Opinion | Why People Are So Awful Online

When I joined Twitter 14 years ago, I was living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, attending graduate school. I lived in a town of around 4,000 people, with few Black people or other people of color, not many queer people and not many writers. Online is where I found a community beyond my graduate school peers. I followed and met other emerging writers, many of whom remain my truest friends. I got to share opinions, join in on memes, celebrate people’s personal joys, process the news with others and partake in the collective effervescence of watching awards shows with thousands of strangers.

Something fundamental has changed since then. I don’t enjoy most social media anymore. I’ve felt this way for a while, but I’m loath to admit it.

Increasingly, I’ve felt that online engagement is fueled by the hopelessness many people feel when we consider the state of the world and the challenges we deal with in our day-to-day lives. Online spaces offer the hopeful fiction of a tangible cause and effect — an injustice answered by an immediate consequence. On Twitter, we can wield a small measure of power, avenge wrongs, punish villains, exalt the pure of heart.

In our quest for this simulacrum of justice, however, we have lost all sense of proportion and scale. We hold in equal contempt a war criminal and a fiction writer who too transparently borrows details from someone else’s life. It’s hard to calibrate how we engage or argue.

In real life, we are fearful Davids staring down seemingly omnipotent Goliaths: a Supreme Court poised to undermine abortion and civil rights; a patch of sea on fire from a gas leak; an incoherent but surprisingly effective attack on teaching children America’s real history; the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act; a man whom dozens of women have accused of sexual assault walking free on a technicality. At least online, we can tell ourselves that the power imbalances between us flatten. Suddenly, we are all Goliaths in the Valley of Elah.

It makes me uncomfortable to admit that I have some influence and power online, because it feels so foreign or, maybe, unlikely. My online following came slowly, and then all at once. For years, I had a couple hundred followers. Those numbers slowly inched up to a couple thousand. Then I wrote a couple of books, and blinked, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people were seeing my tweets. Most of them appreciate my work, though they may disagree with my opinions. Some just hate me, as is their right, and they follow me to scavenge for evidence to support or intensify their enmity. Then there are those who harass me for all kinds of reasons — some aspect of my identity or my work or my presence in the world troubles their emotional waters.

After a while, the lines blur, and it’s not at all clear what friend or foe look like, or how we as humans should interact in this place. After being on the receiving end of enough aggression, everything starts to feel like an attack. Your skin thins until you have no defenses left. It becomes harder and harder to distinguish good-faith criticism from pettiness or cruelty. It becomes harder to disinvest from pointless arguments that have nothing at all to do with you. An experience that was once charming and fun becomes stressful and largely unpleasant. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. We have all become hammers in search of nails.

One person makes a statement. Others take issue with some aspect of that statement. Or they make note of every circumstance the original statement did not account for. Or they misrepresent the original statement and extrapolate it to a broader issue in which they are deeply invested. Or they take a singular instance of something and conflate it with a massive cultural trend. Or they bring up something ridiculous that someone said more than a decade ago as confirmation of … who knows?

Or someone popular gets too close to the sun and suddenly can do nothing right. “Likes” are analyzed obsessively, as if clicking a button on social media is representative of an entire ideology. If a mistake is made, it becomes immediate proof of being beyond redemption. Or, if the person is held mildly accountable for a mistake, a chorus rends her or his garments in distress, decrying the inhumanity of “cancel culture.”

Every harm is treated as trauma. Vulnerability and difference are weaponized. People assume the worst intentions. Bad-faith arguments abound, presented with righteous bluster.

And these are the more reasonable online arguments. There is another category entirely of racists, homophobes, transphobes, xenophobes and other bigots who target the subjects of their ire relentlessly and are largely unchecked by the platforms enabling them. And then, of course, there are the straight-up trolls, gleefully wreaking havoc.

As someone who has been online for a long time, I have seen all kinds of ridiculous arguments and conversations. I have participated in all kinds of ridiculous arguments and conversations. Lately, I’ve been thinking that what drives so much of the anger and antagonism online is our helplessness offline. Online we want to be good, to do good, but despite these lofty moral aspirations, there is little generosity or patience, let alone human kindness. There is a desperate yearning for emotional safety. There is a desperate hope that if we all become perfect enough and demand the same perfection from others, there will be no more harm or suffering.

It is infuriating. It is also entirely understandable. Some days, as I am reading the news, I feel as if I am drowning. I think most of us do. At least online, we can use our voices and know they can be heard by someone.

It’s no wonder that we seek control and justice online. It’s no wonder that the tenor of online engagement has devolved so precipitously. It’s no wonder that some of us have grown weary of it.

I don’t regret the time I’ve spent on social media. I’ve met interesting people. I’ve had real-life adventures instigated by virtual relationships. I’ve been emboldened to challenge myself and grow as a person and, yes, clap back if you clap first.

But I have more of a life than I once did. I have a wife, a busy career, aging parents and a large family. I have more physical mobility and, in turn, more interest in being active and out in the world. I now spend most of my time with people who are not Very Online. When I talk to them about some weird or frustrating internet conflagration, they tend to look at me as if I am speaking a foreign language from a distant land. And I suppose, I am.

Roxane Gay (@RGay) is a contributing Opinion writer. She was the editor, most recently, of “The Selected Works of Audre Lorde.” She is the author of the memoir “Hunger.”

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