Why is the internet so full of pathological and toxic people?

Anyone who has spent any length of time in the various internet communication fora — blogs, messageboards, usenet, you name it, will have noticed that every twisted nutjob alive seems to have found a home. I have previously wondered aloud what brings these people into existence (conclusion: “mental illness.”), but one might also wonder why they seem to congregate on the internet, and, worse, attract little communities around them?

This is certainly a real phenomenon. No matter how randomly malicious and incoherent someone is, there seems to be someone on the internet who will read and talk to him or her (usually him, but there are a good number of female internet sociopaths too*). And these phenomena seem to be self-reinforcing: a few drooling maniacs get together, and then more and more of them come out of the woodwork. The shining example of this, of course, is autoadmit. But it exists elsewhere too.

I guess this is really two questions, viz.:

1) Why do they show up on the internet?

Part of the answer to this is doubtless the fact that prompts question 2) below, to wit, the fact that people on the internet seem to listen to them. It’s hard to believe that the sociopaths on the internet have many real-world friends. Since sociality is a basic need of humans, they go where they think they can get some.

But maybe there’s a deeper reason.

I think that we all have a little bit of crazy asshole in us, waiting for the right moment, provocation or opportunity, to come out. The human condition is pretty vile. We have to rely for basically all of our needs (from the simplest, like food and shelter, at least in the civilized condition,** to the most complex, like esteem and “love”) on other people, who are simultaneously our competitors for all of those things (all of which are scarce) and our only sources of them. Even our closest relationships are tinged with fear and resentment of the need for fear, resentment of the fact that the satisfaction of those things that our infinitely regrettable biology demands we desire so strongly depends on nothing more than the whim of others, who, at the deepest level, don’t give the slightest fuck about us except insofar as we contribute to the desires of their biology. And those others have precisely the same fear and resentment for us. We’re driven to the endless and miserable acquisition of things like money and power so that we can have at least a little of our need-satisfaction in our control to even the tiniest extent. Is it any wonder that humans crap on one another at the first opportunity? How could anyone live for any length of time in this species and not have a core of antisocial madness?

But on the internet, everything seems so… disconnected. It’s not real life, it’s the internet.

One of those biological drives — one of the few fortunate ones, probably a major part of the reason this ugly little species hasn’t perished yet in a nuclear holocaust — is the kind of empathy we get that allows us to have some kind of a grip on the pain of others when it is displayed to us. We don’t go around punching people in the face every day not only because it’s against the law and we’d get punished, but because we feel bad when we see people suffer. Call it mirror neurons, or something like that.

But on the internet, we don’t have to see people suffer. The negative reinforcement that usually follows our making others miserable doesn’t happen. So those of us whose core of evil maniac is a little closer to the surface can mistreat others with psychic impunity. It might not be that the crazies are on the internet, it might just be that we’re all on the internet, and those of us who have a strong tendency to become the crazies blossom (in a fetid withering kind of sense) there.

2) Why do other people on the internet choose to associate with them?

This one is a little harder. I think there are two things at work here. First, humans seem to have a natural tendency to self-organize into tribes, and when there is a distinct group, with clear boundaries delineating who is in the group and who the targets are, that very fact is going to be attractive to some people who are craving a tribe. There’s probably a pleasurable feeling being part of, say, the autoadmit tribe and watching Your Group “win” glorious internet insulting victories against (e.g.) women who have the temerity to go to the gym.

I also think that all the yammer about “alpha” and “beta” is true to the following, highly limited, extent: we tend to be attracted (and this is not, or not only, a sexual thing) to displays of dominance. There’s a reason Chuck Norris movies sell, and it sure ain’t because they’re well-written or acted. We want to hang around with people who kick asses, and one form of ass-kicking is internet cruelty.

All this immediately prompts a third question:

3) What is to be done?

Sadly, if these are the real reasons for the twistedness of our behavior on the internet, there isn’t likely to be much to be done about it. The twistedness is there, the internet just brings it out, and then once it’s out, it naturally draws a crowd. Short of abolishing the internet, or building some ingenious structure so that those who mistreat others would have to immediately see the consequences to the victims of their mistreatment, we appear to be stuck with it.


* It’s saddest of all when female sociopaths warp the good work that feminism has done by randomly accusing people of sexism, thus making attempts to call out real sexists less credible by the boy-who-cried-wolf principle. Recently observed: one of the more noxious bloggers out there threatening a smart young philosophy undergrad with the “disdain” of a “dramatically increased” readership, on the totally imaginary grounds of his supposedly being a “sexist douchebag.”*** (Said readership being the hordes of enraged people who would presumably click through for the sole purpose of delivering that disdain, apparently because they have nothing better to do than hand out disdain like Halloween candy wherever they’re told to do so.****) Needless to say, and as per my usual policy, I won’t link that contemptible act of internet bullying, and, worse, an act of bullying rooted not in genuine beliefs (and, indeed, mated to a unastoundingly dishonest and hypocritical discussion) but in nothing more than secondhand personal malice.

** How did Rousseau miss this in the Discourse on the Origins of Inequality? Part of the reason for unsociable sociability is not the presence of objects of comparison, but that we simply rely on one another, in the civilized state, more than we do in the natural state. And fear and hatred follow need. Machiavelli, at least, understood that much.

** Incidentally, isn’t “douchebag” a pretty sexist insult?

*** Who remembers the “army of anonymous supporters” from the days of usenet? Fantasyland must be a nice place to live.

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7 Responses to “Why is the internet so full of pathological and toxic people?”

  1. Aaron Says:

    Internet road rage. It’s just the same as how people are all big and tough when they’re cocooned in a moving car.

    I have a personal policy where I won’t say anything on the net that I wouldn’t say in real life. I wish more people would adopt this.

  2. Mike Says:

    we appear to be stuck with it.

    Off to denist, but quick answer is: I welcome it.

    I want to know what people actually think. Not social faces. True reality.

    The internet has thus been very revealing. People are worse than I had imagined. It is a GOOD thing that I now know that there are way more racists and pedophiles or people into 14-year-olds than I had every imagined.

    Why drive people into the Underground? They you’ll have no fucking idea what people really believe.

  3. Raffi Says:

    I once had an odd dream in which god had somehow established a terrestrial presence, manifested by small plastic booths that dispensed your current chances of getting into heaven (via a complicated ranking system against all other living people). Maybe we can adapt this messed up idea to deal with bad internet people.

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    Raffi, that sounds eerily like the uberreputation market that the guy at the Overcoming Bias party pitched to me. Only replace “god” with “an AI,” and replace “dispensed your current chances of getting into heaven” with “removed micropennies from your bank account anytime you did anything obnoxious.”

    The idea seems dramatically more appealing if run by a deity, I must confess.

    But it would be even more appealing were it fueled by lightning bolts. Lots and lots of lightning bolts.

  5. ben wolfson Says:

    This has been studied.

  6. Raffi Says:

    Paul – Ah, yes, that’s what it would be like. And I agree it is a dystopia.

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