Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry?

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A perfect storm engenders online rudeness, including virtual anonymity and thus a lack of accountability, physical distance and the medium of writing

 


With a presidential campaign, health care and the gun control debate in the news these days, one can’t help getting sucked into the flame wars that are Internet comment threads. But psychologists say this addictive form of vitriolic back and forth should be avoided — or simply censored by online media outlets — because it actually damages society and mental health.

These days, online comments “are extraordinarily aggressive, without resolving anything,” said Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “At the end of it you can’t possibly feel like anybody heard you. Having a strong emotional experience that doesn’t resolve itself in any healthy way can’t be a good thing.”

If it’s so unsatisfying and unhealthy, why do we do it?

A perfect storm of factors come together to engender the rudeness and aggression seen in the comments’ sections of Web pages, Markman said. First, commenters are often virtually anonymous, and thus, unaccountable for their rudeness. Second, they are at a distance from the target of their anger — be it the article they’re commenting on or another comment on that article — and people tend to antagonize distant abstractions more easily than living, breathing interlocutors. Third, it’s easier to be nasty in writing than in speech, hence the now somewhat outmoded practice of leaving angry notes (back when people used paper), Markman said. [Infographic: A Typical Day on the Internet]

And because comment-section discourses don’t happen in real time, commenters can write lengthy monologues, which tend to entrench them in their extreme viewpoint. “When you’re having a conversation in person, who actually gets to deliver a monologue except people in the movies? Even if you get angry, people are talking back and forth and so eventually you have to calm down and listen so you can have a conversation,” Markman told Life’s Little Mysteries.

Written By: Natalie Wolchover & Life’s Little Mysteries
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com

34 COMMENTS

  1. The internet isn’t what you think it is.  It’s full of so many people, and yet at the same time utterly unrepresentative.  If you make a comment and 10 angry people shout at you, it feels like you are being attacked somehow.  You aren’t, not really, because you have no idea how many people aren’t angry because of what you said.  In this way the internet focuses hatred and anger and magnifies disputes.  An example of this is newspaper articles put on-line, and available for comments.  Newspapers get more advertising the more hits of their site they can show.  They get more hits by encouraging dispute on-line.  So, in these situations you aren’t just seeing the natural way that the internet magnifies disputes, you are seeing such a situation engineered.  

  2. I’m glad real academic psychologists have said these things. I long ago identified them all as a mutually-reinforcing web that led to such unpleasantness. Which is not to say I’m somehow super-smart, more that if even I can see it happening and isolate the factors involved then it’s a pretty obvious phenomenon indeed.

    We simply haven’t had a communicative medium like the online forum before. Even emails are more like letters in the way they’re used. One factor I think is often overlooked is that commenting on the internet is free. Yes, you pay for your subscription and service provider, but once you have you can make as many comments as you like as often as you like. When paper was expensive people wrote letters with great care. When stamps were expensive people refrained from posting letters long distances. Electronic communication has taken all of those traditional communicative barriers away. And, related to this, the internet forum is open to pretty much everybody. A letter might be copied and circulated, but it could never achieve the ubiquity of a forum post. And all such posts are available instantly and to everyone, and everyone can comment.

    The human brain did not evolve for conversation and communication in this manner. Even the biggest tribal meetings or moots of thousands did not work this way. It’s utterly without precedent, combining all these diverse factors together. And I do think we should at least be wary of what it does to our habits and psychology, if not outright afraid. 

  3. As Carto wrote – confirmation of the bleeding obvious.

    So take what you read on the wicked wide web with a huge pinch of salt.

    There is even a cartoon:- http://laughingsquid.com/someo

    Even with anonymous posters, I get to know “avatars” – their personalities, intelligence and knowledge, as well as I know people in the flesh. Some are idiots to be avoided like the plague, others are usually worth listening to.

  4. (Angus) Stafford Gordon is indeed my name, and that is my very T shirt, purchased from this website’s store. 

    I judiciously avoid being rude on line, despite often feeling the temptation to be, and I often invite a response to a post of mine, if only to be corrected by someone better informed, from whom I can learn. 

    But, I don’t want my whole physiognomy to be disclosed on this site for reasons which, if explained, would negate my reasons.  

