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Why are people ar*eholes online?


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What is it about electronic communication that makes highly intelligent adults behave like a******s as soon as they sit down to a keyboard? It is a puzzle that has defeated better minds than mine, most recently Timothy Garton Ash's. He suggests that some kind of responsibility may be the answer; while this is itself a characteristically responsible suggestion, I don't think it is going to work at all. All this spring we have seen astonishing examples of the rudeness, stupidity and aggression which seems to characterise all online discussion.



Intelligence, education, and respectability in the real world are no protection. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury said earlier this year 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 laws 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.

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