The last time I got into an internet argument
I left Facebook in 2016.
I left reddit in 2017.
I wish I could say that my decisions to do so were principled, but the truth is that I was honestly just fed up. People had gotten mean, and I was sick of it. Every time I came online I felt like I was walking into a warzone of words.
The internet, of course, has never been a fundamentally or thoroughly nice place, but I used to feel like niceness was at least widely seen as a virtue. When I made the decisions to leave those platforms, however, I felt like niceness had become a liability. Showing kindness was just demonstrating vulnerability, and vulnerabilities were to be exploited.
Despite feeling a strong need at the time to just get the hell out, these places were genuinely hard to leave. I left friends on Facebook, and, for most of them, Facebook was our sole connecting thread. Choosing to leave Facebook was, in effect, a conscious choice to formally cut them out of my life, and I still, years later, have a non-negligible level of guilt about this.
But that wasn’t enough to get me to stay, because the overriding feeling I felt at the time was frustration at the fact that people simply wouldn’t stop treating others like shit, and that included many of my Facebook friends.
Meanwhile reddit, being a dyed-in-the-wool internet community, already had a latent shittiness in its behavior profile that got excused under the guise of trolling or free speech or whatnot. The prevailing understanding of and norm regarding internet behavior at the time was Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. Everybody just sort of agreed that some level of fuckitude was endemic in anonymous online spaces, like background noise. It came with the territory, and to be online in those areas simply meant accepting its presence and doing your best to ignore or work around it.
But the heat on this fuckitude turned up significantly, in ways I didn’t even realize were possible. I was used to the usual conflicts and people being wrong on the internet. Furthermore, being openly gay on the internet meant that I’ve dealt with my fair share of specific hostilities greater than the average. “Fag” is a word I’ve had the displeasure of reading in reference to myself and others like me far more than I ever should have had to, but in those earlier years it was somewhat easy to simply slot its use and the concomitant homophobia that came with it into that “background noise” space as a way of diminishing its power or meaning.
By 2016 openly using “fag” had fallen out of style, even on reddit, and most people saw it for the hate speech it was. I should have considered this a victory, but I couldn’t really celebrate as it seemed like that was one tiny step forward among hundreds of others back.
I first crawled online back in the 90s. My father brought home a 33.6k dial up modem to add to our computer and signed us up for a CompuServe account. Because I was young, I learned social skills in parallel: half online and half in person — among the first generation of people in the world to do so.
Of course, the online world was distinct from the real world. People didn’t use real names; it was expected that people were lying; saying things because you could was part of what made the experience fun. My friends used to come over and we would join chat rooms and work together to pretend to be different people in them, discussing what we would type before entering it into the chat, and then gleefully reveling in how others responded to it. We would pretend to be a woman living in France, or a dog who’d learned to type. We weren’t the only ones who did this, as the honest expectation was actually that more people were lying than telling the truth.
The internet allowed for a social creativity that real life didn’t, and that created a sort of cushion for any real impact. My early years online felt like they had a weightlessness to them because I was operating in a sort of imaginary, fantasy space rather than a real one.
But, of course, it was real. I was really talking, and those were real people I was talking to, even if the details we shared weren’t.
One of the first terms I learned online in my netiquette education was “flame war”, which was when two or more people got into a heated argument and started insulting one another. Back then, it was seen as a bad thing, because one of the other netiquette norms was something akin to improv: responding with “yes, and...” was better than “no” or “you're wrong” or “you loser”. Playing along was valued, so when someone got mad and broke with that norm, it ruined the illusion of the internet as this fantasy social space.
But also, getting mad was just sort of annoying. In a chat room, if people started arguing, it tended to flood the room, with their rapid and repeated back and forths making all other conversation impossible. In a forum environment, it kept bumping the thread, putting it at the very top of the site and never letting it move down. Plus, it left even less room for other conversations, as flame wars would put great distance — sometimes entire pages — between legitimate posts.
Speaking in 90s internet terms: when I logged into Facebook and reddit in 2016, all I saw were flame wars. They were everywhere. And the “fuckwads” were no longer anonymous. They were all over my Facebook feed, with real names and pictures — people I recognized in real life but whose online behavior was so bad that it made them unrecognizable to me. I didn't like who I was seeing online, and I couldn't reconcile it with what I knew of them in real life. These were kind, caring, thoughtful people — so why did I not see any of that in them when I checked my feed?
Unlike the 90s, by 2016, the internet was no longer a fantasy play space — it was very much real life. In fact, the two had arguably traded places for many people, with the internet being more “real” to many people than anything IRL. People talked about real things, with real information, and real feelings, as their real selves, all online.