    However, I do take the author’s point, and although no angel myself, I’m of the opinion that insults and swearing only ever weaken an argument, and for that reason I very much dislike seeing it on RDFRS. 

    I think that the highest standards are called for here; after all, visitors enjoy contributions from some of the finest minds in the world.

  5. I think this is a gross generalisation, with some truth in it.  A lot depends on the moderation of the sites.  Some, like this one, value objective evidence and civility, – others have axes to grind, or are mainly just pointless asserted ignorant opinions.  In the end, the choice of site is yours.

  6. Only sad people get completely furious and lose sleep about the opinions expressed by others on a forum and if they resort to ad hominem in expressing their displeasure they’ve lost the plot.

    If anyone disagrees with what has been posted they should confront the argument with a better argument, a barrage of insults is infantile and pointless.

  7. There’s an old word that has acquired a fresh definition: Troll.

    My point is, as this new and splendid form of community experience evolves, new standards and techniques also evolve to deal with the concomitant abuse[r]s. The reasonable participant has no difficulty separating ad-hominem from legitimate vociferous argument, while the obvious asshole is very easily culled.

    I think the denizens of net fora develop a ‘new’ sensitivity somewhat akin to the concept of personal space. Civil conventions haven’t been destroyed, but are changing before our eyes.

  8. This article is a load of bollocks. What kind of person would write something like that?

    j/k

    Really, though, it does ignore the fact that writing aggressively is entertaining, potentially for both readers and writers. Presumably this guy would be down on Voltaire and Jonathan Swift. There’s also a pong of smelling salts and the moronic idea of “Civility”, i.e. ignoring bad behaviour if it is conducted in a formally polite way, whilst denigrating the person of anyone who breaches protocol, regardless of the validity of their arguments.

  9.   In this way the internet focuses hatred and anger and magnifies
    disputes.  An example of this is newspaper articles put on-line, and
    available for comments.  Newspapers get more advertising the more hits
    of their site they can show.  They get more hits by encouraging dispute
    on-line.  So, in these situations you aren’t just seeing the natural way
    that the internet magnifies disputes, you are seeing such a situation
    engineered.

    Very true. Also, certain sites tend to draw younger people who are highly unskilled in their behavior. Because of the anonymity of the internet, people feel free to verbally slam someone. We used to say this about road rage.

  10. A few random thoughts:

    In face to face, everything you say generates some sort of body language reaction.  On the net unless they explicitly acknowledge everything you say, it feels like they are paying no attention.

    On the net you communicate with people you would never let near your living room.

    People are ruder in cars knowing the car body protects them from being punched out.  Similarly they feel safer to be inflammatory with the separation of a TCP/IP link.

    In face to face, you can get a rise acknowledged with just a face twitch.  On the net you need to make your opponent go ballistic and make a fool of himself. This requires greater provocation.

    On the net you communicate with people who live in communities with radically different value systems. 

    On the net you communicate with ESL people.  They say odd things and interpret things in a an odd way. If you don’t allow for it, you can create fights.

  11. I have to agree with this article.  I really enjoy reading the various religious and nonreligious websites for every point of view, and, of course, I share most of the positions of atheists and secularists.

    However, one thing that has really stuck with me over the last couple of years has been how similar the posters tend to be, regardless of site.  The vitriol is waaaay over-the-top, and while atheists have rationality and logic (usually) in their arguments, the venom is pretty much the same.  It sometimes makes me wonder exactly where I fit in, because, while intellectually I’m firmly in the atheist/secularist camp (and I get just as disgusted at pure religious stupidity as the next person here), I frequently find myself uncomfortable with the level of attack and insult that flows from so many ‘net atheists.

    This website is one of the exceptions, and I am extremely grateful for it.  It seems to follow Dawkins overall approach:  attack the positions, but not the person.  I could only wish far more atheists (and theists) would act with the same dignity and class.  Disrespect simply doesn’t allow for effective discourse.

    Even as we speak, there are flame wars going on in PZ Myer’s site over at FreeThought Blogs…atheists attacking atheists, in fact.  With other events that have happened over there in recent months, it has completely turned me off to a website that I’ve usually enjoyed.  It isn’t PZ’s fault, obviously, but nevertheless I really don’t want to read people acting like vermicious kinids.

