Why Being Mean Online Is Never the Way to Go

Keep it in the DMs, if you must

Credit: d3sign/Getty Images

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today, to give you a better tomorrow.

InIn early January, the internet erupted over a blog published on Bon Appetit. “Why I’m Never Buying Dollar Pizza Again” by Alex Delany critiqued the very notion of cheap slices because of their “mediocre” ingredients and something about the environment. He reasoned we should splurge on $4 slices.

Twitter didn’t take this well. People reasoned that the article was classist, in that the writer didn’t take into account why someone would only be able to pay a dollar for a pizza slice. Someone dug up one of Delany’s old stories about the proper way to hold and consume a slice, to which someone snarked: “Someone needs to come get this mans.” (Delany declined to comment for this article.)

Was some of the social media criticism warranted? Sure. But was it really worth all of this? No — and the pile-on reveals a harmful tendency on social media that has more side effects than you might realize.

A few months ago, I made it a goal on Twitter to, as I call it, “keep it in the DMs.” Instead of snarky retweets or posts in which I rage about something people already know about, I’ll direct message or text it to a friend. We’ll bitch privately about how wrong the author of the piece was, expressing our frustration without infecting anyone else — including the original writer. The stupid article will fade into obscurity faster because fewer people are propelling it into the public eye.

It’s been a mildly successful experiment — I still post emotional tweets, only to realize my mistake and delete them a couple minutes later — but I feel a lot better, like I’m saving my public anger for issues that really matter.

Of course, having a rude or combative online personality doesn’t necessarily mean you’re like that IRL. But the internet does make it easy to unthinkingly engage in mean, unhealthy, or generally negative behaviors that we might avoid in our offline lives.

“When we’re communicating with other people online, we’re communicating with disembodied representations of them,” Nicholas Brody, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound, tells OneZero. “So when you’re not communicating with somebody’s actual physical presence, you tend to disassociate what you’re saying from how it affects them.”

That’s one reason it’s so much easier to express anger or frustration online, or even to mock someone, than it is in real life: The perpetrator doesn’t have to see the expression on their target’s face when they attack them in a tweet. In a 2004 paper in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, psychologist John Suler defines this as the “disinhibition effect.” “Invisibility” is one factor that contributes to disinhibition — both “benign disinhibition,” in which people might feel more open and comfortable, and “toxic disinhibition,” in which cruelty and negativity become easier to express. And in a 2011 study, researchers found that the lack of eye contact that comes with communicating via screens, even more than anonymity or invisibility, contributed most significantly to negative online disinhibition.

A 2012 sentiment analysis of interactions between popular Twitter users and their followers found that audiences tended to replicate the moods of the larger accounts they followed.

That’s why a person like myself, who is relatively shy offline, feels more socially comfortable online. But it’s also why I’m more likely to get into an argument on the internet than I would IRL.

It’s not just how being online can unleash problematic aspects of my own personality. Because the things I say or boost on social media reach a larger audience than the opinions I voice in a physical context, the potential impact of those words can be much larger. A 2012 sentiment analysis of interactions between popular Twitter users and their followers found that audiences tended to replicate the moods of the larger accounts they followed. In other words, if a popular Twitter user goes on a rant about a slightly annoying article, it will cause their followers to post similarly angry and irritated tweets.

And if there’s a human target for someone’s rant, it can be even more harmful. Brody, whose research has focused on how the bystander effect is expressed in online communications, tells OneZero that cyberbullying can be particularly destructive because of the size of the online audience.

“Whereas a traditional bullying incident might be witnessed by two or three other people, when we’re connected to, on average, hundreds of people, depending on which online context we’re talking about, it’s likely that many people will see this incident,” he says. “So when audiences are larger, that can exacerbate the negative effects.”

And it isn’t only the biggest and meanest accounts that shoulder this responsibility. In a 2018 article on Motherboard, Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, and Ryan Milner, an associate professor of communication at the College of Charleston, discuss how biomass pyramids, typically used in biological and ecological contexts, provide a useful method for analyzing how negative views and perceptions spread on social media.

Image: The Earth Project

A biomass pyramid can be loosely understood as a food chain. At the top is the apex predator, the animal with the most individual power of the ecosystem. Spreading below this creature are the varying levels of the food chain, down to the very bottom — plants, insects, and other seemingly less significant and powerful organisms that make up an ecological habitat. The food chain grows wider as it reaches the bottom because the amount of energy a lower-level organism provides is significantly less; for example, a bear would need to eat a lot more berries to be satiated than if it were eating a fox, which occupies a higher level of the pyramid.

This model applies to internet communication because, as Phillips and Milner write in their article, “biomass pyramids speak to the fact that there are far more everyday, relatively low-level cases of harmful behavior than there are apex predator cases.”

In other words, it isn’t only large accounts, coordinated harassment campaigns, and other major online events that spread negativity and cause harm on social media. It’s all of us, from those with huge Twitter or Instagram followings to the “egg” just getting started with their account. We all participate in making the internet a more stressful place with every negative comment, from snarky quote retweets to ironic inside jokes that create clear lines between who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

The problem can quickly snowball. One 2017 study out of Stanford and Cornell found that a combination of being in a bad mood and seeing negative social media posts doubles the likelihood of negative or trolling online behavior.

“You might think that there is a minority of sociopaths online, which we call trolls, who are doing all this harm,” Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell and one of the study’s authors, told the science publication Mosaic in 2018. “What we actually find in our work is that ordinary people, just like you and me, can engage in such antisocial behavior.”

Yes, the onus is on social media platforms to combat harassment, stalking, and the spread of misinformation, all of which contribute to unpleasant and dangerous online experiences. And the incredibly positive changes that can come from social media — from holding racists and sexists accountable to encouraging us to tell personal stories we might otherwise keep hidden — absolutely shouldn’t be ignored.

But for many of us, our tweets and comments are often nothing more than unfiltered babble. They’re meaningless bitching, pointless takes, and rants that don’t accomplish anything but spreading negativity.

Leah Finnegan, an editor at the Outline and former Gawker staffer, addresses this subject in her recent column, “‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.”

“In tweeting mean shit about Slate articles, I was speaking my truth. In writing sarcastic blogs, I was being real,” she writes. “Had I authenticated myself into a corner, one devoid of social acceptance and, perhaps more importantly and embarrassingly, love?”

The essay deals with a lot more than just being rude online, but it does, very beautifully, confront the ways we compose our online personalities to feel “real,” though we are often merely acting on our worst impulses. Sometimes, being our “most authentic self” online really just translates to being a jerk and running our mouths. While it feels good in the moment, in all likelihood, it won’t amount to anything positive — for you or for anyone else.

So if you see a really awful, terrible tweet, or when someone from your hometown posts a frustrating opinion on Facebook, just screenshot it — and then text it to your friends. Save your hot takes for the stuff that’s actually worth a public expression of anger or indignation. If we sit on our hands instead of firing off a snarky post, we might just help build an ever so slightly less miserable internet.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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