Also, unlike the 90s, people didn’t find flame wars annoying.
They found them invigorating.
The last time I got into an internet argument was just over a month or so.
Despite leaving all major social media sites in 2017, I have kept a few accounts active on smaller communities here and there. Most of them exist simply to let me lurk, with Tildes being the only place I'm interested in making any meaningful contributions on account of its chillness and retro-feeling respect for kindness.
Occasionally, however, I make the mistake of posting something on one of those other communities, against my better judgment.
On the particular site in which I got into my most recent argument, there was a very clear troll, and I use that in the old-school “attention-seeking” sense of the term rather than the modern “misinformation purveyor” one. They were saying shitty things to rain on people’s parade, and they very much wanted a response.
So, I gave them one.
I knew I shouldn’t have. I’ve known for decades not to “feed the trolls”, and over those decades I’ve had my fair share of back and forths. I know how they play out, and I know what to expect.
But I did it anyway.
This is not a rhetorical question. I actually asked myself the question as I was in the process of writing my first response to the troll, and I came back to the question multiple times within our protracted back-and-forth. It was a weird feeling actually, as I was simultaneously aware that I was doing something I shouldn’t, but I was also choosing to do it at the same time. I felt like I was trying to steal a cookie from the cookie jar without my parents noticing, only in this case, I knew they were watching and brazenly did it anyway. Also I am my own parents in this scenario. It's not a great metaphor, but it fits better than any other way I can describe it.
Answering “why?” required a level of honesty from me that I had to dig for, because a lot of the easy self-satisfying go-tos were already out of play. Was I writing to change their mind? No, because I knew they weren't going to change their mind. Was I writing to try to counter their points? No, because I didn’t want to give their nonsense the legitimacy of counterarguments. Was I writing to inform others? No, because my response was not an informative one.
The truth of the matter is that I was writing to harm. I wanted my words to sting.
The site that this took place on is a low moderation environment that pretty much takes action only on spam and the most egregious rules violations. It has a very laissez-faire attitude towards user content, which is what let the troll show up and stick around with their parade-raining garbage in the first place.
Of course, I also took advantage of the same loophole they did, knowing that I’d be able to give my words some bite and have those left standing rather than be removed. My response was pointed, sarcastic, and cutting. It was the opposite of kindness — mean and sneering. Contemptuous.
I knew I was doing it. I fully chose to write what I wrote and even had my shoulder angel interrupt me throughout the process to point out my misdeeds, but I wrote it and posted it anyway. I wrote it because I wanted someone to hurt.
It felt justified, because the whole reason they showed up in the first place was to bother people, and they legitimately were ruining everyone else’s good time! They struck first, and I was just hitting back, right? Self-defense!
Here’s where it gets dark, because I lied a little bit earlier. I lied to you there because I also lied to myself, and it's important that I convey how that feels and plays out, because I don’t think I’m the only one lying to myself about this kind of thing right now.
I said I wanted my words to sting, but I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that hostile responses to someone trolling aren’t a winning strategy. Quite the opposite: they’re exactly what the troll wants! Getting attention and creating discord is the name of the game, and I was giving them my focus and some strife.
My comment wasn’t me digging out a weed from the garden — it was instead me watering it, giving it sunlight, and fertilizing its soil. I was actively encouraging it to grow.
In being genuinely honest with myself about what I was doing, I had to admit that I actually had another reason for writing what I wrote.
I wasn’t writing to be mean. I was writing to entertain.
Because here’s where things get really fucked:
The meanness was the entertainment.
When I left reddit and Facebook, it wasn’t just because people were mean to each other. Again, that has been happening online since people first got online.
Instead, it was that the meanness was celebrated. People were cheering one another on. There was an element of spectacle and relish to the cruelty that didn't used to be there. Flame wars used to piss the rest of the community off. You were someone who would face social sanctions if you got into them too frequently.
But now, it felt like they weren't just encouraged — they were the dominant way in which people were conversing.
I wish I could say I was above this, but for the longest time I was right there in the fray too. I loved a solid dunk or takedown just as much as anyone, and I would actively seek out those types of interactions. I even participated in many myself. I know my way around words, and I can put together a pithy verbal uppercut when I need to.
This is what I did in my most recent argument, but my uppercut wasn’t meant to hurt my opponent — it was meant for the crowd to enjoy.
