How to Win Big on T’interweb

To recap: 

  • Since the Enlightenment, the western world has celebrated the individual. All humans are of equal worth irrespective of ethnicity, gender, social standing or belief, because the human spirit is made of the same priceless substance in everyone. Despite the variations in its fleshy caskets, despite our different smarts, the flame of individual consciousness burns as brightly in all of us. 
  • The decline of religion has left us with the development of the self as the highest good; identity has become our masterpiece and prized possession. 
  • The designers of the internet believed in these Classical Liberal ideas – individuality, egalitarianism, freedom from constraint, fundamental human rights, the virtue of development and self-actualisation.
  • The levelling, demotic forum of the internet is the individual’s playground. It provides all with freedom of speech, equal opportunities for self-expression, and ready-made audiences and communities. Its anonymity provides us with opportunities for experiments in self-assertion and self-invention because nobody can gainsay our claims.
  • But the freedom to say anything allows not only blistering honesty, but poisonous cruelty, exposure to vile things. 
  • Enabled by anonymity, some users weaponise freedom of speech. They revel in the power their words can have to wound. They seek out the most hurtful things to say. Most online racists don’t seem driven by a sincere ideological belief in their racial superiority. Most seem to have low self-esteem, but they know that, if their victims are from ethnic minority groups, they will be sensitive to racist attacks[1] [2].
  • This is a lawless frontier. Only you can defend yourself, using the weapons to hand: words. The power of these weapons is felt in their emotional impact, their fury, how hurtful they are, 
  • so you end up “giving as good as you get”. Interactions degenerate into a series of invective drive-bys; exchanges of verbal gunfire, where your prowess is your ability to hurt and humiliate as quickly as possible.
  • In these nasty, highly personal slanging matches, where everyone sounds equally unpleasant, how do you justify yourself? How do you demonstrate that you are the good guy?
  • Well, you try to establish that your opponent is an internet heretic. If they have offended against Liberal principles – the acceptance of all people, the right of all views to be respected –, then what right have they to be heard on a forum founded on those principles, founded to promote those principles? 
  • And as these principles were established to defend the oppressed, you establish yourself as the wronged, or their champion, the righteous and indignant, the aggrieved. 
  • You call out, you shame.
  • And then you win. 

[1] I’m not denying that they feel a white tribal identity that alienates them from other groups in society, or that they want to preserve the (perceived) cultural privileges of that tribe. 

[2] The far-right protestors at Charlottesville, who chanted, “Jews will not replace us”, were protesting the removal of Civil War statues – nothing to do with Jewish people – but they knew their enemies, a very vaguely defined “liberal elite”, would find it offensive, and they aimed to shock. 

Speaking Out

In person[1], there can be a delicious thrill in telling somebody to “fuck off”, or “go fuck yourself, twat”, especially if they are close to you, especially if it is unexpected but (you feel) deserved[2]. There’s such potency and venom in the words. You can watch their impact, the shock and anger blossoming in your former friend’s face. This is a relationship-altering moment. You are crossing a thresh-hold; you are breaking taboos, entering unchartered waters. Who knows what might happen next? You are an explorer – a pioneer!  

Online, you can access this thrill more promiscuously, although it’s weaker. Interactions and relationships are cheaper and easier. Online, your interlocutors are little verbal pellets in a sea of pixels. You don’t have to come to terms with their motivation or experience, your shared humanity, because you are not confronted by their physical and spiritual immediacy, their Presence. You can’t see their physical reaction, their body language, or observe their dismay. 

You can avoid the troubling intensity of such intimacy, which feels like embarrassment and is as emotionally draining. But you can still get some of the frisson and power, and being physically untraceable and, hopefully, geographically distant, gives you security. You feel safe to be confrontational, inflexible and insulting. People who anger or question you can be dismissed as The Enemy, implacably and inexplicably committed to Evil, persecuting you.

You can scream, happily, from one argument to the next, dealing out verbal justice to racists, right and left. 

