It’s incredibly hard to ignore the toxic whirlwinds of negativity that crop up all the time in online communities.
There’s a lot of negativity out there, most of it unwarranted: personal attacks, gossip, rumors, trolling, and just plain hate. And it’s self-perpetuating: negativity breeds more negativity. The widespread appeal of negativity crosses all cultures and generations, from angry teenagers saying everything sucks to extremist fanatics teaching their children to hate people of other races or political views.
Those attacked have an innate desire to defend themselves, but it’s not always a good idea: to someone producing negativity, accepting anything but more negativity is defeat. If you’re telling the world that some people suck, the last thing you want to hear is that the reasons you think they suck are invalid and they’re actually pretty cool people. Once a negative opinion is formed, most people’s instinct is to defend and reinforce it.
People aren’t always this vicious in person, or you don’t feel it as much, because real life provides a few big filters:
- Most people abide by common courtesy.
- Most people are too cowardly to attack with their names and faces exposed.
- You’re far less likely to know if someone in a different room or a different state or a different country says something bad about you.
- A nasty uttered comment doesn’t have the reach and infinite preservation of online publishing.
- The would-be attacker is more likely to see you as a person, rather than a faceless corporation or blog author, and give you the benefit of the doubt. It’s hard to trash-talk someone after laughing and drinking together.
So online communities and media tend to bring out the worst of people, not because internet users are inherently nastier people, but because most common filters are removed. This effect also applies to a lesser extent when people are driving cars: they’ll frequently behave more selfishly than they would in person because they know you can’t see them and you’ll probably never be near each other again.
This is why communities that encourage using real names and/or photos for identities (Vimeo, Flickr, Amazon) tend to have much more civil, constructive, and valuable discussions than those that are usually anonymous or under fake names (YouTube, iTunes App Store, IRC). And, correspondingly, the majority of negativity online is written anonymously or under a fake name. There would be a lot less of it if the authors needed to provide a real name and photo.
Hardly anyone has clean hands. I sure don’t. I’m ashamed of a lot that I’ve written and said. Even in high school, I made fun of the few kids below me in the pecking order. (The social dynamics portrayed in Freaks and Geeks, where the bullies are just one rank above the people they bully and are still ultimately outcasts, are incredibly accurate.) I can’t believe how much negativity I’ve thrown out there, and I did much of it under my real name. And every instance made me a worse person.
Negativity is the only subject matter I’ve ever regretted publishing. And, as a corollary, I’ve rarely not regretted negativity that I’ve published.
It has taken me a long time to realize this, and it will take even longer to migrate away from it completely. (It’s also a problem for me in real life.) But I’ve started, and I’m making a conscious effort to withhold negative content and make amends for what I’ve said in the past.
The biggest challenge isn’t avoiding the creation of new flames — it’s resisting the temptation to enter existing battles and butt my opinion in, or defend myself with aggression and more negativity when I’m the one being attacked.
It’s been especially hard over the last week, as my company has been receiving a shitstorm from a few loud people. It’s been very hard to stay out of this, and I failed a few times and made a few comments — and I regret them all. Every time a new wave of shit hits us or me, my first desire is to retaliate. But it’s better for everyone, myself included, if I just keep my mouth shut. I have to accept that there’s absolutely nothing I can do to prevent negative people from saying nasty things about me, my friends, and my company. It’s a lot harder than I expected, which is why I’m not surprised that so many people can’t do it.
But one effect is clear: remaining positive and disarming yourself of negativity is the most effective way to avoid being hit by whatever others are flinging around.
It’s hard for me to walk away from arguments that I think I’m losing. And I’m right — most of the time, I’ve “lost” as far as the instigator is concerned. But my error was thinking that it was possible to win.
By giving up that assumption, I can define a new metric for success: staying out of it.