The Apparent Impossibility Of A Positive Internet

Even Grumpy Bear knew the value of caring.

Recently, I’d been having a bit of trouble about what to write next. I think sometimes in the bloggery world, unless you’re a definite overachiever or one who can write reliably, you go through bursts of inspiration, followed by a bit of a dry spell. Sometimes what gets you going again can be a major world happening, or a significant epiphany, or a commentary on something everyone knows about but hasn’t commented on yet.

Sometimes, however, you just want to write about something simple, like Wil Wheaton’s “don’t be a dick”. But writing about something simple sometimes turns into something complex and detailed, so for those of you who don’t have the time or can’t stand my walls of text, the short version is below:

The “Too Long, Didn’t Read” version of my post: A positive Internet is possible with a little effort and behavioral change, and does have an effect – if not on others, on at least yourself, so do it – you’d be surprised at the results. Also, see Wil Wheaton’s quote.

Ok, now for you more avid readers (both of you), no doubt armed with a coffee or a meal to eat while you read…here’s my point, in text-crushing detail.

Recently, (now former) Destructoid contributor Ryan Perez decided to get “tipsy” and “act poorly” (his words, not mine) over Twitter. Normally, this isn’t newsworthy, people do it all the time, right? The problem was that he chose as his target Felicia Day, and, well…let’s just say “he chose poorly” (thanks End of Show for condensing the tweets):

 “I keep seeing [you] everywhere. Question: Do you matter at all? Do you even provide anything useful to gaming, besides “personality?” could you be considered nothing more than a glorified booth babe? You don’t seem to add anything creative to the medium.”

Let’s first address the notion attached to my upcoming main point, which is, were Felicia Day male, this comment, though still rather jerky, would be less magnified than it was. It’s a pointed question more than outright jerkishness, but let’s be frank – the question would not have the pointedness and borderline rudeness it has were it not implying something correlating to Felicia Day’s gender as a gamer. The idea that female gamers and geeks should not only expect the kind of trivialization of their actions but accept it, because there are dudes online that have the maturity of a snail when addressing them, is ludicrous. It’s kind of insane how often this happens online, and is one of the few places where online culture is actually NOT more progressive than “RL”. My best friend in the entire world, who is a female geek and a wonderful person, has to put up with more unnecessary caution, issues of perception, and jerky behavior than I do every day she’s online. This, despite the fact that she’s logged probably 3 times as many hours as me on Dragon Age, can recite a ton of Red vs. Blue season 1, and could kick your ass in most PvP in MMOs while coming up with a hilarious epithet to describe her suffering a death. It’s time that we stop worrying about the fact that someone’s reproductive organs being on the inside rather than the outside matters when judging their membership into geek subculture.

Seems like common sense, right? But the main point of why I’m writing is attached to what some people might say when they read that I think people should stop being jerky online, not just to women, but to everyone and anyone. It’s also a common thing that I get told when someone discovers that I write positive and lighter side articles for the most part on my blog. “It’s the Internet,” they say, “You’re never going to change that”, while at the same time shrugging their shoulders or doing the equivalent of throwing their hands in the air.

To this day, my response is always the same: Why NOT bother? Why not make some small effort on my own, or through the efforts of the very few who watch and read me online, to create a more Positive Internet for people? Why is that viewed as a Sisyphean effort of impossible proportions, when we’ve seen so many times the power of online community and effort on Reddit, where a brother can ask for support for his autistic sibling and get it, or on Twitter where suddenly fired employees can have industry support and opportunity behind them? Why is this impossible? Because it’s clearly not.

Let’s look at some of the most common points said when people don’t think making a more Positive Internet will work:

Argument: There are always going to be assholes online. No matter how much positive you create, there will always be negative. You can’t wipe out the fact that people can be jerky, and it’s futile to try.

Counterargument: Be part of a solution not to be an asshole online, and you help counter the assholes. My blog is always positive, but it is by no means naive. I know that there always be jerks on the internet – the medium and ease of participation means it’s as inevitable as water being wet. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to create more productive and positive experiences for ourselves and for others. The alternative is to do nothing, and to do so doesn’t necessarily mean you’re part of the problem, but it doesn’t help try to fix it, either. If you take the time, even if it’s in very small ways, to counter the monolith of dickishness online, you are playing a part in taking a stand against it.

