Why is the Internet so bad? And how do we fix it?


#1

I just read a random YouTube comment section, and immediately regretted that decision.

That’s not a new experience, to me and almost certainly not to anyone reading this. But why did this become the way it is? How did we get here?

There’s been some discussion about general assholes and straight up neo-reactionary Twitch streamers on the Waypoint podcast. I feel like you could create an entire podcast just about those same people’s YouTube channels and the “community” they’re apart of. But to be fair, you could do the same thing with their Twitter accounts too.

How did we get here and how do we get to a better place online?


#2

i think the first misstep is to treat “online” as if it is anything other than an extension of the real world. online is “bad” because the real world is equally “bad” in the same ways. at most, online is only more visibly reactionary because its a lot safer for reactionaries to post some bullshit that takes 30 seconds to type than if they were to actually organize in any physical way.

theres a lot that can be said about how fascist and reactionary groups have been able to organize and recruit members online in ways that are unique to online, but those are just the shape the medium takes, not a unique force or movement in and of itself. perceiving it as a unique movement is counter-productive to understanding it


#3

We like to point to places as where the real problem is. YouTube comments, Twitter, Tumblr, etc - all absolutely massive places with hundreds of millions of active users from which we can only see the most minute of slice. But when we accidentally keep scrolling down, we invariably see at least some comments that are terrible and that’s how we characterise the platforms and their “typical” users.

Here’s the thing: everywhere is like this. The biggest news sites down to the local press (check their comments, often powered by Facebook and instantly rebuking an idea that anonymity is the root cause of the issue). If I keep scrolling down on Anandtech after reading a pretty well researched piece on a site with a long history of excellent (accessible if technical) writing: 50:50 on that first short page of comments there’s something terrible or at least a million miles from a valuable contribution. 90% of everything is crap - the odds are against us.

Like. Comment. Subscribe.

The web in this current incarnation tells us to constantly be creating new content. Which is all dumped on the tail of often more considered (and unlikely for us to even reach without seeking it out or at least an algorithm expecting us to enjoy it) content. And 90% of everything is trash. Of course you’re going to find a mix of bad, ill informed, and outright bigoted or offensive stuff. We dumped it there, all of us, often with a drive-by comment on a random page of an unthinkably large platform (try to think of how big these platforms are in terms of individual pages with a comment space but transformed into guest books in the physical world). It used to be that far more of what we consumed just didn’t have a space for letters from the reader - that’s the big actual change.

I often see people note that a place where they used to comment has “gone downhill, completely terrible” but the secret is, the quality probably hasn’t changed much. The precise landscape of the cliques/communities there has moved a bit (which may have been why someone left/stopped commenting) but now they’re no longer as aligned with the typical commenters so it feels like it’s a wasteland rather than a mix of good posts and stuff to ignore. We like to think the places where we regularly comment are an awesome oasis and while we probably seek out what we would consider least-bad, it’s still going to be full of people like us. Commenters. Like everyone on this forum. Writing for free as an act of community and expression. Even as a self-selected group of least bad, even with moderation aimed to isolate outright bigotry (with that heavily weighted by implicit value judgements - where I live the press have basically mostly decided that trans women are the real threat and so cis bigots are actually the real people being oppressed so you can imagine what a moderation policy would look like applied to those comment threads), we are still producing a lot of that 90% stuff.


#4

Online, you can say what you want to say without the possibility of being physically confronted. In public, confrontation is the only thing stopping most people from saying what they are thinking to people who upset them. Confrontation, whether it’s experiencing your target’s emotional response, being told you’re wrong on the spot, being forced to respond in the heat of the moment, experiencing the rush of fight-or-flight adrenaline that comes from confrontation, or actually being attacked, is unpleasant to the vast majority of people.

Racist Mom is gonna say some shit in a Facebook comment that she’d piss herself trying to articulate on a Sunday afternoon in a busy Trader Joe’s. Obviously, this isn’t to say that people never confront one another, but judging by the great social experiment that we call The Internet, removing the possibility of physical confrontation has opened some fuckin floodgates.


#5

Building on what others have said, online is no different from anywhere else, and all online spaces, left to their own devices, will be overwhelmed by garbage. Commenting and being active in communities takes a lot of time, and as such, is more available to those with plenty of free time, so you’re going to get more privileged people - and especially, privileged teenagers - in comment sections. It’s a losing battle to try and take it from them. We have to build our own online communities where PoC, LGBT folks, and other oppressed groups feel comfortable and where their speech can’t be drowned out by bigots. That, I believe, is one of the mission statements of this place where we’re writing.

