Why Are People Being Mean On The Internet?

Mean_People _on_internetOne of the greatest advantages of the Internet: it gives everyone a platform to air your views. On the other hand, there is a growing flipside: not many of us use it in a civil manner. Increasingly, people are displaying aggressive and mean behaviour on the Internet, which is not only a growing concern but is also causing a great deal of friction for all involved parties. Way back in the early 1970s, computer scientists noticed that while electronically discussing through early online forums, there was a virtual acceleration of derogatory comments and an increase in the rate with which people would react with curt, antagonistic responses. These early documented instances of negative exchanges were termed as ‘flame wars’, and that has definitely not been the last of them. Four decades into the future and our online behaviour has spiralled dangerously into newer depths of rage and meanness. A survey consisting hundreds of interviews with individuals over the last decade, conducted by an MIT professor and psychologist known as Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., has revealed that almost every individual displays aggressive behaviour online that they would never have otherwise done so with the person, eye-to-eye.

Our Genes Are To Be Blamed As much as we would like to put all our loutish behaviour down to the time when computers were invented, it is actually much more than that. Going back in history, it turns out that we have been tuned towards negativity and have evolved to concentrate on negative emotions as they were requisite tools for surviving. Neuropsychologists reveal that early man had to constantly scan the horizon for threats while searching for food and focus on fight-or-flight reactions. Over the millennia, the brain has evolved to continue to use these very same mental mechanisms when dealing with incidents that are much less hazardous — frustrating e-mails from your boss. In addition, brain scientists reveal that our mental framework is designed to hive-away negative experiences for a long period of time, so that the person can instantly discern the threat on the next confrontation. It is like the human brain is designed to be the Velcro for negative emotions but act like Teflon for positive feelings.

We Were Not Meant To Interact Through A Computer As if it was not enough that our genes have placed us at a disadvantage when it comes to positivity, the problem is further intensified by another glaring fact: We do not have any instincts when it comes to communicating through an electronic lifeless box, the computer. From the time we are born, we learn to communicate face-to-face, which is the benchmark by which all behaviour is assessed. When we are speaking to another individual in real-time, we’re usually steered by three significant factors that are absent when we go online:

1.    The environment that we are in.

2.    Encountering the person with whom we are talking to.

3.    Observing the reaction of the individual towards us.

All these factors are extremely critical when we speak face-to-face with another individual, which determines our behaviour with people in real life. In an online setting, we do not have these cues or factors to guide us on how we need to behave or move the conversation further. We are not aware of the mental state or the background of the individuals that we are speaking to, in an online forum. We do not lessen our tone, rather hurl into scathing disparagement. Moreover, without visual aid we lack the power of expressing our emotions, such as a frown, and rely on striking and vigorous word play, ALL CAPS and abrasive choice of words. All this presents us as massive louts than we were ever meant to be.

Internet_MisuseIn order to cope with being mean online, here are some easy steps that can help to bring a more positive atmosphere in your online setting. These include:

•    Waiting Pause to take a long breath before you hit the send button or post that hurting comment, especially if you are planning to make an anonymous comment on an article or wanting to send an angry reply to an e-mail. Taking that much-needed moment will help you to mull over the possible repercussions of what you have written.

•    Read out the comment loudly When you read anything out aloud, it automatically reminds yourself that what you are reading is coming from you and not just some intangible or insubstantial text. Hearing yourself aloud can help visualise how it will sound to the audience.

•    Do not search for hidden meaning into non-responses If you have not received a reply to an urgent e-mail, do not assume that you know the reason why. It is very easy to make an assumption that you are being blown off, but in reality there might be at least 20 genuine reasons on why the person has not responded. Go back to waiting. In time, all will sort itself out.

About Manmohan Hebbar

I am the founder and director of and chief editor at

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