FYI: The Internet Is Sometimes Mean

By Jack Canfora

I’ve had pneumonia the last week or so (who gets pneumonia in June? I feel like I’m in a Eugene O’Neil play). I’m basically fine now, but the outpouring of thoughts, cards, money orders, and prayers was quite touching, not to mention the benefit concert, which was simply remarkable. That Bono really gets me. Thank you.

Anyway, I spent more time on the Twitter machine than I normally do, or is frankly advisable for any primate. On my feed there was a tweet from someone I didn’t know of a picture featuring a damaged car, and the tweet claimed this person did it. Needless to say, many people called this person out, and the poster mocked these people, saying they couldn’t take a joke. Now, it may have been the antibiotics talking, but for reasons I can’t justify, I felt compelled to comment, pointing out that humor depends on context, and as most of us don’t know you, twitter person, your joke is stripped of context, therefore making a literal interpretation quite plausible.


The fury I received from this person’s supporters would have made sense had I kidnapped the Lindbergh baby and raised him to recruit generations of terrorists to stage 9/11. Dumber still on my part, I tried to respond and reason ( I know, I deserved everything I got for this foolhardy choice). The cluster of Millennials, or not cluster, what’s the collective noun for Millennials on Twitter? A Smug? I kid, Millennials, I kid (mostly). Anyway, they piled on me gleefully and at length. I think the tweets at me were meant to be insulting. Well, they were insulting. But if calling me a “Dweeb” is your idea of a putdown, I’m pretty comfortable with my chances of surviving the onslaught.

But this isn’t about me. Well, of course it’s about me. I’m a writer. And I’m writing about something that happened to me. So, scratch that earlier sentence. But here’s the least surprising conclusion ever drawn: people are mean on the internet. I know. Take a minute if you need to. And rest assured, I have no real fresh insights as to how or why this happens. My question is more: which is truer to our natures? The thrilling compulsive urge to “own” total strangers with cruelty, or even outrage hatred, or the attempt most of us make IRL (In real life for you Boomers, OK?) treat people with civility. I’m not smart enough to know, but I would say (again, not a unique thought) that the Lord of the Flies etiquette that dominates social media discourse has long since seeped into our everyday lives.

We’re a wacky species. We have taken a tool that was designed to offer more information more easily more democratically than at any time in history, and it has become, more times than not, a marketplace for our worst impulses. I get it. None of this is groundbreaking. But my question to you is this: is this state of affairs reparable? Can we bring about the good climate change in our virtual world as efficiently as we propagate the bad kind in the real world? For many of us, is the term “real world” more fluid and nebulous than it should be?

So, I want a 500 word essay on my desk by Monday outlining your solutions, MLA style. JK. I’m just curious as to how comfortable are you with the pervasiveness of online culture and how hopeful are you it can change? My feeling? The technology outpaced out collective maturity. Can we catch up?

29 thoughts on “FYI: The Internet Is Sometimes Mean

  1. Glad you recovered from pneumonia and sorry to have missed the concert!

    Not 500 words and no solution, but having found myself over the past few months occasionally answering those inane questions about what animal do you see in this picture, what book do you regret reading, and answer this susceptibly simple-looking math puzzle, then feeling a weird rage-shame-determination-to-defend-my-point, I stepped back to try and figure out what was going on.
    And I think it boils down to this – everyone wants to be right on the internet.
    But of course not all of us can be right, can we?
    Or can we?

  2. You’re absolutely correct in your observations. I’m not sure whether or not things will improve. I see behavior like you described, but I also see young people who call others out for behaving that way. A lot of people like to hide behind or in the cloak the internet provides, thinking and acting ways they wouldn’t if they were visible. There’s cyber bullying and others who recommend people should commit suicide…on the internet and social media. And something is very wrong with that and with people who promote that. Period. But I have no answers as to if it will get better. Maybe some far off day, but not in my lifetime, I don’t think.

  3. I think it will only get worse. As far as good manners go, people are regressing at an alarming rate, not only on the Internet, but in face to face engagement as well. The younger generations have been so coddled growing up, many believe how they think is the only way to think. And we can thank our school systems (and parents who didn’t/don’t know, don’t care what their children are taught, for a lot of our problems as a society. We are too self-centered.

    1. Gosh. I am so sorry you feel this way, especially about the school system. Some echoes in what you say are undeniable but there is also bitterness. Do you have some specific experience with the school system that causes you to think this way? As lifelong teachers ourselves, my husband and I I do agree that the “school system“ is not always right, but we see the dedication and passion and hard work that goes into our schools every day. We tooo have discussed the difference in culture that is affecting our schools greatly, which caused her daughter to get out of teaching, but the causes are much more nuanced then just finding a “bad guy “to blame. I too thought this blog post was an excellent one indeed

      1. I have no problem or bitterness concerning how school was structured when I was in school—the age of dinosaurs—but in how it is now. In my opinion, it is not a teacher’s job to teach morals, say boys can be girls and girls can be boys, and tear down our country. We are probably the only country in the world who teaches our children that our country is evil and racist, and to hate it. And to expose Marxism. This used to be just at the college level, but now it has reached all the way back to the primary grades. Young minds are malleable, and are being fed a steady diet of far left liberalism, which is just as bad as the far right. No more middle ground. No more teaching children critical thinking so they can learn to make up their own minds…just indoctrination. I don’t blame teachers for this; they have been indoctrinated too. Our society has become a bunch of parrots who spout whatever they are told to think. I think it’s really, really sad. In a few more years, as we sink into socialism, we will not recognize our country. But by then, it will be too late to turn things around.
        I truly hope I am wrong.

