NSFW: Can we try not be dicks to each other for a while?

NSFW is a weekly op-ed column in which I talk about whatever's on my mind. Sometimes it'll have something to do with the technology we cover here on iMore; sometimes it'll be whatever pops into my head. Your questions, comments and observations are welcome.

Wil Wheaton — the actor who portrayed teen prodigy Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation — has had a second career as an Internet celebrity (he's also parlayed it into guest spots on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and his own show on the SyFy Channel). There's an axiom named after him: "Wheaton's Law," which states, "Don't be a dick." It's short and to the point. And it's a really good guide for behavior both online and off, and I really wish more people would pay attention to it.

Look, I readily admit I haven't always followed Wil's advice. I used to cohost a weekly podcast where we lambasted what we considered really crappy coverage by journalists and analysts of the Apple ecosystem, and we laid bare our fangs and claws. We were nasty in what we said, often personalizing it in unnecessarily vulgar and angry ways (hence our name, Angry Mac Bastards). And even now, I'm not always the most calm, measured person on social media. But I think on balance I try to treat people fairly.

Yet all around me, I see people acting like utter dicks online, with almost complete impunity. There's something about being online that turns some of us into real monsters. If there's one thing I can say in my defense about my days podcasting with AMB, it's that I never made any effort to conceal my identity. The vast majority of Internet trolls do.

This isn't a new phenomenon, of course. Ten years ago, the popular Web comic Penny Arcade crystallized this behavior when they posted a piece called Green Blackboards (and Other Anomalies). Things haven't changed a bit since Unreal Tournament was popular. In fact, if anything, it's gotten a lot worse.

I'm grateful that we don't see a lot of this behavior on iMore's discussion threads. We are, for the most part, a pretty sociable bunch. When trolls do pop up, as they do from time to time, it's usually pretty easy to control them.

In other places, though, it can be horrendous. It seems every time I log on to the web site for a mainstream news resource, the discussion forums are absolutely polluted with a devastating torrent of hateful, angry rhetoric.

My wife recently sent me an article from Psychology Today exploring the topic of Internet trolls.

Jesse Fox suggests eight reasons driving the behavior. Anonymity, perceived obscurity, perceived "majority status," social identity salience, being surrounded by "friends," desensitization, innate personality traits, and perceived lack of consequences all come in to play.

Unfortunately, too often our interactions on the Internet reward antisocial behavior. The online disinhibition effect loosens the sort of social restrictions we have in real life interactions. We're often less inhibited, and that can be for better or for worse.

We can make friends easier, be more affectionate and more willing to share intimate details of our lives with relative strangers. That's great if you're part of an online support group. But the flip side of it leads to cyber bullying and online abuse.

Personally, I think the Internet makes many of us a bit autistic. Some high-functioning autistic individuals have trouble understanding body language, facial cues and vocal cues, which can lead to really awkward and uncomfortable social encounters for them and for the people they're around who may not understand their particular disability.

Those sorts of non-verbal cues and behavior are almost entirely missing from our online interactions with each other. And it enables reactive behavior in us disproportionate to the "real" world. Emoji (emoticons) are a poor substitute to try to fill in those gaps.

August has been by any measure a really tough month. We've seen citizens rioting in Ferguson, Mo. over the police shooting of a black teenager, the beheading of an American journalist by ISIS forces, the death by suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams, and that doesn't even take us back to the beginning of the month.

Some of the online behavior I've seen in the wake of each of these incidents has been appalling. Ferguson and James Foley's murder have brought out the worst in some bigots; Robin Williams' grieving daughter Zelda was chased off social media networks by trolls who tormented her about her father's death.

It feels like everyone is on edge, and a lot of times it's hard to look at the news — whether you get it from the television, web sites, or, if you're an elderly white man, the newspaper — and take anything away from it other than the world is disintegrating around you.

On the other hand, $50 million has been raised for the ALS Association in the past few weeks because everyone's dumping ice water on their heads. And a 13-year-old girl named Mo'ne Davis is giving people — especially young, impressionable girls looking for positive sports role models — reason to be excited about the Little League World Series because she throws a fastball like a Major Leaguer. Those are net positives.

All I'm asking you to do is check yourself once in a while. Before you post that snarky comment on your favorite social media outlet; before you respond to a troll in an Internet discussion forum, ask yourself: Is it really worth it? Am I doing anything here to elevate the conversation? Am I enlightening anyone? Am I adding anything of net benefit to the discussion?

If not, take a step back. Maybe it isn't worth it to excise that bile online after all, even if someone else has.

This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.

  • John Watson, "The Homely Virtues," 1903