Another thing, specifically about YouTube. It’s impossible, at this point, to ignore how much the current landscape of YouTube has been made worse by the way progressives have chosen to interact with it. YouTube encourages, through its algorithms, content based on drama and personal conflict. My video titled “OWNING THE SKEPTIC CRACKER”, full of mockery and some perfunctory critique of Mr. Cracker’s ideas, is much more likely to get attention than my video titled “Why Skeptics Are Wrong About X”. The result is that a lot of progressive YouTube work targets particular right-wingers.

However, far from dampening their influence, this actually creates a dynamic that increases the pull of both progressive and reactionary channels - and the more that terms are equalized, the more privileged people maintain their advantage. Worse yet, it means that progressive YouTubers often find themselves more dependent on reactionary vloggers than on developing their own politics, which leads to the unfortunate phenomenon of leftish YouTubers starting to become friends with all manner of bigots.

The solution would be to resist the algorithms and to stop giving the reactionaries attention. Sadly, with most of progressive YouTube, this is very unlikely to actually happen.


#6

Oh this is easy

index

Fire cleanses all

(I have no real thoughts on this matter at the moment sorry)


#7

more and more often these days my tendency is to ignore it. i know that that isn’t fixing the problem, but… the internet can be such a deep time consuming shitstorm of non-productivity that i feel better the less i stare into it or engage with it. could i get fired up about people’s differing views on the validity of a frog meme and jump into that fight, read thousands of words about it and weigh in with my own personal opinion? sure, but for me that doesn’t seem like a positive use of my limited mortal time.

i used to spend 2-3 hours a day reading and engaging with forums/news sites/etc. having cut that down to more like 45 minutes these days i feel much more balanced, and have freed up time that i can use on things that actually make me feel good.

so, yeah, i guess i don’t have a solution. . .


#8

The real world has the exact same potential to become a “YouTube comment section,” but the nature of social context (fortunately? unfortunately?) often keeps it hidden away.

For example, in a face-to-face conversation, “moderation” is immediate. Someone spouting off hateful garbage in public is (hopefully) going to be met with awkward silence, staring eyes, and all kinds of implicit context clues that alert them that they have done something incorrect. Along with that, it’s a natural behavior for us to read the expressions of the people we’re talking to and adjust our words according to how they react. That makes a huge difference in not just what people feel is acceptable to vocalize, but also in the way they will choose to say it. Some people will vocalize hatred and prejudice regardless, but ostensibly most hateful and prejudiced people will obey the social context they are in and keep those feelings hidden as long as that is what’s expected of them.

Back to online specifically: We’ve been seeing more and more publishing companies shift their community interaction off of “the comment section” and onto platforms better designed for engaging with individuals, such as Facebook, Twitter, forums like these, etc. This is a good trend, because it at least goes some way in establishing a social context, and creates some mode of consequence for one’s actions. In the comment section of old, that context is almost never consensual, or worse, it might not even appear to exist, which often results in only the loudest voices being heard.


#9

One thing to consider about online vs offline: everyone is having all these conversations offline but when they stop talking, the words are not left in the air for you to stumble into later. Our expectation is not that everything we say in public and semi-public spaces is being recorded for every subsequent visitor to encounter (even if they’d rather not). When you go to the pub, you chat with your friends and tune out everyone else talking.

We talk of platforms as uniform but usually they are only uniform in that they are foreign to us and we are not invested in most parts of them (and here we should probably note that they don’t have one community, they have so so many - it is no more accurate to talk of YouTube as a singular community than to say Waypoint forums are just part of “the Discourse community” - that’s not a thing it’s just a platform this instance runs on; other platforms may have ways to jump between each community but they’re no less separate).


#10

I’ll tell you why: People are bad. People use the internet.

Y’all are good though.

I think a big part of this is related to what kcin and JackLeveledUp brought up, in that there’s a removal of physical interaction when it comes to online spaces. People can spout outlandish garbage and don’t have to worry about being called out and forced to respond on the spot, or they can say the most hateful things and don’t have to see the visible pain and anger on their victim’s faces, etc. etc.

I think Shivoa has a good point too about the “permanence” of online comments, one I’ve not really considered before. Though I think the permanence angle can work two ways–on one hand, I believe it’s harder to walk back or deny saying something, when it persists on the internet as opposed to something one just utters verbally. On the other hand, my intuition tells me that if online comments were automatically deleted after say 24 hours, people probably wouldn’t expend so much effort outpouring every thought that pops into their heads.

My 02.


#11

A lot of it is because toxic behavior has been tolerated for so long. In gaming the people who share or are willing to accept a certain level of awful language are generally the ones that stick around. If you’re one of the few willing to call it out it just puts a target on your back or you get fed up and quit. Online there’s almost never any consequences for being as toxic as you want. You’re far removed from the people on the receiving end.


#12

I find it frustrating that so many qualities that make the internet a great–or revolutionary, even–medium for communication can also lead to the toxicity that Cheeki describes.