[1] Interesting phrase, in this context. It suggests that to be a person, you need to be physically, corporeally present. Is this meaning being eroded? Is it meaningless?

[2] I’m ashamed to admit that I know this, but I was an unpleasant teenager.

Trolls, Voles, Moles, ogres, orcs…and Activists

The second line of defence against the trolls is vigilant self-policing.

In the midst of the undifferentiated mass of voices, we cluster into defensive huddles, but, as all borders are open online, anyone can blag their way in to our conversations. Who are the secret rightists? Who holds incorrect views? Are you who you say you are? Am I?

Those who wish harm to us or our way of life may betray themselves by their unorthodox words. Then we must pounce on them and purge our community. We must resolutely call out hypocrisy and cant. 

Your words, in turn, will reinforce your identity, your right to be part of this group. In this world, self is a series of emphatic assertions, more opinion and aspiration than securely known, objective truth. We secretly doubt what we say about ourselves, so, in an environment of hostility and suspicious scrutiny, a slip of the tongue can amount to a crisis of identity. You can lose control of the self you were trying to create, that you didn’t fully believe in and were trying to make secure by saying it was so. Suddenly accusers are telling your story. 

So, the fiercer you sound, the better, and it can help if you are the one leading the attack. That will really cement your position. You can convince yourself, and prove to everyone else that you are who you say you are: one of the elect; one of the righteous. Best of all is to go hunting celebrities. They are the ones who most rely on curating their images, it is their livelihood, so your indignation at exposing their hypocrisy, will have particular power to reinforce your sense of self.

Trolls, Moles, Voles, Ogres, Orcs and Ocelots

The first line of defence, in the war against trolls, is a complete lack of humour and a very thin skin. Everyone online is an unknown quantity[1] and a lot of cruelty is disguised as banter, so the safest thing is to treat everything with suspicion, take offence, fiercely reject.

The very substance of being, online, is words. There, identities are constructed, intended. Words are the only currency and apparent sincerity is the only way of measuring their value: the closest you’ll ever get to truth is something that sounds like truth. 

This means other people can define you completely, if their words about you sound more convincing, or even just tell a better story, than yours. They can own you. Your identity is putty in their hands, unless you push back. Silence, disdaining to respond, can seem like admission. 

So, if you feel threatened, you need to establish that your words have greater sincerity than your opponent’s, that you mean them more. The best way to do that is to accuse them of not truly following the egalitarian principles of the internet. They are heretics, unbelievers disguised as the devout and you have unmasked them. They are PREJUDICED!

While you are one of the elect: a victimised minority, speaking out at last, reclaiming your birth-rights, terrible in your righteous indignation.

[1] You don’t have prior knowledge of your interlocutor, or non-verbal cues such as tone of voice, body language, facial expression, behaviour of their companions, dress. No smile or amiable, sympathetic look softens the hardness of their words.

Trolls, Moles, Ogres, Orcs…and Goblins!

My daughter recently won the award for the best “Anti-troll” on her favourite k-pop site. “What’s an anti-troll?” I asked.

“I troll the trolls,” came the expected reply, “that’s what I do online – trolling. It’s fun.”

“But I thought you were the year’s best anti-troll.”

“Yes, but I told you – I troll the trolls, so that’s alright. It’s easy. They say such stupid things. I think a lot of them are about 12.”

The presiding spirit of the internet is egalitarianism, a belief that all people are equally valuable and have equal rights. All deserve to be treated with respect and have their voices heard. Transgressors are those who fall short of these ideals, or appear to deny or obstruct them. Invariably, the insults hurled on-line are accusations of racism or homophobia, or whatever. They are the most cutting attacks.

Some people, however, delight in breaking the rules, safe in the knowledge that they can’t be caught. They say the most appalling and outrageous things, gleefully, in the most inappropriate situations. 

These are the proper trolls. They view themselves as heroes, resolutely questioning and testing the limits of language and of conventional, conformist norms. They reject the hypocrisy of righteous indignation, which they see as a lack of courage: you won’t admit to yourself why you like fighting. They know who they are: they are Viking raiders and they fight for the joy and power of war itself. 

