It’s a commonplace of bien-pensant opinion columns that the internet is short on manners: frenzied mobs of pseudonymous bloggers operating beyond the normal reach of social control, ‘nameless and faceless’, without the ‘constraints of every day [sic] decency and politeness’.
In this tale (c/o, in this instance, Clive Hamilton and Monica Dux), norms are enforced by either Leviation or ‘the social gaze’, external instruments which when absent yield a Hobbesian nightmare of virtual lynchings and porn addiction. ‘Home alone in front of my computer’, with my fake online identity, what’s to stop me acting like an abusive jerk?
Maybe we’re all just nasty churls: read a comment thread at random, and it will seem pretty plausible.
This folk account is captured by several notions from biology and behavioural science.
Reciprocal altruism is said to exist in the case of long-term, repeated dyadic interactions between self-regarding individuals, where if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours — a tit-for-tat relationship that benefits both parties. Say I visit the village grocer once every week: he could cheat today by giving me rotten oranges in exchange for my good money, and I could benefit by giving him counterfeit coins, but neither of us will, because we need to interact again next Wednesday.
Indirect reciprocity, on the other hand, requires third-party observation or reputation effects to impose similar obligations. Not personal but community enforcement occurs, via relatives, neighbours or members of the same group: if it becomes known that I shafted that poor grocer, nobody in the village will be willing to sell me fruit again. A person’s ‘good name’ functions to others as a signal of their trustworthiness.
In our account of cyberspace, however, there are few repeated interactions, and no reliable signals: ‘no one need know your name’ (Dux). This leads inexorably to mutual defection: bloggers can find a wider niche or even a mass audience by publicly towelling some poor, defenceless tenured academic or published author. Commenters derive symbolic compensation by taking down some big shot. And the victim has no means of recourse, because the exchange is anonymous.
In the absence of reputation effects, so the story goes, every online interaction between individuals is essentially a one-shot affair, with no possibility of future punishment or honest signalling to reduce the incentive for hostility, aggression etc. The outcome resembles something out of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds, where an alien attack obliterates all human institutions and replaces them with a state of nature — hysterical mobs governed only by the law of the jungle, the war of all against all, willing to tear a little girl (Dakota Fanning) from her father’s car just to save themselves.
Are we churlish bloggers, then, planning to behave like that that mob? Will Churls Gone Wild involve pointless venting, nasty ad hominem attacks, personal vendettas and all the things that so mar ‘the quality of debate in the blogosphere’ (Dux, bis)?
Almost certainly, to speak only of my own contributions. There are plenty of people who deserve it. But hopefully not too often: it would soon grow dreary for author and reader.
And that’s really the point here: the blog format has proved itself a robust form of communication and debate, despite some apparently obvious flaws, because:
- Blogs involve assortative interactions: audiences are self-selecting, with a bias towards those who share their interests or opinions.
- The marginal payoff to troublemakers falls pretty steeply over time, as boredom sets in or people learn to ignore them.
- The intellectual pretensions of the debate participants (authors, commenters) can be immediately interrogated.
- There’s not a lot of money involved, so the incentive to write bullshit is limited.
In short, we trust our readers and ourselves. You don’t need to provide us with your full name and contact details, and nor do we, for things to work. (On the other hand, newspapers are not nearly so resilient to bad behaviour, because items 3 and 4 don’t apply there.)
The churls can run wild, and it won’t evince a ‘lowering of standards’ (Dux, al segno).
Instead hopefully, it will involve ceorls, the lowborn, the sans culottes, confronting the numbing blandishments of the media, the lies of Rudd and Obama, the stuff that makes us all so angry that not to respond would send us mad.