There are three types of people who intentionally cause other people hurt on the internet.
First there are the trolls; those the IT purists will tell you emerged long before Twitter and online opinion sites. From what I’ve read (and I’m sure I’ll be corrected if I get it wrong), the troll’s main goal is to provoke anger or other extreme reaction from their subject and then feed off the energy that is generated by that emotion.
Then there are the bullies, who are quite different to trolls. Anyone who has been subjected to bullying can attest that it manifests in many ways – ranging from outright threatened violence to subtle but sustained denigration. In contrast to the troll, the bully’s main goal is to feel superior: either in strength, intelligence, wit or popularity.
And then there is the third type of person who intentionally causes other people hurt on the internet: the rest of us. Yes, you and me.
There are times for pretty much all us online (I’d venture), when we just can’t help but say some something hurtful to someone else. We might do it because we’re outraged by their behaviour or something they’ve said. Sometimes we do it because we don’t agree with their point of view or find it simply ridiculous. And sometimes we do it because other people are doing it too and we want to fit in.
I’m not without guilt: I admit that I get a bit Old Testament at times, lashing out at people who sledge others or have caused me hurt in the past. Yes, I have also (quite often) ridiculed the cohort of people known as The Greens and Their Supporters.
But in a similar fashion to that described by GrogsGamut in his book, these days I mostly try to exercise self-censorship in the hope of preventing something that could degenerate into ugliness, and I rigorously moderate the comments on my blog for the same reason.
Unfortunately, relying solely on self-restraint will not do much to reduce the hurtful ways in which we sometimes voice our opinions, emphasise our disagreement, or attempt to appear witty and entertaining to our friends.
As Jonathan Green pointed out this morning, online human behaviour is no different to that which occurs offline. So maybe we need to start pulling the two worlds into better alignment.
In real life, if one of your friends rolled down their car window and yelled some of the sledges that are made on Twitter to a passerby, what would you do? Would you laugh and pat them on the back? Maybe reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution? Maybe you’d pretend it didn’t happen? Or would you say, hey, that’s out of line?
What about the same behaviour in the pub, at the footy or at a party? I’m pretty sure most of us would intervene somehow and try to defuse the situation, rather than turn a blind eye or succumb to the pack mentality and join in.
I understand the reasons posited by experts as to why people think they can get away with extreme behaviour on Twitter and similar places. They feel less empathy because they can’t see the body language of their “victims”; they breach societal boundaries because they are largely anonymous and not accountable for their actions.
Nevertheless, in most cases bullies on Twitter and elsewhere (and people like you and me who can also be hurtful), have friends and followers who have ways of communicating with them. If there were more occasions when sledgers and bullies were told by their peers that they were out of line, degeneration into pile-ons and flamewars could more often be avoided.
So next time someone you know says something hurtful on Twitter, what will you do? Will you laugh and retweet them, reinforce the insult with your own witty contribution, or perhaps pretend it didn’t happen?
Or will you send them a DM or text and say, hey, that’s out of line?
Postscript: A very considered, and relevant, contribution to the discussion.