Perhaps they are less dependent on the internet for their sense of identity. They go online only to hunt. The internet isn’t their natural home but they use it to fabricate identities. 

This, and the internet’s universal accessibility[1], allows trolls and opponents of our values to burrow into our most hallowed forums, like moles or wax moths in a beehive, to pop up, spray everyone with their toxic shit, then disappear again into the night, laughing: a hit-and-run raid.

The connectivity of the world-wide-web makes everyone vulnerable to these wounding attacks. We feel threatened, and fiercely defend our enclaves. This we can only do with our words. 

[1] An absolutely necessary quality of a self-avowedly democratic medium.

Trolls, Moles, Ogres and Orcs

For the trolls, the internet is a playground but also a laboratory. There they can experiment with language and its effects, with norms, taboos, their limits and what happens if you break them. And you can do this in a safe and practically consequence-free environment. 

The freedom must be exhilarating. They can go onto memorial sites for children who have died of cancer and say the most horrible things, and no-one can catch them. There seems no price to pay for provoking some guy you’ll never meet. They are never going to get you in a headlock and punch the shit out of you. You’ll never have to catch their reproachful, wounded eye across the room. Meanwhile the sheer number of conflicts you can indulge in makes up for the relative mildness of the emotional rewards.

Maybe this appeals most to isolated people, those who find it difficult to form meaningful relationships, perhaps they are numb, or have stunted social antennae and need the strongest emotional responses – anger, pain – to make a human connection, to be sure they are communicating, that they are having an impact on others.

The Apollonian Citadel vs. The Dionysian Outlands

In the actual, physical towns and villages where our bodies reside, we have to rub along with whoever else happens to live there. Many of them will be pricks, but we can’t murder or imprison them all, so we learn to put up with them. 

Not so in our self-selecting online communities. There, we can accept only people who think similarly to ourselves – that’s why we sought each other out. We draw away from people with alternative views. We do not need to tolerate difference, so we reinforce the assumptions and values that brought us together: the celebrated echo chamber or (pre-Covid) bubble.

Beyond the mental fortifications of our cyber-citadels is the battleground, where war-bands of trolls and fascists roam. 

Some Internet Playground Tribes

I don’t think human brains are very good at dealing with plurality. Above the numbers of our fingers and toes, it’s all a bit of a blur, so the millions of people that we share our nations with are too overwhelming to conceive of. I suspect this is the reason populous nations fracture into smaller clans: Northerners and Southerners, middle and working class, and so on. These groups often express intense hostility to others of their own nationality.  

There are, apparently, more than 4 billion internet users. All through social media’s turbid churn, colonies of like-minded individuals cohere, cling to each other for a while, and then disperse. 

For example, my daughter is a fan of a K-pop band called Seventeen. Her allies are spread around the world – Korea, China, Japan, The U.S.A. They have given themselves a clan name (“Carrots”, for some reason) and when recounting their latest victories in the culture wars, my daughter always talks about “we”. “Who is ‘we’?” I ask, mystified, “your friends at school?” “No, the other Carrots,” comes the reply. 

Their identity is partly formed by their oppositions: they are constantly at war with the fans of other K-pop groups. They, and other tribes, delight in roaming the internet, roasting their opponents in running, verbal firefights. The quick-fire put-down is their most valued line of dialogue. 

Because the internet is supposed to be the playground of egalitarian, liberal values, the preferred weaponry of all these tribes is the language of outraged grievance. They accuse the bands, and each other, of racism, white privilege, cultural appropriation, homophobia, trans-phobia, etc. etc. None of these accusations have any substance to them at all[1]. No matter how serious and important the original ideas, they have been reduced to empty insults to be hurled at your enemies. 

So clearly unfounded are these accusations that Meggie and I wondered if those making them were actually right-wing agent provocateurs trying to discredit the civil rights movements that coined the terms. 