Anonymity, for instance, strikes me as a powerful enabler for those who otherwise might be faced with bigotry, discrimination, or violence. Online, people are free to craft their own identities, find refuge from harm, or discover themselves and communities of like-minded people when the real world isn’t great. There’ve been times in my life where it’s certainly played that role.

But there’s a part of me that wants to make people more accountable for the things they say and do online, and that maybe giving up that anonymity–or at least making it a privilege–might be necessary. Not to punish those who use it to create harm, necessarily, but because I don’t think unfettered self-expression leads to us acting like our best selves. As the gap between real life and the online world seem to be rapidly diminishing anyway, maybe it’s time we give that up. (If my language didn’t make it clear, I’m on the fence about this. And it won’t solve everything.)

Anyway, I like to believe that there’s more of us than them.


#13

i remember a few months ago, i listened to an episode of… i think it was the NYT’s The Daily? that dove into a story from the 90’s or early 2000’s about a college that had a UseNet/ bulletin board, and had to shut it down because students were posting awful, bigoted garbage. the awful students protested the decision, and while im not sure what the outcome was, i remember one of protesting students ended up becoming one of today’s tech millionaire /Free Speech warrior idiots.

does anyone remember this story?

it still had some of the NYT “Yes, Bigots Are Bad, But What About Free Speech?” nonsense which wasnt great, but the story itself was interesting. and disheartening. i guess i liked to believe that the Internet had been Good at some point, before 4chan and toxic people “made” it what it is now. seeing that there had been that hate, as well as the flaws it exploited, right from so early was really disappointing.


#14

I recall some games people talking on twitter a few months ago about whether the largeness of the internet was a good thing or not - like about being able to connect with anyone else who can also access the internet is both incredibly useful and cool and also potentially very very socially unhealthy

iirc there was some interesting speculation about whether the internet should continue at all in its current form or whether it should be broken down into smaller parts that more closely resemble broad but still smaller-than-the-internet social circles


#15

Yep. Sadly, I think the internet has just given a (frequently loud) voice to many bad people’s inner thoughts.


#16

I’d dispute the idea that we‘re there in a general sense, especially if we’re focusing on sites like YouTube and Twitch, where attention and character counts are at a premium. (What is the base rate of assholery on these sites?, What proportion of the people that watch and listen to content there actually leave comments?, etc.) My intuition is that the form is the culprit. Appearing to care about anything at all leaves you open to attack, which encourages cynicism over thoughtful wordcraft and openness. Throw in the schizophrenic attention spans those sites thrive on and crossing-the-line as humour is bound to thrive.


#18

Terrible people who harass and stalk others online have always existed but I think the big point of no return was when platforms began to rely on automated moderation systems (and/or moderation systems that put all the responsibility on the userbase) in order to attempt to scale up nigh infinitely.

It’s not like there weren’t always potential issues with the moderation of those once ubiquitous forum systems, but those tended to occur on a case-by-case basis and good moderators could cultivate a relatively healthy community.


#19

All major platform holders are made up of wide-eyed idealists that don’t want to accept (or are fundamentally okay with) how often their laissez-faire attitude to content moderation is taken advantage of by the worst of society’s bad actors. The influencing effect of those bad actors becomes a New Normal that causes the Internet as a general community to appear worse and more reactionary than anywhere you’ve ever been in real life.

It’s not a ramification of anonymity, or an inherent wickedness to most of society. The mods are asleep, and have always been asleep.


#20

I agree with this point, more culpability should be acknowledged in the structure of online spaces. You’re not going to be able to get all of the poison out, but if there isn’t even an attempt at it, if it’s a situation like Twitter moderation where seemingly nothing matters and the site’s own rules don’t apply, the burden must be placed upon those who developed the space’s structure. Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to fall into complacency in this regard because it generally feels as if - especially in the larger spaces like Twitter, YouTube, etc - there’s nobody to hold accountable.

I think reddit provides an example of this. There are subreddits that are fairly effective at moderation, smaller communities for the most part, but ones with visible and dedicated mod teams who have been able to shape how conversation within that space works out. On the more general site, on the larger boards, though, there’s the exact opposite, control is lost and toxicity prevails. That’s why it took me so long to care for Reddit, because the most visible parts of the site are the most toxic (partially by poor moderation and the difficulty of moderating such large communities) and the better, more inviting, generally positive experiences that Reddit can provide fall on the wayside (and that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of small, incredibly toxic boards either)


#21

But is it that simple? You are negating the influencing power of what-you-see. That’s what swayed the first Reagan election: people were convinced (by a remarkable advertising and media campaign) that there was a landslide coming, so they either caved, or didn’t bother to show up.

The problem with the negativity of the internet is that it magnifies the psychopaths and discourages higher human nature.