In her piece “Vile Bodies, Cyber War”, La Resistance’s own Libby Allen discussed the negativity and hostility with which we often approach one another on the internet. The reason most often cited for our harsh online ear-biting frenzies is that it’s the “benefit” of anonymity, but Libby writes this off as too easy an answer. I’m inclined to agree with her. I read too many comics about guys who wear masks to selflessly protect the human race without asking for so much as a bus token to buy into that. And that brings me to the question she’s faced us with near the end of her article:
“Why are we using our growing connectedness for attack?”
I did some bloggage about Twitter last year, where I explained how I saw the micro-blogging service as a platform that provides the one thing our capitalist reality’s overlords do not easily allow for: a (cyber)space where every single man, women and bot is made equal. Sure, Lady Gaga may have more “followers” than me, but we’re both allowed the freedom to express ourselves as we choose and everyone else has the option to subscribe to either of our thoughtstreams, either exclusively or simultaneously. In this new landscape we are all the celebrities and therefore no one’s really a celebrity. The world is equal up in this bitch! As sociologist Douglas Rushkoff pointed out back in 2008, the original Renaissance “made people feel that their interpretations of religion, society, and politics mattered”, while today’s futurephone-driven renaissance “makes us feel that our self-expression matters, too”. As always with these things, there’s a line that can be easily crossed where the good becomes the bad; in this case it’s likely where self-expression becomes “The Collected Tweets of Nonhle Thema”.
In another piece, Rushkoff illustrated how evolution has encouraged the growing unification of “individual” organisms into macro-organisms which, given the holographic model of reality, is simultaneously a more sophisticated and rudimentarily simple organism. The Earth is a heaving beast and we are its cells, replicating through fucking and recording what we know as data our prodigious coloured future-babies will use to be better at being us than we were. If anything, Twitter could be like the next step in our biological development toward the formation of a more collectively organised cellular body. We used to be about as sophisticated as amoeba, Twitter at least makes us look like skin. The Middle Eastern revolution that toppled Gaddafi and got “regular” men & women fighting soldiers in the streets of Egypt is evidence enough of the power an interconnected “super brain” like this allows us to exert. It’s dangerous too, of course, as all things in excess are, but let’s focus on the positive side of a coordinated youth movement with hoodies and pipe bombs for now, shall we?
So back to Libby’s question: Given the potential we have to use this enhanced sense of interconnectedness to liberate ourselves from dying norms and values that place Kim Kardashian and The Situation at the top of our social structure – and the opportunity to hold hands in the fucking sun instead of blowing each other up in a glowing green atomic mushroom cloud – why in Gaea’s name would we choose to attack one another instead?
Again, the go-to easy answer here is that anonymity provides a nice mask to hide behind while we go around punching the mentally ill in their faces. Now while that’s true of Batman, I still have my other cushy superhero narratives to run back to. The thought that someone – another human being – might want to help others indiscriminately and free of charge while wearing a mask that means they can’t reap the rewards when they walk by you on the street really appeals to me. I think the issue of anonymity online is a little (ok, a lot) more complex than that.
Many of us plodding around on the Earth today were brought up in a fame-seeking, celebutant culture. All human beings crave interaction and acknowledgement. We want to be liked and, I’d argue, deserve attention, respect, affection and love from one another. The problem is that our ego-driven culture has forced a misinterpretation of what actually constitutes POSITIVE attention, LEGITIMATE respect, AUTHENTIC affection and REAL love. Without even thinking, we perceive whatever vague acknowledgement we receive from whoever will give it as an example of tangible, significant existential success that helps bolster our pathetic egos with icing sugar dreams of having a “reputation” or being “infamous”, rather than existing as we are and earning respect for that. Our social currency has become rebellion but we don’t even know what that means anymore. That’s why all the conservatives you see think they’re practicing “Free Love, maaan” while fucking on the dubstep dancefloor while all the hippies you know are wearing business suits and typing out marketing press releases while short-circuiting their keyboards from all the crying.
The mask of anonymity here is, instead, a careful means of protecting the soft yolk ego that sustains some people. While I’m sure there are a few exceptions, the majority of anonymous tweeters I know of spend the time when they’re not bartering in stolen jokes and faux machismo (or womachismo, I guess) having “secret” meet-ups with other users, trying desperately to cultivate friendships from their fanbases. I’m sure it’s a sexy time, riding around in their Anonymobile all night, no one knowing that they were the motherfucker who did the drive-by tweeting on Kanye West this morning. Now given that we take what we can get as an indication of mutual respect and love, rather than what we deserve, sooner or later we reach a point where our egos start holding on very tightly to our opinions and perceptions. It must be a safe world where everything we think must be right because what we think matters, godammit!
Now we’re in the place where what we think is golden and suddenly we’re confronted – in an opinion blog of all places – with a situation that challenges our fragile, porcelain views. So we lash out. We strike at the thing and the person that thought it because it hurt our poor, battered sense of self-worth. Our locus of control is so externalized that everything that comes bashing up against us must be torn down and removed from our field of vision. It’s a sad, insecure place we all know well because we’re all the occasional victim of an ego rushing at a problem that we can’t simply face.
When I looked at Twitter before I identified my key problem with the network’s development: an influx of users brought with it an influx of pressurized, egotistical realities. An army of “main characters” who matter more than anyone else. Online media allows us to “unfollow”, “unfriend” or to delete an opinion as if it never existed in the first place. We cannot, however, delete the person that said it or the issues that face their everyday reality. Like they have to confront what scares them most, we must turn and face everything about them that seeks to tear us down. As cheesy as it sounds, we’ve got to open ourselves up to receive them and all their grumbling.
So Libby, the reason we’re such pricks to one another online? It’s cos we’re, unfortunately, so often such pricks to each other in real life. Because we’re terribly afraid of acknowledging each others’ opinions and using this brave new interconnected futureworld for something good.