I have a problem.
Sometimes I like to be snarky when I’m on the internet.
It seems in my quest to become a recognized writer (something that I’m sure resonates with most) I’ve taken at times to being an overly sarcastic, dare I say ‘troll’ to folks who just want to go about their days doing their jobs like normal.
There are times though, that I’m keenly aware that I might’ve gone too far. One can usually tell by the lack of responses they get, be it retweets, likes or comments, there are times when all of us have said something we regret.
Such is life though, right?
Still, snark on the internet raises an interesting question about who we are as moral creatures.
We are all aware of the controversy surrounding Reddit user “violentacrez” and his seemingly unending quest to troll most of the Internet. Violentacrez made a, shall we call it a career, out of posting comments and content that never failed to rustle the jimmies of the larger hivemind and unapologetically kept it up for quite some time.
Who was this guy and why would he do such a thing?
Simply put, at what point does trolling go too far? At what point do the morals we’ve grown up learning (or always innately had) go out the window for the sake of entertaining people we’ve never met, or even worse, for the sake of making an internet name for yourself.
Normal people like you and me would probably think twice before posting a racist, sexist or bigoted comment on the internet, but if the comments below YouTube videos or across the internet wasteland of 4chan tell us anything, it’s that some people get a kick out making the rest of us feel uncomfortable.
Of course, the normal practice of trying to make someone laugh via sarcasm or bad jokes via social media can sometimes be taken the wrong way. In our heart of hearts though, we’re not actually trying to insult people, are we?
Some people are.
Claire Hardaker, a University of Central Lancashire lecturer put out a paper in 2011 titled “Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-Mediated Communication,” in which she tried to analyze the “art of the troll”.
According to Hardaker, a troll is an individual “who constructs the identity of sincerely wishing to be part of the group in question, including professing or conveying pseudo-sincere intentions, but whose real intention(s) is/are to cause disruption and/or to trigger or exacerbate conflict for the purposes of their own amusement.”
Her studies involved examining nine years worth of un-moderated comment content on an internet forum about horses, and in that process, she concluded what anyone who has been using the internet for at least a month has also concluded: trolls are to be ignored or trolled themselves.
Still the question remains, what type of person, besides a sociopath, would take to trolling as a legitimate form of entertainment, let alone use of time, which has always been too fleeting in and of itself?
Anonymity on the Internet seems to be quite a large factor in the troll’s game. Essentially, the ability to be anonymous can free us up to express some things we would never openly express in public.
From the basal bigoted ideas we harbor, yet tell no one about, to the insecurities we’ve learned to collect throughout our time in society and on planet earth, trolling seems to be a stream for a number of these personal prejudices to come to the surface without our identity being known.
Why should anonymity matter though? Aren’t people taught or inclined to be at least somewhat decent in their daily dealings in the real world? Why should the same not be true for the world of the Internet?
In exploring this, the base question of morality comes into play.
For this, I’ll reference a study I’ve referenced several times before and that is the work Karen Wynn and others at the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University have been doing.
Basically, they’ve been exploring whether morality is innate or learned through studying the behaviors of infants.
The most interesting aspect of their research suggests something a little troubling. Babies, in essence are bigots. Let me elaborate.
In exploring the preference of ingroups versus outgroups among infants, Wynn and her colleagues have found that babies prefer people who are like them in some way over people they deem different.
Interestingly, the ability to accept these differences only starts to arise around ages 4-5 when we’ve, seemingly, learned enough about society to understand the idea that ‘others’ are people as well.
But why the initial ingroup preference?
I hate to bring evolution into this but a preference for similar social groups has been beneficial in human survival since before time itself. It’s good recommended practice that we stick with those who can benefit us toward survival in some way or another.
We need care and attention during the first phases of our lives, as does every other creature on the planet. Until we’re old enough to take care of ourselves, it seems pretty obvious that we should stick with the people or things that can provide that care and attention.
I’m pretty sure there’s been an outpouring of scientific studies on this very phenomenon since, almost, the beginning of science.
So where does that leave us?
It seems that our time as functioning members of society conditions us to be nice to people, no matter who they are. But the base bigotedness we conceal that helped bring us into this world, it seems, will always remain.
That’s why, when people get the chance to express their inner bigot by being anonymous, they will take the opportunity.
As to the question of whether or not morality is crumbling with the rise of the Internet, I’d venture to say that morality is as strong as it ever has been. People are still nice and kind to each other and it’s safe to say they always will be, it’s just that the trolls get all the attention.
I think as the internet evolves, morality will evolve with it, but as long there are good kind people who say interesting things and remain unnoticed, there will be trolls who’s insecurities cause them to try to make everyone upset.
People (Mr. Swartz for example) have sacrificed a lot to keep the Internet an open and accessible space for everyone.
I think we should probably learn to respect that.