We should reflect on the possibility that technology that produces pseudorealities of ephemeral images and eliminates reciprocity also diminishes the sense of common humanity. This may sound dramatic, but such a development can start with very simple but pervasive steps. Where there is no reciprocity, there is no need for listening. There is then no need to understand or accommodate. For kids this can mean that one doesn’t have to be moderately civil to one’s younger sister because she is the only one to play with; television allows entertainment without the cooperation of anybody. In school, there is no argument or negotiation with the computer. Sharing work among students takes on a different meaning.
— Ursula Franklin, The Real World of Technology
Have you ever noticed that it’s easier to say bad / mean things in writing? For instance, dumping someone via text message, reaming someone out via e-mail or Facebook (my old favourite), or writing something devastating about an online article in the comments section? Most of us know why this is; it’s because we don’t want to have to look at someone or hear their voice when we say whatever we want to say to them. But why? What exactly is that quality of being able to see and/or hear a person react to what we’re saying which causes us to moderate ourselves? Ursula Franklin calls it “reciprocity”. Now, she has much more to say about what reciprocity is exactly, which I will not outline here because then I would just be copying entire pages of her book into this post, but hopefully the above will suffice to explain this intangible element of human interaction for our purposes f0r now. If you want to learn more about it, I strongly encourage you to read her whole book The Real World of Technology based on her Massey Lectures.
Franklin doesn’t talk about reciprocity in the context of online comments sections, in no small part because she wrote the book in 1990. She does, however, relate the phenomenon to why we get upset when we’re sent to the overflow room of a lecture or how we can watch movies or the news with images of violence and misery without being moved to act or, for that matter, without being affected at all. But I see the full realization of Franklin’s discussion of reciprocity in the phenomenon of “trolling”, especially in online comments, and I think it forms a good exposition of why you should not only not participate in online comments sections, but moreover why you should not be so bothered by them. I will divide the conversation into 4 parts: 1) an attempt to achieve a degree of reciprocity is the reason why comments sections exist, 2) comments sections fail absolutely and necessarily to achieve reciprocity, which is why they are terrible, 3) this lack of reciprocity begins to attract people looking for an outlet for their terribleness, which is actually kind of comforting in a weird way, and 4) people with good intentions are made crazy by people with bad intentions, again because of the lack of reciprocity inherent in the technology.
Comments sections are an attempt to achieve reciprocity
So, let’s begin. Comments sections were created as a way for viewers of content to respond to that content. Franklin has an anecdote in The Real World of Technology, which she draws from a Ben Wicks cartoon, wherein a repairman instructs a man with a heavily bandaged foot to just change the channel the next time Trudeau is featured speaking [the first Trudeau. Retro, I know]. For ages, people have been frustrated by technologies and systems that do not accommodate our innate desire to respond to the output of those technologies and systems. And so. comments sections have become hugely popular as forums for such responses.
Comments sections cannot achieve reciprocity
The problem lies in that posting a comment is no more effective or satisfying than kicking in our television, because comments are the technological equivalent of yelling into a void. Let’s consider for a minute the callousness we have communally developed to ‘poverty porn’ ads aired by Christian Children’s Fund and the like compared to what we would do if we came face to face with one of those children in our home. There is something to be said about sharing a plane of existence with the person who is within our immediate vicinity that we do not share with people who are only real to us in theory. In the same way, trying to interact with the object of our anger through a post on a comment board, even if that person were to respond, will not give us the kind of satisfaction that we are craving, which can only be provided by eye contact, a firm handshake, and a committed conversation. And so, what ends up happening is that people begin yelling into the void and, at best, sometimes the void yells back. You don’t reason with the void, you’re not kind to the void, you have no interest in the void at all. And so you just yell louder, more radical, more callous things in the hopes that doing so will give you the satisfaction that you had believed the comments section would afford you.
The lack of reciprocity attracts the trolls
But it never will, because it can’t. What it does do, however, is attract people who are just looking for an outlet for their anger. Sure, the comment might be about how women are unfunny cunts or the comment might be directed at Obama the gay Muslim, but the anger is rooted in the same fear born of ignorance as all such rage. That’s not to say that the rage is latent or not cause for concern; only that lingering on those comments is the technological equivalent of investing emotionally in the mark left on a wall where someone punched it. The comment wasn’t left there looking to be engaged in any real way. It might feed off of the reactions it elicits, but it certainly is not going to stand to be corrected no matter how eloquently you rebut it. And yet we (myself very much included) read these comments and allow ourselves to be concerned with what they mean to the state of humanity. The fact is that they say nothing about the state of humanity because they don’t say anything of substance at all. Comments sections are, at the end of the day, just a collection of people’s worst selves. And sure, some of the commenters are definitely legit bad people, but I know that I’ve thought some terrible things in my day and if they were all collected in one place without the contrast of any of my more redeeming thoughts, you couldn’t be blamed for concluding that I’m a terrible person and/or moron. The difference is just that I don’t feel compelled to write down those terrible thoughts. But, if I did feel compelled to do so, it wouldn’t change the fact that I am a friendly contributing member of society in spite of the cowardly moron I become on particularly bad days.
A lack of reciprocity will drag you into the mud
Unfortunately, when we engage with these virtual fist imprints, even just out of sincere concern about the state of humanity, we bring ourselves down. We get drawn into this angry irrationality and we too start shouting into the void; yelling at some faceless stranger just to try to make ourselves feel better about the anger that comes from our fear that the world is filled with fundamentally bad people. But, of course, responding to comments will never make us feel better for the same reason that the person you’re responding to probably posted in the first place: neither of you is communicating with the other; you’re both just writing in caps lock on a random virtual wall. It all comes full circle in the worst possible way, with the person who wanted to engage in meaningful conversation descending to the level of the same callous person they intended to elevate.
So just don’t go there. Nothing good can come of it.
Posted in: Progress