Every Thursday in LOL Interwebz, Luke T. Harrington explores the quirks and foibles of Internet culture from a Gospel perspective.
You don’t have to look far to find the sentiment that Twitter is dead or dying. In fairness, the media has been saying that for a while, but the rumors of its death have certainly gotten louder and more widespread lately, with critics blaming everything from the spambot invasion to the end of two-way interaction. Over at Medium, though, Umair Haque has an interesting hypothesis: it’s because the site is rife with abuse, and the powers that be are doing nothing to stop it. He writes,
We have created an abusive society. . . . We are abused at work. . . . We are abused at play. . . . And now we are abused at arm’s length, through the lightwaves, by people we will never meet, for things we have barely even said. We live in a society where school shootings are the rule, not the exception, where more people will have taken antidepressants than not . . . and now one where nearly everyone will have been abused on the web . . . for a random, off-hand, throwaway comment, an idle thought, something trivial, unremarkable, meaningless. [bolded emphasis added]
This seems, broadly speaking, true. (I’ve written about it before.) Ours, somehow, has become a culture of rage and verbal violence. We can’t simply coexist with the people we disagree with: they have to be punished. Online, this often means not just berating people, but doing so en masse—forming mobs that hound them to the ends of the earth, till they’ve lost their jobs and even till they no longer feel safe in their own homes. Mob justice is the rule, not the exception.
How did we get to this point?
It’s interesting that Haque conflates this Internet mob justice with school shootings, though, because all the way over at The New Yorker is a piece by Malcolm Gladwell examining the phenomenon of school shootings through the lens of real-life mobs—that is, through riot theory. Sociologists have long wondered how otherwise “reasonable” people can turn into the sort of monsters who start fires, smash windows, flip over cars, and steal things off of store shelves. According to Gladwell, the answer lies in the work of sociologist Mark Granovetter and the idea of “thresholds”:
In the elegant theoretical model Granovetter proposed, riots were started by people with a threshold of zero—instigators willing to throw a rock through a window at the slightest provocation. Then comes the person who will throw a rock if someone else goes first. He has a threshold of one. Next in is the person with the threshold of two. . . . Next to him is someone with a threshold of three. . . . and so on up to the hundredth person, a righteous upstanding citizen who nonetheless could set his beliefs aside and grab a camera from the broken window of the electronics store if everyone around him was grabbing cameras from the electronics store.
In other words, most of us are followers, for good or for ill. The concept of “reasonable” people is in some sense a red herring, since there’s no way to arrive at “don’t destroy or steal property” by cold logic alone; our behavior is determined by what the people around us are doing and which course of action will reap the most social rewards. Whoever acts first in an ambiguous situation writes the script; the next few edit it; and then, with a few rare exceptions, the rest of us jump in and simply act it out.
Gladwell’s argument is that this is what’s happening on a national scale with school shootings. Just a few years before Columbine, many would have found a school shooting unthinkable, but now the script has been written, edited, and ossified, to the point that school shootings are almost entirely unsurprising. Most contemporary school shooters, Gladwell points out, have thoroughly studied the Columbine incident and are deliberately aping it. The script is there; we’re all just acting out the roles.
I think a similar principle applies to the sort of shaming-mobs that have become commonplace on Twitter and elsewhere around the Web. On a small-scale level, the analogy to meatspace riots should be clear: once someone has said something sufficiently offensive, all it takes is one person with a low threshold for dishing out verbal abuse to get the ball rolling. Then the people with slightly higher thresholds join in, and so forth, until the poor sucker in question has a potentially infinite online mob uninterested in anything other than fitting in and reaping favs by berating, harassing, and doxxing that person.
On a larger scale, though, this holds true as well. Much as the school shooting script has been written for us, so has the script for online abuse. We now take it for granted that people who have said things sufficiently offensive deserve to be hounded out of their jobs, their homes, and even their families by an online mob (or at least that it’s inevitable that they will). It’s hard to say who was patient zero for the online rage cycle (Monica Lewinsky has applied the title to herself, and who am I to argue?), but in the last few years, it’s become so commonplace that it’s something we all expect to happen.
So what’s the solution? You change the script.
Obviously, that’s easier said than done—but it’s happened before. Perhaps some of you will recognize this quote from a couple millennia ago:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
A culture of violence can be changed to a culture of mercy with just a few words, particularly when those words are seen lived out by the ones who speak them. It’s not easy, of course. The lion’s share of attention always goes first to the ones doing harm, but when people see love being lived out, eventually they turn and look.
I don’t know exactly what it will look like, but maybe we should be the ones to turn it around. Maybe we should answer the call to be the salt and light of the Interwebz (that’s a thing, right?), the ones with a threshold of zero for showing love even to its most hated denizens.
It won’t be easy. (The easy thing would be to join the mob.)
But I think it’s worth a try, don’t you?
Image via Wikimedia Commons.