In fact, this is probably just another example of the corruption of truth and language caused by the internet. Unmoored from any real-world referents, words only refer to themselves. The best we can hope for is a vague assertion of self: “I defy and disdain you, fans of BTS, for I am a Carrot!”

I think this is also how groups like QAnon work. They can’t truly believe in a secret society of Democrat paedophiles – it’s implausible. There’s absolutely no evidence for it and they don’t seem to be interested in producing any. I think they are hurling insults and accusations at their enemies, and “paedophile” retains a certain insulting charge, although, online, where there are no verifiable truths, it no longer means somebody who literally sexually abuses children. It just means “somebody who is (in my opinion) despicable.” 

By voicing these opinions, they are also affirming their tribal identity, precisely because they are still only held by a small minority, mercifully. Anyway, in the fact-free, online world, accusations and insults are merging. Both are just horrible things to say about people. The students I work with often say, “He looks like a paedophile”, which doesn’t mean they think he is one. They are just enjoying saying something nasty. 

[1] How, for instance, can an East-Asian Band, with an East-Asian fan-base be displaying white privilege?

The Horror of life Online

The internet is predicated on liberal, tolerant values; it’s very existence espouses them: the right of every individual to be valued equally, for their voice to be heard. It gives everyone equal access to the megaphone. 

It is the great demotic, egalitarian medium. It creates a space for excluded minorities, and nurtures them. They (we![1]) can build online, supportive communities to stand in for the geographic ones that have rejected us. We can recognise each other’s claims, issue our own certificates, sympathise with and support our sisters and brothers. It allows solitary minds, wandering across huge, empty steppes, to find each other, to come home. 

But the internet also offers us the security of un-traceability and of not having to confront each other in person, and this seems to create an almost irresistible temptation to cruelty and persecution, at least for some users. 

Some, the trolls, seem able to wholly embrace the dark side, to see the whole online world as their hunting ground and nothing more. Most of us, though, need to justify our nastiness, to square it with the principles of the Silicon Valley liberal ethos. 

So everyone is virtue-signalling like crazy. Everyone wishes to demonstrate their liberal credentials, their willingness to listen to others, which is what gives them the right to enter the debate in the first place. Because this is a universe built out of words, you are exactly as kind as you say you are.

All our victimisation, anger and hatred, our bullying, roasting, calling out, cancelling, all our exercise of power, of mob rule, needs to be framed as the indignation and outrage of the justly offended, rushing to the defence of some wounded victim. Then howls of grievance are gratifyingly powerful. You can rage, like the spirit of liberty, at the head of digital lynch mobs and still consider yourself the good guy. 

Once they’ve signed on, neophyte social media users are hurled into a vast pit of undifferentiated voices where all ideas, all words, are entertained, no matter how poisonous or false. It is a formless mass, churning with conflicting currents and tides, wash and back-wash, as different indignations, protest movements, outspoken grievances, spread, gather momentum, attract trolls, generate push-back and subside, to be replaced by others. 


[1] Communities should be inclusive

Your identity is none of your business!

Who you “identify as” (which really means “who you’d like to be”) is not who you are, no matter how urgently felt, or even how biologically determined. We do not give birth to ourselves. We do not choose our genes or our childhoods. We play the cards we’re dealt. 

We also don’t live in splendid isolation, but as part of communities. Your identity includes how you are perceived and how you respond to that perception. because we rely on each other and on the recognition of others for our sense of self-worth. 

We know this to be true, intuitively. You can guess, for example, that if you are gay, growing up in a small, devout, conservative town, this realisation might lead you to be a more cautious, secretive, lonely person than you might otherwise have been, or perhaps more angry and resentful, or more sympathetic to alternative perspectives and excluded minorities, or with an inner strength borne of long endurance, or all of these things. 

So who you are is not your decision. It is an ongoing negotiation with your society, culture and upbringing, and the values and expectations they have inculcated in you. 

Self-invention is, at best, an attempt to reposition your relationship with these things. Your identity is a compromise, decided by consensus. 

And so much the better. It makes us much more complicated and interesting.