Argument: I’m one voice among millions. Mine doesn’t matter. Because of the sheer number of people online of all ages, you’re a drop in the water. Most people don’t have a huge following, so my individual contribution makes no difference.

Counterargument: Don’t underestimate the power of the Dark Si-uhhh….of the Internet’s “small parts to a whole” effort, because that does matter. Ryan Perez’s common response to the outcry against him for his comments is that “he’s nobody” and that he doesn’t matter online. Unfortunately, what he fails to notice is that A)when you take on a title, or a mantle, or a position that involves being online, you do have a voice that matters to people and responsibility is attached to that (i.e. the Spider-man argument) and that B)a small voice can be heard (or in this case seen) by a ton of people, at any one time. Those of you who know me, know that while I don’t have a huge following, I do carry one due to who I work for, and what I’ve done. Just because my voice can’t always be heard among millions doesn’t mean it never has the potential to do so.

Let’s put this to a real example. If we’re all in a crowd waiting outside for a theater to let out so we can go in and sit, and someone decides to loudly argue with someone else, does it matter terribly that the loud person is or isn’t famous or well-known? It certainly would exacerbate the issue if they were, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter that they’re somebody – only that they’re being not only loud but obnoxious. Now give that crowd the ability to potentially hear every conversation happening outside the theater, and repeat it to their friends, who can then repeat it to theirs. That’s how Twitter works, and why ultimately, the “my voice doesn’t matter” argument fails to gain traction – especially with an effort to have a more positive Internet. Sure, you may have a fraction of the followers I do (I barely get past 850, and I know I’m above average), or only your friends to work with, but why should that stop you from trying to make a positive effort online?

The way the Internet goes, any effort you make, however small you think it is, has the potential to make it out to a greater audience. Most people who get (however briefly) internet famous never expect to be as such.  That’s the power the Internet has – so why not use it for something good? Even discarding this entire argument, what wrong is there in making a personal effort for yourself to not be a part of the morass of Internet commentary? The short term benefit of potential gratification from being a jerk online pales in comparison to the long term benefit of not being seen as one.

Argument: Why be a “white knight” when people should understand that the internet is not all rainbows and unicorns? “White Knighting”, used oftentimes when someone wants to be derogatory about someone defending a female online, has the dangerous side effect of making people naive about the ability to champion overly idealistic standards. People need to know the internet is not a pretty place and not be shielded from it.

Counterargument: The Internet does not need to be a shark tank by default. It’s really unfortunate that we have to default to telling people new to using the Internet that there are very real problems and awful people on it. Not only does this fuel a stigma about the types of people who spend a lot of time online, but it also isn’t a good way to build the online culture, which is increasingly something that is not niche, and more something that is ingrained in our society. By asking people to create more of a positive Internet, by being kinder, by being assertive and not aggressive, by not being dickish, I’m asking people to create more of a positive experience by default, not send them into the wild unprepared for what might happen. We don’t send our children to school with just precepts of sharing, caring, and being nice – we tell them to look both ways when crossing the street, not to talk to strangers, always check-in if they’re going to be late.

We can tell people to not act like dicks online while also preparing them for the fact that there are people who ARE dicks online and that we should deal with being online carefully. My parents began using Facebook a year ago, and they’ve had a positive experience overall because my wife and I prepared them for what to avoid as well as how to be a positive contributor. It’s worked, and now my parents actually understand some of the stuff I do here and don’t see it as hand-waving magic. As cool as it is to seem like Gandalf online to my parents, I’d rather they be prepared.

Argument: You reap what you sow. I should be able to defend whatever I want online by any means necessary. Because of the freedom of communication, if people put themselves out there, they only have themselves to blame for the results if someone or if I decide to respond to something they say.

Counterargument: You reap what you sow. But you get better results defending yourself with precision rather than with scorched earth. It’s probably clear from everything else I’ve written, but I’m not asking people, by creating more positive Internet experiences, to turn the other cheek. Nor am I asking them to walk away rather than take a stand for what they believe in. What I’m asking people to do is to make the method of addressing issues and expressing opinions better. If someone challenges you online or is even a jerk to you, the key thing to remember is that you don’t have to grab the Nuclear Flaming Bomb of Destruction by default. If you respond with class, which is ultimately what Felicia Day did in response to the comments towards her, that’s fine, but the point is that you can respond assertively and firmly and you’ll honestly look better for it.