My first post was mean, but it was also funny. Sassy. A nice mix of smug superiority and jokey affability. This was intentional — a trap for anyone who might respond, including the original troll. If they took me seriously I could fall back on the jokiness and make them look like they took the bait. If they instead went jokey, I could ramp up the smugness even more, which is, of course, exactly what I did.
But the smugness and the jokiness were also there for their entertainment value. Several people responded to my post with praise, accolades, and appreciation. They loved my schtick. And I loved their praise.
I wasn’t writing my responses in this thread for the troll. I was writing it for everyone else there.
I wanted my meanness seen, amplified, and celebrated by that community.
Another hard truth about this is what it did to me.
I was a man possessed.
I wrote the first comment before going to bed for the night. I then couldn’t fall asleep because I was amped up, feeling the internet commenter’s high that comes in the period between dropping a verbal bombshell and hearing its detonation.
Even after I did fall asleep, my brain never fully turned off. My rest that night, if you can even call it that, was fitful and interrupted. I even think, but can’t confirm, that I checked my phone in my sleep a few times, turning on my screen and opening the browser as a subconscious compulsion.
The next morning, after waking up from my night of non-sleep, I proceeded to refresh the forum topic obsessively, watching new comments roll in. I was not the only one who had fed the troll. Plus, that forum uses threaded commenting, so I got to watch a sort of fractal conflict progress down multiple comment chains, each spawning sub-conflicts of their own, all grown from the same, single, shitty comment. That weed was doing great in all the sunlight we were giving it, with plenty of water to drink and nutrients in the soil.
I spent that day doing little more than devoting my attention and efforts to both following and participating in this conflict. Even when I was attending to something else IRL, I was giving it only surface-level attention. My online moment was more real to me than my real life that day.
This was a shitty way to spend my time. I knew it was shitty. I was fully conscious of that from the moment I started writing the first words of my first comment.
But I did it anyway.
Because I wanted to.
I hate that I wanted to.
I really, honestly do. The experience, in hindsight, was a nice lesson in exactly what not to do, and the emotional hangover I got following this bad behavior binge was enough to steer me away for, hopefully, forever. I was invigorated in that moment, but in the cold afterlight, all I see is me being shitty — the worst version of myself — and even then my shittiness was in an even more specifically shitty way, because I lost all sense of perspective.
The site this argument happened on is a small site. The troll was one person. Even the whole conflict was the tiniest of blips — over in a day or two. The whole thing was of so little actual importance to anyone that it could barely be considered “real”
But it felt real at the time. In fact, it felt hyper-real. It affected my sleep. It consumed an entire day of my life. It kept me from focusing on anything else. It brought out the worst in me and made me delight in doing that. I’m spending thousands of words right now dissecting this moment as if it’s a pivotal life event when in reality it is nothing. It’s noise. It’s artificial.
I shouldn’t care this much about any internet fight, but in particular, I shouldn’t care this much about one that was such a throwaway in the first place.
Why was it so real to me?
I think there are a lot of us out there who care about internet fights more than we should. This is not an indictment. I am not doing this to point fingers. I just don’t want people going through what I went through — the lies to myself, the indulging of my worst impulses, the obsessive refreshing.
This is also not to say that some fights aren’t necessary or worth having. That’s not true either.
But I think those of us who spend a lot of time online are predisposed to view meanness as entertainment rather than cruelty. I think we’re predisposed to view conflict as invigorating rather than draining. And I think we’re predisposed to engage and participate in it for the wrong reasons — reasons we might even misidentify to our own consciences.
This is a complex problem, and not one I can solve here. I, as I’m sure we all do, have my theories and criticisms regarding various stakeholders. One of the things that sticks with me is that the site I used was ad-supported. How much money did this little tiff make them? How many other participants in the broader conversation were, like me, refreshing the site hundreds of times that day? What does it say that what was ostensibly a net negative for the community — users bickering — was potentially good for the community leaders financially?
It’s a question I have, and it’s tempting to reach for it like a life raft in these stormy waters of my mind. It’s the platforms’ fault! They’ve trained us to be this way! This is how they make their money!
I think there’s some truth to that, but I also think part of the reason it feels true is because we also really like believing that the problem always lies elsewhere, outside of us, in someone else’s purview. Me going off wasn’t my own decision — it was because I’ve been programmed by modern social media!
Social media didn't type my comment. I did.
It was me going off. I knew I was doing it when I did it, and I did it because I wanted to.
While influences certainly lie elsewhere, fault lies with me, and it would be irresponsible for me to argue otherwise.
Because I wanted to do it.
I really, genuinely wanted to.