14 April 2023

The bratty internet

This is, of course, a trivial problem compared to many that afflict us.  But it does affect the quality of interaction on the internet and probably even the willingness of many people to participate in it.  To a startling extent, the default mode of self-expression on the internet has become vulgar, insulting, juvenile, coarse, even obscene.  It's not universal, but it's pervasive.

There is, to start with, the widespread casual use of profanity -- fuck this, fuck that, fuck you, "fuck your feelings" -- it's completely routine in some cases, like punctuation.  I use profanity occasionally, as does nearly everyone, but its proper function is to express serious anger or agitation, not to be a normal mode of speech used most of the time (if you actually are in a state of serious anger or agitation most of the time, that's a "you" problem for which you should seek professional help).  Profanity can sometimes be creative or amusing, but that's rare, and even rarer among those who use it frequently.

There's the exuberant embrace of a stance of truculent pre-emptive hostility toward the world, exemplified by the frequent use of imagery featuring an upraised middle finger and by the endless proliferation of "memes" tediously elaborating on the phrase "I don't give a fuck" -- "Behold the field in which I grow my fucks, for it is barren" and the like.  The first two or three of these you see can be mildly entertaining.  By the time you've seen a hundred of them, they have the same effect as a toddler repeatedly shouting "poo poo pee pee" and then giggling at his own cleverness.

There's the acronym BFYTW, regularly seen on some far-right blogs.  It stands for "Because fuck you, that's why" and is regularly used when doing or saying something pointlessly nasty.  It's a red flag for the kind of mentality that would encourage one's dog to shit on the neighbor's lawn just for the sheer hell of being a petty, shitty person.

There's the proliferation of coarse put-downs specifically targeting women -- the "shut up and go make me a sammich" stuff on the right, the Karen-calling on both "sides", the gross use of words like "cunt" and "pussy" as insults for men (being branded with something female is treated as degrading to a man).  To a disturbing extent, such put-downs are sometimes explicitly sexual, with an undertone of sexual aggression and menace.

There's the silly over-indulgence in insulting nicknames for public figures.  Nicknames can be funny or on-point if used sparingly -- I've occasionally used "Agolf Twitler" for Trump and "Moscow Mitch" for McConnell, for example.  But some people use the nickname in place of the real name almost every time they refer to the person, which rapidly becomes irritating and tedious.  If the nickname is substantially longer than the real name, as is often the case, repeated use of it can be really aggravating.  The essay looks un-serious and even becomes difficult to read.  And some right-wing nicknames are deliberately disgusting, like "Pedo Joe" for Biden and "Buttplug" for Buttigieg.

The blog "Nick Here and Now" recently posted on some of these habits, attributing them to the broader problem of erosion of filters and of self-restraint, leading people to simply blurt out whatever comes into their heads without any consideration of what it will sound like.  If that's the case, some people's heads must be real sewers.  He also includes the frequent use of death threats and rape threats on social media as part of the same problem, though I'm more inclined to see that as a serious and pre-meditated strategy to intimidate opposing views into silence.  It's noteworthy, however, that the kind of people noted for making such threats are often the most performatively hyper-sensitive people on the net, constantly declaring themselves to be terminally offended at any opposing viewpoint no matter how politely and carefully expressed, shrieking that any resistance to the most unreasonable demands is "literal genocide", etc.

Nick may be on to something, though, given that the overall impression given by all this swearing and rudeness and vulgarity and name-calling is one of immaturity.  Those filters and self-restraint are among the defining features of adult behavior, after all.  It's only online that all this performative rudeness is even possible.  An adult who, in the real world, constantly said "fuck you" and gave the upraised middle finger and used irritating nicknames and so on, would quickly be fired from his job and disinvited from family events.  People just don't want to deal with that kind of thing.

Donald Trump undoubtedly helped normalize such behavior, at least on the right -- he's one of the few people who really can get away with talking and behaving like that in the real world, because all his life he's had wealth and power to insulate himself from the kind of blowback most people would get for it.  And it's noteworthy that Trump is often compared to a toddler.  But the problem existed before Trump ran for president (this and this date from 2011), and it isn't limited to the right.

I don't have a solution to suggest.  Censorship isn't the answer (it's never the answer), and the misbehavior I've been describing is too trivial and petty to merit most substantive sanctions of any kind -- and most people have higher priorities than dealing with it, anyway.  That's why it persists -- it carries no obvious costs.  It does, however, make writing harder to take seriously, and it may be losing some potential readers.  I tend to drift away from reading sites which consistently indulge in this kind of stuff, not even because I'm trying to "punish" them for it, but simply because I find it irritating and there are always plenty of other sites to read that don't do that.  And, of course, one can try to set an example by not being bratty in one's own writing.  Others who find the trend wearisome will make their way to you.


Blogger Lady M said...

It amazes me how people behave online when they would not dream of interacting with an acquaintance in such a manner. A friend of my referred to it as Facebook balls. I generally stay off of many sites because of it, having been attacked years ago for expressing an opinion someone did not like. They are pointless arguments with nothing achieved so I won't waste my time. I even got off Facebook as I really don't wish to know what people had for lunch. I like blogs because, if chosen carefully, they often yield some pretty interesting reading. If I disagree, I generally keep my mouth shut and just stop reading the blog.

14 April, 2023 09:33  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I too like Nick's blog. Some people just troll the internet looking for things they can cause drama on. I have a family member like that. It's easy to put people down behind a screen when you have no real consequences.

14 April, 2023 13:19  
Blogger V6Math said...

Who gets to decide the "proper function" of profanity?

