Sometimes I think the internet would be a better place if,
every time someone typed something cruel, a hand would come out of the monitor
and slap the offender around with a pickled herring (extra smelly for extra
It’s probably not a good idea to hold my breath waiting for
the mass-production of patented Dell Herring-Slappers 3000.
A lot of people think
the internet is a meaner place than real life, with trolls (people who like
provoking arguments) and flame wars (intense, acid and unduly harsh arguments) lurking
behind every virtual bush.
These folks are right and wrong at the same time.
There’s no doubt that people feel freer to behave however
they want without consequences, and that the internet has very few social
consequences for acting out. Sure, you might get banned from a website for
trolling, but there are plenty of other websites out there and you can always
just find a new online location to torment people from. You don’t ever have to
see your victims cry, and more importantly, you don’t ever have to worry about
getting punched in the face (until the Herring-Slapper 3000 comes out, anyway).
On the other hand, people can be very cruel in real life.
Really listen to the gossip at the water cooler or in the coffee shop some
time. There’s plenty of careful insinuations and negativity going on.
The difference between that kind of negativity and the online
kind is that it takes place usually between friends, and not between strangers,
and that it is also not in print, or at least, potentially in print if someone
chooses to hit a button.
Like it or not, having something written out makes it more
official, especially if it’s in a font and not someone’s messy handwriting.
Print also means semi-permanence, meaning that someone will
likely still be able to read your 2001 comment about how awful herring smells
and how it should be banned from the dinner table in 2015, even though you
softened with age and decided herring was okay in small amounts and paired with
crackers in 2012. The nasty stuff online lingers far longer than people are
likely to dwell on it at the coffee shop.
People often don’t think about that, and the way
messageboards allow you to immediately respond to a post means they often post
in the heat of the moment.
In addition, people willing to say something nasty in
confidence to a friend are usually not willing to say it to everyone in public.
They are also not willing to sign their names to it in print, especially not if
anyone in the world can read it.
Confidentiality frees people from the social consequences of
their postings and allows them to be as mean, or as nice, as they want. And as
in any medium, people are more likely to complain about something than to
comment positively about something.
Citizens usually don’t come to the city council to compliment
them on the recent anti-herring legislation. They do come if they feel their
herring-eating rights have been threatened, or if they feel that “herring” was
insufficiently defined in the law, or if they think the herring tax is too
People also tend to remember negativity more than positivity,
so if there are 10 positive comments and one negative comment, they will likely
pay more attention to the negative comment than all the positives put together.
When all these factors are taken into account, I think the
internet will seem no meaner-spirited than real life is, though people should
certainly clean up their acts and be nicer.
Or face the herring.
Kari Lucin, Reporter