    It just seems so unnecessary, and completely unproductive.

  12. I’m a little torn on this article.  It has little bearing here.  I have seen what on this site passes for heated argument and I have seen the quick trigger finger of the mods here deal with trolls.  And there are many other sites similarly well managed I visit to learn as I do this one.

    But there are sites I frequent, sports venues and Youtube for instance, where I find myself dragged and compelled after a civil stab or two to dive to the level of the debate.

    On the sports sites it always starts with OT (for off topic), followed by something like, “stock up on guns today because Obama is going to take them away.”  Or “Jesus says…”

    On Youtube I’ll watch a debate between Hitch and his punching bag of the week and see a comment below from a wingnut gleefully proclaiming his champion had humiliated Hitch and it is beyond my powers of restraint to let it go unchallenged.

    I am never the first to get nasty but often the first with a little sarcasm and when it gets nasty, I can give as good as I get and usually better.  So, when it comes to this article, mea pretty damned culpa.

    There is just some stupidity, especially when being steamrolled forward by equally idiotic confirmations, I just cannot let lie there on the web unanswered.  Does this make me a bad peron?  Probably.  Is this behavior I’d act out without the Web?  No; therefore, I am still a bad person at heart as pointed out by Twain in “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.”  The Internet is only the enabler.

    To another American icon, Pogo, “I have seen the enemy and he is us.”

  13. Part of the problem is that some mods don’t make that distinction in either direction. An attack on a position of an ally is an attack on the person or group, so will be withdrawn, whilst an attack on an enemy person or group can be unlimitedly vicious provided they avoid certain taboo subjects. That’s fairly standard in US discourse with respect to enemy states and power blocks (internal and external), unfortunately, and has been since the early 20th century at least. It gets reflected in general political discussion too, it seems to me, whether participants are aligned with the centre right or far right party. It’s sad when supposed rationalists perpetuate this national tradition.

  14.  I’m a little torn on this article.  It has little bearing here.  I have seen what on this site passes for heated argument and I have seen the quick trigger finger of the mods here deal with trolls.  And there are many other sites similarly well managed I visit to learn as I do this one.

    It has enormous bearing on the atheist community of which this site is part. Have a look at 

    http://www.michaelnugent.com/2

    and make sure you read the comments afterwards to get a flavour of how the atheist community is destroying itself online.  

    Michael

  15.  It isn’t PZ’s fault, obviously,

    Why obviously ?  It’s his blog he could moderate them all out.  He could also moderate his own language and avoid saying things like “slime-pit” which are going to set it all off again. He has said he is quite happy to leave behind atheists who don’t share his broader political positions. 

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/ph

    Michael

  16. There will always be flamers who, without a rational argument, will automatically start with the abusive rhetoric to make their point. Fine, certain sites allow this, others don’t (I prefer the ones that don’t). On Prof. Coyne’s site, he doesn’t allow it from either side and will get on your case if you start up. Other sites allow those who agree with the position of the site to flame anyone who disagrees, even if they’re trying to make a calm, reasoned argument. This is a major problem IMO.

    People, who I’ve read for years and respect their ability to make rational, calm points and will admit when they are wrong are being attacked as misogynists, or gender traitors, or bleepity-bleeps, just because they express a different opinion. These people include Russell Blackford, Miranda Hale, Paula Kirby, decius, Phillip1978 (tea guy, remember him?), Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne and many others. I don’t consider any of these people as persons who are known as flamers who won’t listen to the other sides’ point of view and have a cogent, rational, calm discussion. But all of them have been called names, ridiculed, “boycotted”, put on an enemies list and otherwise treated like &%$#. I’m not arguing from authority here, they may be right on some points, they may be wrong. But I know that they can discuss as adults and don’t deserve the treatment they’re receiving. 

    The sites who have a “you’re with us, or against us” policy, aren’t worth reading IMO and they should consider changing their policies before trying to force policies on other organizations.

  17. Some of this is self-selecting of course, in that many grumpy people gravitate to places where expressing said grumpiness (always within site specific mores though – goodness me there are always these!) is condoned at best and explicitly encouraged at worst.