I say this because I think that oftentimes, people are dicks to one another in arguments online because they want the validation that comes from a community agreement to their opinion – or a condemnation of the one they oppose. If that’s the goal, being able to say “I think you’re being a bit unkind and short-sighted when it comes to what I believe, because of x, and here’s where I’m coming from” will achieve that goal much better than “SHUT UP. YOU’RE BAD AND YOU SHOULD FEEL BAD. AND YOUR DICK IS SMALLER THAN YOUR MOM’S LOLOLOL”. If you take the time to defend yourself in a way that positively contributes to the discussion, and the other guy’s a dick, guess who the Internet sides with most of the time? It’s not often the dickish dude, and even if it was, why add to the problem by being equally or a greater dick than the dick you are arguing with? The point is, passion and fervor for your beliefs is possible to be expressed in a way that, while potentially strong-willed, is ultimately better for the people that could be reading about it. You’ll at least get your point across, which is the whole point of correct internet discourse.

Conclusion: Because this is too long already, even for me.

I could go on, but I’ll stop here as I’ve gone on for long enough. I know that people who do read me, like to read a bit of idealism, but some do say that the things I think about are sometimes out of the realm of possibility, because they’re just too positive to really be realistic. I really and truly believe having more of a positive Internet isn’t one of them. It’s like I’ve seen before – we’ve seen how powerful online efforts can be. We’ve seen what people will do if they feel motivated and believe enough. More positive Internet experiences are just simply a long-term effort stretched out past the initial rush of contributing to a group effort. I’m not expecting change overnight. Heck, I’m not even really expecting change on a mass scale. I think what I am expecting is that people make small changes and efforts for themselves, if not for others, to make their experiences online a bit better than reading the latest train wreck or commenting in a jerky way that has (most of the time) little to no consequence due to being anonymous, online, and having an audience.

How to be craft a more positive Internet? Don’t choose to use the most tired Internet meme-of-the-moment to “own” someone online, give them something they can’t be dicks about without looking bad. Don’t make some stupidly stereotypical comment for a few cheap laughs on a message board, challenge someone properly. Don’t spew out acid and hatred, think before you communicate, even if you’re not giving others’ hatred a pass. Be of help to someone with a basic question asked online, rather than deride them for their ignorance. I could go on. These aren’t hard. These aren’t crazy difficult or foolish pie in the sky beliefs. They’re common sense, something that can be applied more liberally and obviously in everyone’s online interactions, but which are so often ignored in favor of the instant gratification of being an asshole.

I’m not asking for Care Bears online. What I’m asking for is for people to know and understand that they have the power to change their behavior for the better and not surrender themselves to what seems to be inevitable. It’s only inevitable if you choose to do nothing. By doing something to have a more positive Internet, even if it ultimately benefits you, at minimum you’re trying, and it can have an effect that is far-reaching. You at least will get the score – that we don’t have to put up with dickish Internet behavior, or at the very least, accept that it’s there without doing something to counteract it.

4 thoughts on “The Apparent Impossibility Of A Positive Internet”

  1. Ysharros says:

    I’d take it that step further and say people should bloody well be a little nicer to each other in “real life” too. I’m getting old enough to finally understand why my elders used to say people aren’t as courteous as they used to be. Courtesy (not insincere “friendliness”) greases the social wheels and makes everybody a little happier – or a little less unhappy.

    Nice post, as always.

  2. Barona says:

    I am with Ysharros… There are jerks in RL and jerks on the internet. But they are only counter-balanced by more individuals being good people – which is what we should all strive to be. If we knew how to stop jerks being jerks, then we as humans would have done so centuries ago. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. In fact, it means we must. To badly quote a cliche out of context, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

  3. Stabs says:

    One of the interesting developments of the internet is the joining up of real life with virtual life through social media. Fifteen years ago bulletin boards were pretty anonymous and being less than truthful about your real life was not uncommon (eg I’m an astronaut brain surgeon with the CIA). Now if you fully integrate into facebook and twitter you’re not private, in fact you’re more exposed than any previous generation.

    In some ways this could be really revolutionary as insulation has been a method of preserving socially unacceptable subcultures. In the future where people have no secrets if you’re a sexist pig women will decide not to go out to dinner with you when they check your Facebook page after you ask them out.

    Of course it’s still possible to simply keep private but the culture is moving away from accepting that as a person’s prerogative.

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