The Internet and Social (Network) Conflict

The Egyptians worshiped the open eye because they knew attention was redemptive – if you pay attention to things you can understand them and make things better. This resonates with us – we generally believe that paying conscious attention to things is the best way of achieving an objective grasp, a full understanding of what a thing is from itself, rather than simply from our perspective. We improve on this by establishing perspectives which are, in principle at least, repeatable – and we call these “experiments”. This way of bringing ourselves to the world has fared us well, at least so far. We have cell phones, cars, the internet, trains, and all manner of wonderful technological innovations which would not be possible without the value of directed attention, objectivity, and work.

Sociological research which I’ve been informed of, but can’t cite at the moment, shows an interesting corollary to this: when we converse with people on the internet, we tend towards divergence. We characterize their view as an object which we pay attention to and discover its defects, and then oppose it. This makes sense – it conforms with the value of paying attention to things to make them better. The problem is, the views of others are not objects but perspectives (like our own), which are constantly shifting, and which exist in a complex network of values which, in a sense, characterize them as the people that they are.

Unsurprisingly we are much less likely to treat the views of people we speak to in person as objects. In fact, that same research I’m referring to (but not citing – if someone knows it feel free to comment below) (Also feel free to comment if you think I’m full of it and making this up – it’s the internet after all!), demonstrates that the same people who diverge on the internet are much more likely to converge when in dialogue in person. This difference is confirmed by my personal experience – discussions in person tend towards emphasizing what you hold in common with others, and also towards compromise on those issues where you differ, whereas the more objective and reasoned internet discussion tends towards endless conflict about fundamental values.

If this difference is true, and I’m not just making it up by referring to imaginary research, it reveals something essential about humans and something essentially terrifying about facebook and the blog-sphere. It is perhaps not accidental and random, and not a result of “people being jerks” (at least not in the normal way), when internet discussion tends either towards insular communities where everyone agrees, or towards trolling and nasty debates with no middle ground. We may have simply evolved (culturally and/or genetically) to treat the “absent”, i.e. a rock or a sentence in a book or on the internet, with much more distance and tendency towards rejection than the word spoken by other people.

This idea – that we treat speech from people in person fundamentally differently than writing in books or on the net, converges with a recent thesis which has become popular in Cognitive Science by people like Alva Noe and Evan Thompson, although it is also Chomsky’s recent position – that language is mostly not communication at all. Rather, most talking is something like stroking each others hair, something quite common for many mammalian species (wouldn’t it be quite strange if we hadn’t developed a replacement for this social practice?).

This idea encourages us to think about internet communication with a great degree of restraint – we perhaps have no grounds for assuming that it is anything much like debate in person. It may appear highly reasoned and objective to debate analytically and deductively on the internet, and it may in fact be highly intellectual – but – it may be that when we do this in person we are doing something much less like analytic debate than we are capable of on the internet. And, the corollary to this – we as humans may be much less capable of pure, hard-reasoning as we believe we are. In fact, when we read statements that diverge with our values and there is no human behind it to recognize as a person-like-me, I may simply be much less capable than I believe of carrying on any sort of meaningful communication at all.


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