It’s no secret that there’s a lot of anger and hostility on the internet. Whether it’s the comments section of a not-even-slightly-provocative news piece, the chat room in your online game of choice, or your social media feed, it can sometimes feel like decency is the exception rather than the rule. Granted, there’s also plenty of healthy conversation and lots of genuine, robust community, too. But some of the things some people say to each other online, we wouldn’t dream of saying to our worst enemies.
A lot of us have become numb to online incivility or think “that’s just the way it is.” But have you ever stopped to wonder just why it’s that way? Or consider that there’s an alternative?
I didn’t give it much though until I read Love 2.0 by social psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson. Among other things, Fredrickson shines a light on the what we need in order to feel secure in our social interactions. As it turns out, the majority of online communication is missing every one of the most important things.
Of course, except in extreme cases, we’re all ultimately responsible for our own behavior. And there’s no one thing that’s responsible for online hostility. That said, most online communication platforms make for a perfect storm of factors that reinforce and perpetuate poor behavior. Understanding these factors, and how to work with or around them, can help protect you from online hostility and create a healthier atmosphere in your online communities.
What’s Working Against Us?
The effect of the low accountability on online communication has been well documented in news outlets, popular science publications, and academic journals. Participants in online communication are usually anonymous and separated by physical distance. This reduces accountability, which weakens many of the social inhibitions against acting like a jerk. Even on platforms where everyone’s comment history is visible, the ability to simply walk away from that persona when we log off means this will always be a factor.
Of course, there can be a surprising amount of hostility on platforms where we share our whole name, like Facebook. So this doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s just one piece of the puzzle.
We humans are naturally empathic. That means we have some hardwiring built into our brains that discourages us from doing hurtful things to others. (Obviously that doesn’t stop such behavior altogether, but our disposition nudges us away from it.) But looking at letters on a screen is a lot different than looking another human being in the eye. That means that our inbuilt empathy is less likely to kick in and keep us from doing or saying hurtful and cruel things.
3. Social Cues
In her research into attachment and social contentedness, Fredrickson found several factors that can set the tone of a conversation even before it starts. The three most important are tone of voice, eye contact, and body language. You don’t absolutely need these to have a constructive, positive exchange, but lacking one of them can start it off on the wrong foot. And online, we’re missing all three! (Unless we’re using audio/visual, but that’s a small sliver of online communication.)
The reason this is important is that our brains unconsciously look for these things to decide if another person is trustworthy or if they’re a threat. This is deeply hardwired into our psychology through tens of thousands of years of human development. So when our conversations don’t have these elements, those tens of thousands of years are working against us.
4. Negativity Bias
The negativity bias is the tendency of the human brain to overly fixate on negative experiences. This is great at keeping us from being eaten by predators, but it also plays a big part in online hostility. When we’re missing tone of voice, eye contact, and body language, it’s the negativity bias that nudges us towards interpreting everything in the worst possible light. Have you ever posted a comment in neutral or friendly terms, only to have it misconstrued as hostility? That’s the negativity bias at work.
Tying all the above together is the notion of social reciprocity. When someone’s rude or hostile towards us, we reflect that attitude back 96% of the time. This is why it’s so easy for online communities to quickly become mired in toxicity. Once a norm is established, it’s hard to break out of it.
The good news is that this works both ways. Positive norms are just as likely to be reciprocated as negative ones.
So What Can We Do?
Obviously, there’s only so much we can do sitting at home browsing the internet. But there are a few tricks that can help you steer your online interactions towards the positive.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that negativity bias. If something comes off as standoffish or hostile, take a moment to reflect that it may be your brain jumping to conclusions. There’s always a chance that the comment wasn’t made maliciously. By the same token, remember that lots of people are going to interpret what you say with that same bias. 100% clear communication is never possible, but when things get heated, even simple things like carefully choosing your words or plainly stating your intention can go a long ways.
Even when someone’s clearly acting in bad faith, you can always try tapping into the power of reciprocity. Often, even someone who’s really riled up will drop their hostility when faced with warmth. This is a lot harder to do online than in person, for the reasons discussed above. But I’ve seen plenty of people turn from hostility to warmth at just a handful of well-chosen words, even online. Just look at how Sarah Silverman used compassion and charity to turn the tables on a harasser (volume warning on the accompanying video) – who’s now paying that generosity forward.
We all know that when we’re in the heat of the moment, we can say things that we later regret. If you feel yourself starting to get angry or emotional (this is called flooding), take a break for a few minutes. Walk away from the keyboard – or put down your mobile device – and do something else until your head’s cleared. When I’ve done this, I’ve almost always ended up grateful for saving myself the embarrassment of what I would have written in the moment!
Even with the best of intentions, some interactions will just turn sour no matter what you do. In those cases, what you do is up to you. Remember that you did what you could, and things are almost certainly better off for it. After all, there’s tens of thousands of years of human hardwiring working against you.
And always, above all, remember that there’s another person on the other side of the screen. It’s really easy to lash out at a block of text on a page. Thinking about the human being on the other side of a screen is a good way of helping your natural empathy kick in. There’s a reason the number 1 unofficial rule of internet etiquette is “Remember the human.”
We’re not going to revolutionize the online environment just by reading a blog article. But I hope this has given you some insight into why things are the way they are, and some tips you can put to use in your everyday online interactions.