    Having a different ethos at different sites is perfectly fine, of course, but inconsistency and hypocrisy is a real cause for irritation. Polite sites should always be polite and rude sites show tolerance for all types of rudeness.

    What does concern me is that we do not know yet what long term emotional effect that this type of anger can have on people.  This is especially true for those who take to the internet, with their armour on and swords drawn, in order to have an opportunity to gain power against those who, in real life, who have made them feel powerless. The problem is that this anger is, for the vast, vast majority of the time, misdirected: aimed instead at those who have done no particular harm.

    It strikes me that an argument could be made that people hosting discussion sites have a moral duty to not put their own publicity – always increased by opportunities to show rage – over that of the mental health of their posters/participants/contributors (call them what you will).

    Anger can be addictive, and is ultimately deeply destructive.

  18. Short answer: Because we’re so informed.

    If you knew how, who and why people were destroying the world and it’s civilization, you would be pissed, too.

    It’s a matter of time, we don’t have much. We’re angry because we care and we know how late it is for our world. We’re in dire times, indeed. Time to start getting angry, or die.

  19. But the angry comments seem to me to be an indulgence for the writer only, where’s the world changing?  I’ve seen users elsewhere tell people the world would be better off without them.  Why? Because they disagree -obviously! Why else? 

    I bet they justify their comments using the same reasoning too.  The world is terrible, we are in an awful place, if you knew how dire our situation was you would understand why I’m so angry and why I say the things that I do.

    But when I think about that I’m forced to consider the people working face to face with the worlds actual problems, and I doubt very much that they would sympathize with what passes for righteous anger online.

  20. “Why is EVERYONE on the internet so ANGRY?” is one of those loaded questions, like “Why is Richard Dawkins so SHRILL?”

    Professional writers often work hard to choose the right words to convey the right tone. Amateur writers do this less, one imagines. But anonymous writing has always carried a sting. Our contemporary world just makes more of it now.

    Once again, this publication’s article seems more American than Scientific.

  21. I think I lasted about ten posts on PZs site. Frankly, I cannot stand the type of behavior and language there. I think the place is run by a bunch of college kids. At least I hope that’s the case, I usually don’t run into people with such unskilled behavior after a certain age. Imagine if Richard started to post comments Fucking this and “dumbassing” that, the environment of this site would turn around quickly.

    This website is one of the exceptions, and I am extremely grateful for it.  It seems to follow Dawkins overall approach:  attack the positions, but not the person.  I could only wish far more atheists (and theists) would act with the same dignity and class.  Disrespect simply doesn’t allow for effective discourse.

    I agree mostly, though this site is not perfect with giving someone respect. Yet, I’d like to see a few more arguments; things are a bit safe around here.

    On Youtube I’ll watch a debate between Hitch and his punching bag of the week and see a comment below from a wingnut gleefully proclaiming his champion had humiliated Hitch and it is beyond my powers of restraint to let it go unchallenged.

    It’s so tempting to want to smash ridiculous views online. People say them so freely that you want them to snap out of their delusion.I found myself commenting to people on Yahoo news (the worst place ever on the internet) Finally, I thought why am I doing this? No one is actually reading this and thinking about it and I’d rather be painting outside or something. I sometimes feel this way about posting here.

    I think it’s important to choose your battles even if the battle is against you. I’m used to people saying BS about me in my everyday life, so if someone says something to attack me online, I just fluff it off. Sometimes, I just don’t even respond because I know that in 24 hours the person will move on to something else and probably forget what was said. It usually isn’t worth my time and if people want to view me in a lesser light then so be it. People do not know us online and can jump to conclusions and assume much. We do not see body language, facial expressions and voice intonations. At times, misunderstandings occur. At times, we might type something and not care about what was said.

    I have no true relationships with anyone online (though there are a few people that I enjoy chatting with more than others.)If I don’t like what is going on, I can just click away. What is that saying about having too many “friends” on Facebook? Unfortunately, many people are fine with the internet being a substitute for actual living. This is clearly a problem because I fear that people have substitute problems instead of facing real life challenges.The cartoon of the man at the computer while his wife calls him to bed is a perfect illustration.

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