One of the biggest myths about the Internet goes like this: people who are perfectly pleasant and reasonable in real life become total jerkfaces when they get online. It conjures up the image of a mild-mannered office clerk, who talks courteously and sweetly to everyone, and then goes home and spews venom on comment sections and web forums for hours. Like the Secret Trolling Life of Walter Mitty. And I'm sure this does happen. But, I'm guessing, most people who troll on the internet actually are trolls in real life, too.
The "nice people who turn into trolls online" meme came up, most recently, in an article in the Guardian's Comment is Free section. Writes Charles Arthur:
The more time I spend online, the more I notice that people are really struggling with the double-edged sword of freedom that the web provides. The freedom at last to make your voice heard, but also to use that voice to insult or hassle, while assuming that there won't be any retribution for saying things you wouldn't on a street or across a table in a pub. Some think they can swing that sword with impunity.
So it's all because of all that anonymity and untrammeled freedom. Let's get some trammels in that Internet, stat!
Arthur considers some possible solutions, like forcing everybody to use their real names (which would never fly) or restricting free speech somehow (except that the U.S. has the First Amendment). He concludes that maybe there should just be a sign that flashes occasionally on websites, saying "what you're doing here might not remain private."
But here's the thing — I feel reasonably confident that the "Walter Mitty" model of Internet trolling only accounts for a small percentage of the overall troll population. Rather, most of the trolls out there are people who would be just as happy to troll you in real life... if you ever spoke to them in real life.
The magic of being a grown-up is that you get to choose whom you socialize with. Sure, you have to talk to your coworkers sometimes, but there are rules about how obnoxious you get to be in the workplace. And chances are if you work in a white-collar professional environment, most of the people you work with are self-selected to share at least certain values with you. They may be more liberal or more conservative, but they're probably not foaming at the mouth. And most of your coworkers, you only see within the bubble of the workplace and "professional behavior."
In fact, even if some of your coworkers are internet trolls, it's not the lack of online anonymity that's keeping them from trolling you in person — it's the chilling effect of "workplace behavior" and professionalism.
The fact is, you can meet internet trolls in real life, and they will be just as trollish in person as they are on the internet. It's just that, when someone starts screaming at you on the street about their crazy conspiracy theories, you can walk away. Also, most of us who are over the age of 21 don't make a point of hunting down random 14-year-olds and asking them what they think about stuff — unless we're related to them, in which case it's a self-selecting group. Most of us who live in city centers also probably don't venture out to suburban malls and ask people what they think about politics or cultural issues, or vice versa.
That's one point — trolling is often in the eye of the beholder. A conservative's idea of trolling will be very different from a liberal's. Ditto for divisions of age, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation.
We tend to talk to our friends, and to people we already share some basic similarities with — and if a random dude does come up to you and start explaining his theories about women, you usually back away.
And yet, most of us have had the experience of being trolled in real life. Many of us have had it on a regular basis, especially if you walk around a city late at night. Or visit your weird relatives. It's easy enough to be accosted by drunk people or wild-eyed ranters with no boundaries, if you're out in a public place and not adequately telegraphing that you do not wish to embrace the tyranny of the commons.
And I'm going to just come out and say it — a large proportion of the worst, most horrendous internet trolls are probably people who lack a certain amount of social graces in their "meatspace" interactions as well. Including some people you probably would flee, long before they got as far as opening their mouths.
But on the internet, there's no easy way to flee people before they can say their piece. It's actually the opposite of the way most people think the internet works — and it's definitely the opposite of the way futurists predicted the internet would work.
Not too long ago, there were a slew of articles predicting that the internet would close off our communal conversation, once and for all. Because there are liberal news sites and conservative news sites, nobody would ever consider anyone else's point of view. Liberals would only talk to liberals, and conservatives to conservatives. Christians would only take part in Christian discussions, and LGBT people would talk amongst themselves. This certainly happens, to a large extent — but so does the opposite. On the internet, there's no foolproof way to shut out the people you would never, ever speak to in real life.