now?” My verbal strutting is the intellectual man’s version of that bravado.
Meanwhile, the social media aspect of the Internet is designed to feed our dark sides. It provides an avenue for the instant gratification of our need for attention and validation. Prior to the Internet, if we had strong opinions, we had to either build local communities of the like-minded or find avenues for publication. Publication was a lengthy, expensive process. Facebook is instant. Validation comes quickly, in the form of “likes.”
The Internet is also more about the audience than traditional conversations are. An argument with someone at the local pub gets lost among all the other discussions taking place, but an argument on the Internet has an uncountable number of silent witnesses. A disagreement at the pub can be ended, and never be brought back again, simply by walking away; the few witnesses of the conversation need only pretend it never happened.
In contrast, a disagreement on the Internet exists forever. These days, people are taking screen shots of Twitter feuds and pasting them in other venues. Humiliate someone on the Internet, and tales of your success could be told in lands far and wide, without your knowledge.
When I’m in the zone, batting my prey around like a catnip mouse, I’m not interested in what they’re saying. I’m interested in how everyone else watching the conversation is reading it, being impressed with my obvious intellectual superiority.
But one problem with the silent audience is that anyone involved in the conversation can imagine their own version of the audience. While I’m imagining a crowd of admirers awestruck by my rhetorical genius, the person I’m talking to may well have his own vision of his victory.
So we argue, back and forth, both convinced that we won the argument.
So here is the source of my dysfunction: I fulfill my need for validation by displaying my perceived intellectual superiority on the Internet. I feed on the notifications of “lol” and thumbs-ups that flow in.
Sometimes when I get too aggressive, I’ll look around my imaginary roundtable looking for approval but instead get scolded. Cognitive dissonance kicks in: My friends are turning against me. I get angry at the comments that undermine my self-concept.
I don’t want to be this way. I was bullied as a child. I see this rhetorical strutting and humiliating as a form of bullying. I don’t want to be a bully.
But this is a compulsion, a visceral state. I can grow, but the temptation is still going to be there to feed the beast. I’m better than I used to be. I catch myself sooner, and I do it less often.
Still, sometimes, I do it anyway.
Part of being an adult means navigating the emotional straits that live in the lower parts of our brains, monitoring those negative impulses. These challenges have always been there, but the Internet offers instant gratification of those urges.
Do you find yourself having these sorts of moments, wondering how you could be posting something in a moment of weakness that you regret later? Or perhaps you’ve been blindsided by someone you thought you know, commenting over-the-top meanness.
There is enough true cruelty in the world without the good men adding to it. All the same, we’re human, and we make mistakes. Let’s work harder on being mindful of those behaviors.
A clip from Good Will Hunting and the bar scene with “How do you like them apples?”
Photo credit: Flickr/Daniel