The “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory” is a famous piece of internet lore. It comes up when anyone talks of internet hate, be it in online video games or forum trolls. Penny Arcade articulated a common thought: that the anonymity of the internet turns normal people into total “fuckwads.” Game developer Blizzard even considered a system called Real ID, where all online interactions, both in game and on their forums, would be under a person’s real name in order to combat anonymity.
But I think this theory is false. At least to a degree. In fact, I think most of these people are actually fuckwads in real life too. The internet just lets them spew their ignorance and hate more effectively.
Everyone carries with them inherent bias and prejudices. Evolution has shaped the human such that is can only properly connect with so many people at a personal level. We simply aren’t capable of having deep relationships with everyone we meet; there are too many of us. This leads to stereotypes and compartmentalization of those outside our inner circle. We generalize in order to have some frame of reference in which to interact with new people. When these stereotypes are built on solid foundation, i.e. real world evidence and experience, they are healthy functions to have. They help our mind cope. They are only problems when they are built on false premises and fabricated evidence. Sadly, these kind of stereotypes and prejudices are far more common than most people think. The internet shows us this.
But I do not believe in is the internet’s anonymity that causes the negative behavior; the internet simply allows access to a huge range of new people to spew hate at. When you grow up in a nearly homogeneous community that primarily thinks all non-whites are “lazy, good-for-nothing drains-on-society” (as I did), no one goes around telling each other that. They all assume everyone is thinking the same things. It only comes up when interacting with outsiders. For me, I saw the racism in my neighbors and classmates most often in sports; we were often coming in contact with communities more diverse than ours. All sorts of racial comments got exchanged at the line of scrimmage, at second base, etc.
The internet is full of the “other,” of those different than ourselves. The average person resorts back to primal compartmentalizing when confronted by this vast sea of diverse strangers: “all those who are not of my tribe are my enemy.” A stranger become lumped into every group that person hates: gays, liberals, Muslims, woman, etc. The internet sheds light on the entire range of human experience, but far too many can’t or won’t embrace that and thus simply meet it with hatred.
These people would do the same even if you knew their names, just as they would do the same if you brought this diversity to their towns. Look at Arizona and its immigration laws. Look at Moscow trying to ban gay pride. The solution is not to change the internet.
The solution is to change the people. We must improve as a human species if we are to survive as a global community. We must embrace diversity, not reject it. We must seek real evidence and knowledge, not rumors and blind prejudice. That is the path to harmony, both online and off.
-That is all.