The internet is not and has never been a place of decorum and manners. Small pockets can be – big open areas accessible to everyone are not.
Direct, face-to-face society requires one set of rules, between strangers at the grocery store or family eating dinner together. Familiar, non-anonymous internet requires another – Discord servers and forums expect a certain level of politeness from members, but it’s a little looser than face-to-face. Jokes might be a bit ruder, and advice might be blunter, but that can be a good thing if users are trying to be constructive instead of destructive. Tone tags, a recent development that has been semi-successfully introduced in these tide-pool like communities, help ease communication further.
Past that, we get into public social media. To say people are ruder (both by accident and on purpose) is an understatement. While most people are nice just because they are, there is a small percentage of people who are nice to avoid social consequences, and once they think those consequences won’t apply, they start trolling. They may not even be doing it on purpose! The online public assumes bad faith. If something can be read wrong, it will be.
As a general trend, the bigger an online community or space gets, the worse the mood gets. Strangers get meaner to other strangers than they do to their online friends or strangers in real life. They’re more casual. They’re ‘stans’, hyper-fans of their favorite singer, who will defend them from any criticism to the death. They’re bizarrely obsessed with correcting information in forums that don’t have the space for nuanced discussions of the thing being corrected. In real life, they’re polite, but online, they don’t need to be. There aren’t any consequences outside of a potential blocking. That is, until terrible data security comes into play.
Bad Data Security
The online public is rapidly approaching the same information saturation as the in-person public. Trolls used to be mostly anonymous – now, when someone leaves a weird or mean comment on someone else’s Instagram or TikTok page, there’s a solid chance they’ve left their real name, video footage of their face, and possibly footage showing the outside of their home or major local landmarks somewhere on their profile. You could find that person. This is no longer a fuzzy, indistinct image of someone smashing on their keyboard from their parent’s attic – it’s a thirteen-year-old who just posted about their football team winning the regionals, and the guy in the Tiger mascot suit totally tripped and scraped up the head part when they all went to a local family burger joint named ‘Buckley’s Burgers’ on Swanrise Blvd. after the game ended at 8 PM, Eastern time. Their full name is in their bio, as well as their diagnosis of anxiety and their real age. Friends of theirs are shown on their profile. They probably even have their Instagram linked. Anyone could find this kid. It would be a matter of three Google searches to find the town that restaurant is in, schools in the area, and then which of those schools has a tiger mascot. That’s all it would take.
Being so casual online about being mean, and also being so casual about the data they’re releasing, makes doxxing and cyberbullying easier than ever. The average cyberbully has enough semi-private information to send their target into a breakdown. Sure, everyone knows that people are mean online, but the data – that’s totally new. This upcoming generation of children has not been taught to avoid sharing this data. The generation of adults currently making up most of the internet does not care anymore. Constant whistleblowing about how Facebook is harvesting everyone’s data has made the average Redditor, TikToker, Instagrammer, et cetera complacent about what they’re sharing because ‘Facebook knows anyway’. Yeah – but Facebook is selling to advertisers, not giving this information freely to people who would just love to make a point out of showing up somewhere to bump into their nemesis in public.
Worse, some corners expect users to freely give out info that could put them in danger for safety’s sake. Age is a big one: labelling accounts run by minors as such is supposed to keep both adults and those minors safe, without forcing either of them off the platform. Adults can block minors, and minors can block adults, and both get to stay in their bubble and only interact with who they are ‘allowed’ to. But it doesn’t actually work that well. Firstly, kids lie about their age to get accounts with more permissions all the time, and secondly, adults do too! Having a minor marked as a minor is not a magic forcefield protecting them from harm. The same goes for mental illnesses, neurodivergencies, disabilities, and more. Demanding these labels be in a bio before a member is allowed to comment in a forum or on a video means that member now has to show the entire online public that they may be easy to lie to, that they could seize if DM’ed pictures of flashing lights, that certain pictures or audio clips might trigger PTSD episodes, and more.
If you’re a part of these platforms, remember – you don’t owe strangers anything more than base-level politeness!