Why Are We So Nasty on Social Media?

By Joe Boyd

The world has changed. We have the entire canon of human knowledge at our fingertips inside the tiny computers we carry. We call them phones, but rarely use them for such an antiquated concept as talking to someone. They are our portal to anyone and anything at anytime. We use them to be “social,” but rarely civil.

09_Boyd_JNI’m not a social media hater. I like it. I’ve been blogging for more than 12 years. I was an early adopter of both Facebook and Twitter. But I must admit I am weary of how hateful the general tone of online conversation has become. It takes about two comments for an article about macaroni salad to devolve into diatribes on Obama as the antichrist and militant atheist manifestos.

The most troubling realization to me is that, more often than not, my Christian friends are the least loving people in my social networks. It makes no sense. Why is this happening? I have some theories on why we are so mean online.

1. It’s safe.
You can say whatever you want because 99 percent of the time nobody is going to do anything about it. It’s simply too much trouble to drive to Topeka and confront the guy who called you a moron online. It shows us the sad state of the human condition . . . that we will generally be mean to each other if we have nothing to lose.

2. It’s power.
It’s a big rush to get people’s attention—especially people we perceive as more popular or powerful than ourselves. Negativity always gets more attention than positive commentary.

3. It’s fun.
For some people, anyway. I was bullied in eighth grade. Those kids seemed to really enjoy the process. My pain gave them great joy. It’s the same thing—except they are grown up now and hiding like sissies behind iPhones and tablets. (Was that mean? Sorry. I’m working on this too.)

4. It’s war.
We seem to need enemies to feel like we are a part of something bigger than us. Democrats and Republicans can hate on each other in the virtual world without risking actual physical harm. (Cross-reference Aaron Burr for how it used to work). It’s the same for Christians and atheists; Yankees fans and Red Sox fans; Donald Trump and most everyone else. You get the idea.

5. It’s free.
Why pay to be entertained when you can stir up trouble for the cost of broadband? Being mean is sometimes a byproduct of good old-fashioned boredom. By and large, I have found bored human beings are very dangerous creatures.

6. It’s ignorance.
Most mean people online seem never to think about the fact that real people will potentially read their comments. I’ve been personally attacked online by people I’m certain had no idea I would ever see their comments. My hunch is they wouldn’t say such things to my face.

7. It’s comforting.
When we hate, we join voices with other haters. It feels good to belong. The Internet allows mob mentality to continually exist in every comment section. Company loves misery.

8. It’s arrogance.
If you know the truth, you must let the world know, even if it stings a little, right? Tell them for their own good. It’s the Simon Cowell-ization of society. The truth is we are all dead wrong about something we are certain we are right about. The wise person simply realizes they don’t know what that is yet. Understanding that may be the ultimate mark of maturity.

9. It’s primal.
It doesn’t take long for an online argument to devolve to name-calling and sexual harassment—especially when a man attacks a woman. Subtle and overt racism, sexism, and tribalism rule in Facebook comment sections like nowhere else.

10. It’s natural.
Ultimately we are mean because we are mean. It’s not a recent problem for humankind. This new facade we’ve constructed and draped over reality called the Internet just removes some of the immediate physical consequences of our self-centered behavior. But the emotional consequences remain as they always have. We fall into cycles of hate, revenge, and dehumanization.

It may be a natural impulse for us to lash out when we are angered, but we can control it. We are remarkable creatures capable of training our minds and souls to react in love, patience, kindness, self-control, and hope. Try it out next time you want to hate. It may go a lot better for everyone involved. Or at least don’t “like” that next marginally racist/misogynist/divisive/arrogant/crude/elitist “funny” piece of bad art that pops up in your newsfeed. It’s mean. Deep down I really believe we are all better than that. Or at least we can get there with God’s grace, one tweet at a time.

Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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