The other day someone sent me an email that was jeering, mean-spirited and pompous all at once. This had in fact been intended for publication, but the newspaper to which it was addressed declined, so the writer sent it on so I would know just how he felt about me. My works were "sleazy", nothing I wrote could be trusted at all, and so on, and so forth. The person writing this grumpy green-inked rant was in his everyday life a rather distinguished philosopher, with whom I had had a perfectly civilised conversation about the book he was signing for me not two days before. What is it about email that makes highly intelligent adults behave like arseholes as soon as they sit down to a keyboard?
Whatever the magic stupidity potion may be made from, it’s powerful. Intelligence, education, and respectability in the real world are no protection. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury said last week that "parts of the internet are the preserve of bigots and maniacs"; and he should know if he reads Christian discussion sites. The internet is a matchless incubator of religious hatred. But then again, it is a fantastic generator of hatred of every sort. Even where "hatred" is too strong a word, the amount of small-minded arrogant rudeness that goes on out there is quite astonishing. It is nicely encapsulated by one of the most famous laws1 of online behaviour, which states that the first person to drag Hitler into an argument online has lost; it has a corollary which states that as any online argument continues, the more certain it becomes that Hitler will make an appearance.
This is funny, and obviously true, but it is also, when you think about it, very odd. Normal arguments, even drunken arguments, don’t degenerate nearly so fast into mutual accusations of Nazism. On the internet, people who met only five minutes ago can be trying to exchange bodily fluids, while people who met six hours earlier are screaming a whole lifetime of hoarded hatred at each other like the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
One popular explanation is that we can type much faster than we can think. If even first thoughts are too slow for email, what chance is there for second thoughts? There is something in this. If I want to write a postcard to someone to express my loathing of their latest book review, I have to find the postcard, write it by hand, find a stamp, walk out and post it – all of them time-consuming or troublesome moments which give me plenty of time to wonder whether I really mean to do or say these things and to conclude that I probably don’t. Responding by email, on the other hand, is almost frictionless. It is the equivalent of shouting at the Today programme and being heard. But the sheer ease and speed of internet communication, while it might explain why there is so much of it, and why so much is vacuous, does not explain why it should so often be nasty.
Another explanation is that it costs so little to have an opinion on anything online. Recreational Typing is a recognised pastime now. There are conversations on a million subjects going on all over the world right now where you know just enough to irritate some expert, and all of them are only a few keystrokes away. All your future enemies are out there, waiting to be made. In normal life, it is easy to forget it when someone say something stupid; but a message that arrives on the screen in front of you seems personal and important. Once that has happened, nothing is too trivial to quarrel about. When I was stomping about and imprecating about the rude email I just had my fifteen-year-old daughter told me she had been playing on a collaborative role-playing board devoted to the fantasy universe of Anne McCaffrey where telepathic dragons play the role of ponies in traditional teenage fiction. The whole board was consumed in flames for three weeks after a dispute over which end of a dragon’s tail it has its anus at.
Once an enemy has been made online, they will be yours for life. Before the internet, you had to live with someone for years before you had at your fingertips every repulsive little thing about their personality and every ghastly unforgivable thing they had ever said in an argument.
But as soon it became easy to quote email, everything that any adversary said could be thrown back in their face at once, and they could retaliate with your quotes, and so on endlessly. Complete strangers could bring to bear on each other the obsessional hatred only otherwise found in marriages gone sour. The tactful forgetfulness which alone makes civilised life tolerable now required an effort of will; things have only got worse as the net expands and grow easier to use. Now, with Google, and with programs that search whole archives of email, you can look up exactly what he said and she said, and they said over ten or fifteen years, and all this can be done in seconds, before your anger cools. Then you can hurl another reply on the flames in the hope that they will illuminate forever your enemy’s bestial stupidity – and copy your witticisms to all your friends.
It’s that last keystroke, the one which brings your friends in there as an admiring audience, which is the most dangerous and maddening one. Technology alone can’t really explain the madness of the online world. It is the social aspect that turns it into a playground full of gangs of angry eight year olds. Above all, it is the sense – the hope – that we have an admiring audience out there. You can have this without technology, if you’re drunk enough: I remember as a very young man in Vienna getting into an argument with a German friend which concluded with me, whooping with laughter, reeling around on the pavement, shouting "Wer hat den letzen kreig gewonnen" – and I thought I was laughing precisely because it was such a mindbogglingly stupid thing to say that all my friends would laugh approvingly to see me, the cultured lover of Goethe and Schnitzler, pretending to be an ordinary English drunken yob. God, it was hilarious. I staggered to the side of the house, hanging on to the wall, laughing until I nearly threw up. Even funnier was the fact that nobody could see the refined intellectual student inside me. They were all so stupid – so stupid! – that they could only see the red-faced, staggering drunk.
Email offers all this pleasure in your own cleverness without the nausea or subsequent self-knowledge. The choir invisible of your friends hymns your praises at every devastating blow of the keyboard. You know this because you have copied them on the exchange.
But the remarkable thing about email is that it can make perfectly sober people appear as aggressive and stupid as if they were drunk. Drink is an analogy, not an explanation for the way the people behave online, and there are other influences which might better explain it. The most obvious is television. Many people online think they are being witty and wit, on modern television, is almost always signalled by a laugh track. George Meyer, the most admired writer on the Simpsons — and so one of the funniest men alive today – said in a New Yorker profile some years ago that television comedy has got meaner and nastier because it is now taped in front of a live studio audience. If the laugh isn’t immediate, it goes; and what’s recognised as an immediate laugh is something cruel. The participants in American sitcoms routinely say things to each other which in real life would have the recipient running from the room in tears – and yet, on television, they are greeted with roars of sycophantic laughter. The Internet gives everyone a studio audience in that sense. We are all among Friends when we type.
None the less, I think that the real explanation for online manners is even less flattering, at least for people in my trade: people online are such arseholes because they write like journalists are supposed to. Almost all the really popular forms of modern journalism consist of licensed scorn, and invective of the sort that would never pass in fact to face transmission. This has been true for a long time – in British journalism, Bernard Levin first made his name by insulting people in the Sixties, then there came Bron Waugh and Private Eye, and after them, Julie Burchill and her endless successors. All of them had in common that their schtick was to be more offensive than anyone would have thought possible in print before they did it. American journalism is a rather different case, but even there Hunter Thompson was not just famous for his heroic consumption of drugs and production of expenses, but for the force and clarity of his hatred.
1 named after one of the rudest and most tireless controversialists I have ever come across online.