Internet discourse is toxic.
We all know it. YouTube comments, 4chan threads, online matchmaking; they all expose us to the worst that society has to offer. Bigots, harassers, and worse flood our senses with wholesale negativity. It's enough to drive any reasonable person away from online discussions, and that's totally fair. We shouldn't have to wade through a river of excrement to reach the goal of one interesting conversation.
The good news is that we can fix this. Internet discourse doesn't have to be toxic. It can be just as uplifting, just as interesting, and just as polite as a face-to-face conversation, if we encourage it.
All good behavior in a community stems from a single source of good will: that the person in question wants to improve and contribute to the social space that they are in.
This is often conflated with the notion that anonymity breeds assholes, which - while semi-accurate - misses the larger picture. Anonymity is not inherently bad, especially online; there is value in allowing people to present their public life in a a different manner than their private life. The problem stems from those anonymous commenters refusing to join the community.
When you are a part of a community, there are genuine negative consequences to your awful behavior. These consequences can range from the simple shun - your reputation is tanked and you find it difficult to find genuine friends - to the permanent ban - which destroys your capability to interact with the community in a meaningful way.
Conversely, there are positive consequences for community-building behaviors. Whether it's recognition from your peers, power within the community, or even gifts, behaving well can result in improvement not only of the self, but also of social whole.
So why, then, do people act like rude assholes for pleasure?
The Insult Drive-by
What we often call "anonymous hate" should perhaps be labeled "drive-by hate," because the cause is not anonymity. The cause is somebody not being invested in the community.
In real life, this manifests itself readily in a number of forms. Street harassers yell obscenities at passer-bys - especially women - because they'll never see that person again. Kids scream insults out the window of a moving car for the same reason. Even good people act like petulant children sometimes when it's to somebody they know has no connection to them.
This is exemplified in Rhythm 0, a performance art piece by Marina Abramovic. Abramovic placed a number of benign and dangerous things on a table beside her, and allowed the audience to do whatever they wanted to her, free of being recognized or punished. While people started kind, eventually the observers performed far more cruel actions, like cutting her and her clothes with knives and putting a loaded gun to her head. In her own words:
I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.
Without that connection, there's no consequence. Without that investment, there's no real discourse. It's all casual cruelty, violence for sport.
Imageboard culture is a perfect example of how a lack of consequence breeds cruelty. Without mods, without consequences, people are free to act however they wish. They spew hate-filled garbage, organize raids, and generally behave like feral animals. Since there are no consequences, this behavior is implicitly condoned by said imageboards, which leads to that internet classic: "We are Anonymous." Toxic people subsume their identity into the greater whole because they can, and because they aren't actively opposed.
The problem isn't anonymity, really. Anonymity makes it easier to be cruel, to be sure, but the real problem is with consequence. You absolutely have to be aggressive in policing and maintaining communal spaces, or the lack of consequence comes back to haunt you.
The Virtues of Banning/Blocking
When faced with somebody who has clearly no interest in giving back to your community - somebody whose aim is to upset you for their own personal pleasure - there is absolutely nothing wrong with banning or blocking.
"But what about free speech!" is a common retort to the use of these tools, and a wholly false one. In much the same way that you are free to walk away from a conversation, or kick somebody out of your home, you are free to ban or block those people who have no interest in contributing to your community. The only obligation a community creator has is to the health of their community; if that means showing the truly incorrigible the door, then so be it.
This isn't to say that dissent should be stifled. Constructive dissent, dissent which aims to improve the community, should be encouraged. That is, after all, how we move forward and mature. Unfortunately, the line between dissent and abuse is blurred in a world where cruelty and dehumanization is rampant.
Arcades, Consoles, and Common Spaces
The easiest way to fight that dehumanization is to be a part of something real. Something outside the internet.
Arcades - and to a lesser extent consoles - provide a common real space for players to gather, mingle, and get a sense for the other players in their community. This encourages them to act more polite and measured, assuming the community is managed to have a non-toxic discourse.
The gradual reduction of the sexist undertones in the fighting game community is a perfect example of this. Fighting games are played in common spaces - arcades, tournaments, etc - and as such have a very real sense of community. The FGC (fighting game community) is a term for a reason. For a long time, and early in its history, the FGC had problems with bigoted language being used as smack talk, especially sexist language. Now, such language is banned in most tournaments and gatherings, a number of famous fighting game players came out and apologized for their insensitivity, and there's a greater sense of belonging.
While this works best with real spaces, it happens in virtual spaces too.
The Virtual Watering Hole
When you give players tools to create and manage a virtual space, such as a server, you give them the power to better your community as well.
Servers - notably the "always on" dedicated servers on the PC - act like arcades do in real spaces. They provide a meeting ground for everyone who plays a certain game, and have a vested interest in maintaining a healthy community; after all, no players means no server.
With the slow death of dedicated servers and the rise of public matchmaking, all the negativity has a chance to thrive without consequence. After all, if you are matching with a thousand players, you could play for a long time without ever running into somebody you know. You can't go to a dedicated server without seeing a regular, and those servers allow you to find like-minded people to enjoy playing games with.
Servers may be a luxury, and they may be confusing, but they are the best way to give the community the ability to police itself and cordon off the worst offender.
Limited Options and Unlimited Creativity
Sometimes you can't have virtual spaces, but there's an interesting fix: gestures.
Most memorable in Dark Souls, gestures are interesting in that you can't directly communicate with another player. Gestures are instead built into the game, and these gestures are used to communicate. You only have a limited number of ways to respond to somebody or engage in conversation.
What makes this so interesting is that learning to communicate requires involving yourself in the community to understand the gestural meaning. That same involvement connects you to others, preventing you from acting like a bigot as you make your way through the game. Simply communciating means becoming one with the community.
This doesn't only apply to gestural games; any game with a creative restriction on speech will result in a more cooperative community. Gemstone IV requires all players to stay in-character when communicating with one another. This rule limits the player's expressions to ones that have real consequences, as everything is of consequence. As Gemstone IV is a game that requires cooperation to survive, much less flourish, it's a self-reinforcing cycle of positivity.
Zero Tolerance and Better Discourse
Above all, we can't have passive moderation anymore. In the wake of hate movements finding a new online presence, we have to be actively involved in the development of our communities.
The goal of every community should always be to elevate the discourse of the subject that it revolves around. Whether that subject is videogames or the science of planting almonds is irrelevant. We owe it not only to ourselves, but also to those who share our interests, to build and maintain safe spaces.
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