14 April, 2023 17:14  
Anonymous Burr Deming said...

Good article with it's own modest solution: creative phraseology about the boring use of graphic profanity.

I suspect part of the cause is technology. Lady M is onto something. Dialogue with strangers combined with anonymity encourages liberties we would not attempt with in-person conversation.

Lack of social consequence, with not even facial disapproval, pretty much exposes the inner toddler.

14 April, 2023 18:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Lady M: "Facebook balls" is a good term -- not that I read Facebook, but from what I hear, the standards on social media are even worse than in the blogosphere. Blogs do at least allow for a wider range of formats, so as you say, you sometimes get something of interest, and there seems to be a lot less of people posting pictures of their lunch (how the heck did that get started?).

Back-and-forth arguments are usually a waste of time. At least the internet gives me the option of just disengaging if people try to do that.

Mary K: Nick covers some interesting stuff. And at least the non-face-to-face nature of the internet makes it easier to just avoid interacting with the "drama" types.

V6: In practice the society in which you're communicating decides what types of communication it will choose to put up with, and the consequences of particular styles make it clear whether widespread use of them is desirable or not. See my third-to-last paragraph (starting with "Nick may be on to something.....") -- in the real world, if somebody goes around using profanity more than rarely, most people will decide they don't want to interact with him at all. As to desirability, we can see the results of treating profanity as routine from looking at the corners of the internet where people actually do that -- a boring and inane toddler "poo poo pee pee" level of infantile babbling.

Ultimately almost everything about language is determined by convention and consensus. It's only by convention and consensus that we use the word "dog" to refer to a specific type of domestic animal that barks and growls and expresses happiness by wagging its tail. Nobody "gets to decide" that, it's just what the word means. If you use the word "dog" to refer to a tree or a car, you're not doing anything immoral, but you're creating a pointless communication problem and will probably irritate people. Saying that the proper function of profanity "is to express serious anger or agitation" is just the same kind of convention.

Burr: That seems to be it. Anonymity online is necessary for safety, but it also emboldens those people who never quite matured properly to bring out that "inner toddler".

14 April, 2023 20:51  
Blogger Jack said...

Hasn't all this stuff become far worse ever since we took one specific "god" out of public schools? I'm not serious, of course, but I hear this claim at least weekly.

It is clear that there has been a gradual "coarsening" of our culture happening for some time. Popular culture reflected this before the internet in music, TV, and movies. The internet seems to have accelerated it, and I think you are right that Trump accelerated some of the worst of it.

It looks like it reflects a decline in empathy for others, but it is hard to know which came first, what direction the relationship may take, or whether there's another factor fueling both.

15 April, 2023 06:48  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I'm sure someone will actually make the "God" argument. A whole lot of things have happened since we started actually enforcing the First Amendment for schools, and any of them could be attributed to "taking God out of the schools", if one isn't required to propose a plausible basis for cause-and-effect.

The coarsening of non-internet popular culture is a good point, although I feel like that's improved a bit, more recently. Is rap music still as disgustingly misogynistic as it was a couple of decades ago? Not that I'm really in touch with it.

15 April, 2023 21:12  
Blogger Martha said...

"people's heads must be real sewers" Yeah, pretty much. And being anonymous online certainly plays a role. A lot of people who behave this way on the internet wouldn't behave the same way in the real world.

16 April, 2023 04:55  
Blogger applequeen said...

I utterly hate the term "Karen". Some of the acronyms you listed I had never seen, but I don't hang out on far-right blogs.

I am censored from commenting on several blogs I follow, mostly because I have differing view of transgender ideology, especially as it concerns children. I am not against transgender people at all or the civil rights of any person whatsoever. But because I have expressed a different point of view, I am now not allowed to post ANY comment on ANY subject whatsoever. One blogger banned me from his blog completely, even though we agreed on many other issues.

I don't get this internet nastiness but it's not just the internet. People get into it all over the place. There's a general decline in manners culturally. It comes down to how we, as a culture, teach our children. Do we teach them how to greet people, how to talk respectfully, how to enter & leave a room, how to eat at the table, etc.? No, we don't. Our movies & TV shows & the videos on Tik-Tok reflect this & that's where kids learn.

You can blame Donald Trump, or Facebook, or the internet in general, but this mean culture has been growing for a long time. Think about the Jerry Springer show ... that started in 1991. Rush Limbaugh started his hate-filled radio show three years before that. That's a long time for the virus of hatred to grow in a culture. I never understood the appeal of these kind of shows but they have definitely become who we are & maybe that's who we always were.

16 April, 2023 04:58  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Martha: Well, some people's heads are sewers. I really don't even have an underlying urge to talk like that which needs to be suppressed. I think those who do have some kind of low-level mental issue.

Applequeen: "Karen" for women works almost exactly like "uppity" for blacks. And the people who use it sound just like the people who use the latter.

Some people can't tolerate any deviation whatsoever from orthodoxy, with the trans thing being an especially sacred cow. There actually seems to be less of that mentality on the right, probably because more of their beliefs are based on conspiracy delusions and thus vary completely randomly, so there's a lot more variety of details of beliefs and they have less leeway to insist on total homogeneity.

(I have a couple of permaban-on-the-first-offense issues -- no siding with the trolls who harassed me for literally years and the poisonous ideology they were defending, no attacking the cause that my British-born mother was passionate about above any other -- but at least I'm completely upfront about them, right above the comment box.)

There does seem to be a breakdown of teaching children to behave properly. I suspect it's linked to the normalization of two-income families, where children spend much of their childhood in daycare instead of with their mothers, and spend a lot of time on the internet before they're mature enough to recognize toxic behavior instead of emulating it.

16 April, 2023 19:03  

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