Updated: Nov 23, 2022
Why is it that given our world of increased connectivity, suicide rates are on the rise, political isolationism is is at multi-generational high, and democracy is seemingly on the brink? It is largely because this “connection” we claim to experience, is a grand (monetized) illusion.
Given the advent of online social spaces, most people would argue that the world is more connected than ever before. From Facebook groups, to Reddit threads, to building a community on YouTube - we all communicate with each other so much more. Right? Wrong.
Let’s begin by delineating between talking and communicating. Everyone knows what talking is; it’s making some set of noises that a particular region recognizes as language (which can be represented by a linguistic character-set). Communicating is something distinctly different.
Communication is Receiver-Oriented. Not only must you speak in the act of verbal communication, but the listener (“receiver”) must be able to effectively understand what you are telling them. Once a statement is understood by the listener, they can reciprocate information that should then be understood by the original speaker… and so on. Our drifting from this receiver-focused speech is why what is ostensibly discourse today, is in fact, not. A primary reason for this drift from communication is Anonymity.
Anonymity takes two forms: Actual and Perceived.
Actual anonymity is the ability to traverse the E-Marketplace of Ideas under a pseudonym. From YouTube comments to Facebook pages, one person could have any number of accounts that leave little trace to the “speaker” behind the keyboard.
Perceived anonymity can be attained while being actually anonymous, but more scarily, we experience a level of anonymity even while traversing the web under our real identities. We feel separated from reality, and as a result, we act like it too.
The human species, like any other species, evolves quite slowly. As a result, we are stuck with wiring that doesn’t always mesh with our 21st century anonymity-allowing services. Because of this, these services are tearing us down. This teardown has two root causes: a loss of empathy, and a lack of social pressures.
Empathy is not only a valuable skill, but for most, an innate trait that allows us to connect with each other. When our only form of “communication” is absent of physical identity, we fail to see people’s reactions to what we say. We lose the ability to look each other in the eye and understand the intentionality - the soul - of what another person is trying to communicate. Not only this, but in true dialogue you aren’t simply waiting your turn to speak, but rather, you are digesting what someone else is saying before giving an appropriate response. In the purely online world, this doesn’t occur. We have no need to empathize with the person we are communicating with. We don’t “interact” with them in the traditional sense, we simply see a statement we find appalling enough to respond to vehemently, we press “send” on our reply, and we go on our merry way, often not ever returning to see what was said in response. Worse yet, we have no way of gauging the impact of our statements on the other person, so even when we do return to the conversations, we do so angrily, feeling as though the other person is intentionally disagreeing with us just to get under our skin. This experience is not fully described by a lack of empathy however.
In the anonymity of modern “dialogue”, we also lose a less obvious structural facet of discourse: social norms. When having a conversation, we have varying levels of resistance to always stating the first thing that comes to our minds out of an understanding that there are repercussions to intentionally (or increasingly unintentionally) disrespecting those around us. In the online world, we have no shame in this disrespect as there are few consequences to our decision-making in the virtual space. In the physical world, our close friends more often hold us accountable for saying stupid things. Our best friends make us apologize to those we have wronged. Online, we often wrong those we interact with (knowingly or not) with attempts to make amends being few and far between.
For those of you reading who doubt my claim of our seemingly different online identities, I have a request for you.
The next time you see your “angry uncle” congratulating you in-person for becoming a nurse while simultaneously undermining the medical field online to promulgate conspiracy, notice it.
The next time you see your “edgy little brother” support you and your views in person while blaspheming those who share your values online, notice it.
The next time you see your friends passive-aggressively commenting on others’ online posts in the name of getting a subtle jab against those people, notice it.
We have been gaining in political polarization to a lesser extent since before the dawn of social media, so there are certainly other factors at play, but the trend has accelerated greatly in the last decade, and I find anonymity to be one of, if not the primary reason(s) why.