If you’re here, this probably isn’t your first time on the Internet. And that being the case, you’ve probably noticed that the Internet tends to turn people into assholes. Anonymity plus a soap box equals assholes. Or is that the case? Are people who are trolls online trolls in real life? Or is being a troll in the eye of the beholder?
The “nice people who turn into trolls online” meme came up, most recently, in an article in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section. Writes Charles Arthur:
The more time I spend online, the more I notice that people are really struggling with the double-edged sword of freedom that the web provides. The freedom at last to make your voice heard, but also to use that voice to insult or hassle, while assuming that there won’t be any retribution for saying things you wouldn’t on a street or across a table in a pub. Some think they can swing that sword with impunity.
Arthur considers some possible solutions, like forcing everybody to use their real names (which would never fly) or restricting free speech somehow (except that the U.S. has the First Amendment). He concludes that maybe there should just be a sign that flashes occasionally on websites, saying “what you’re doing here might not remain private.”
But here’s the thing — I feel reasonably confident that the “Walter Mitty” model of Internet trolling only accounts for a small percentage of the overall troll population. Rather, most of the trolls out there are people who would be just as happy to troll you in real life… if you ever spoke to them in real life.
The magic of being a grown-up is that you get to choose whom you socialize with. Sure, you have to talk to your coworkers sometimes, but there are rules about how obnoxious you get to be in the workplace. And chances are if you work in a white-collar professional environment, most of the people you work with are self-selected to share at least certain values with you. They may be more liberal or more conservative, but they’re probably not foaming at the mouth. And most of your coworkers, you only see within the bubble of the workplace and “professional behavior.”
In fact, even if some of your coworkers are internet trolls, it’s not the lack of online anonymity that’s keeping them from trolling you in person — it’s the chilling effect of “workplace behavior” and professionalism.
The fact is, you can meet internet trolls in real life, and they will be just as trollish in person as they are on the internet. It’s just that, when someone starts screaming at you on the street about their crazy conspiracy theories, you can walk away. Also, most of us who are over the age of 21 don’t make a point of hunting down random 14-year-olds and asking them what they think about stuff — unless we’re related to them, in which case it’s a self-selecting group. Most of us who live in city centers also probably don’t venture out to suburban malls and ask people what they think about politics or cultural issues, or vice versa.
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