      2. I don’t think many people teach that our country is evil, and would be curious if you know of any specific examples of this, but to not acknowledge our problematic past, to whitewash or underplay our treatment of women and minorities, the at times systemic slaughter of Native Americans and, of course, slavery, does no one any favors.

        My patriotism, for one, is not so brittle that it can’t simultaneously process our errors and issues and also celebrate our achievements and ideals. If you love your family, I doubt you do so uncritically. That doesn’t diminish your love.

        And most countries are FAR more open about their past wrongs than the US. In the UK, they openly teach about their problematic history of imperialism and colonial mistreatment of natives. And in Germany, a deep dive into the rise and horrific consequences of fascism is mandated educationally.

        I’m not sure what you mean by “expose” Marxism. It’s a term that’s tossed around, but I’m not sure many have read his work. I’m not a Marxist, but he is unquestionably an important and influential thinker of modern capitalism (and though I find his solutions problematic and largely unworkable, his analysis of capitalism is often eerily prescient. I urge you to read him; not to become a Marxist, but to understand more thoroughly a philosophy I’m guess you’ve only heard about secondhand and which you seem to instinctively loathe).

        Indeed, your advocacy of critical thinking is a laudable one. But by definition, doing so necessitates exploring a host of ideas, left and right. It demands, in the best sense of the Socratic tradition, challenging our assumptions, right, left, and everywhere in between. It’s a paltry worldview that can’t stand direct challenges to its moral and intellectual underpinnings.

        I’d be curious as to any evidence you see of our country “sinking into socialism.” What policies, specifically, have been enacted that in your view tend to socialism? I’m also assuming you oppose and will one day refuse Medicare and Social Security, as they are unquestionably socialist policies. One of them even has social in its name. I’m also assuming you refuse to drive on the interstate highway system, as that’s an act of undiluted socialist policies. I’d point out I’m not a socialist, but every economy in the world (including ours) has conceded that unchecked laissez -faire capitalism isn’t feasible, either. Again, I’d be interested in hearing your concrete examples of our nation sinking into socialism.

        I’ll close by respectfully disagreeing with your assertion that teachers shouldn’t teach morality. Teaching is an inherently moral act. It requires instilling common values such as respect for our fellow citizens and showing the clear connection between knowledge and its ability to build a more just world.

      3. I have no desire to get into a debate with you. In fact, I’m sorry I commented in the first place. Not that I think you are wrong or I am wrong, but because I prefer to keep my WordPress interactions free from politics. Not many places one can do that nowadays, and I erred by commenting in the first place. Sometimes, as in this case, I start something I wish I hadn’t.
        Have a marvelous weekend! 😎

  4. I share your frustration brother. Sadly, the Internet’s a-personal anonymity venue has enhanced rudeness and shrouded cowardliness that were much restrained in the non-digital, personal face-to-face veracity world of yesteryear. The good news . . . you recovered from pneumonia.

  5. LOL!

    There is no solution. The technology advanced faster than humans could adapt. The resulting anonymity and presumed invulnerability allow even the wimpiest of bullies to express themselves vehemently without fear of repercussion.

    I suspect that by the time we’ve matured enough to really take advantage of this new thing it will have been replaced. In the meantime, people who understand the real power of the technology will use it to know everyone’s life in microscopic detail and will create AI bots to take advantage of it.

    The kind of power we have given the government, corporations, criminals, and even just really childish people would make Orwell consider 1984 a best-case scenario.

    1. I’m sorry my generation is like this sometimes… It could be that I’m living in a bubble, but what I experience is that the newer generation (Gen Z) is already behaving more responsibly online.
      There are influencers who are looked up to by these young users, who have started to promote positivity and awareness. I think that’s already a big step into the right direction!
      But yes, we all still have a lot to figure out when it comes to social media. It’s gonna take a while I’m afraid.

  6. I would like to state a simple fact. People are born with a mean streak. And that’s something many will boo at.
    Go ahead!
    It just depends on how much that meanness is allowed to grow or smartly kept under wraps. You can see it in the smallest child and the oldest individual. There’s something satisfying in being mean to others. It may be the venting of one’s own aggression or the kick of making that ‘one up’ impression.
    In every day life we can see subtle hints of it or blown out transgressions. Even a loving family has its bouts of testing the nasty quotient.
    So the virtual world is THE place to be mean, because the consequences aren’t so damaging. It’s like an angry mob that spills its hate all over the place. Why do they do it? Even they don’t know.
    Behind the safety of a screen, the possibilities are numerous, and negativity rages like wildfire.
    Will this change? Is it the quick advancement of technology that’s responsible? Are people drowning in this sudden burst of visual accessibility.
    I’m not too sure about that. Manners have been around for a long time. And if you have them you have them, otherwise it’s just free for all. Meanness spreads faster in the virtual world. It takes more effort in the real one.
    So the internet has made being nasty even easier. Congratulations technology. You weren’t aiming for that were you? It’s sad.
    Pneumonia is really tough. Wish you well. 🙂

  7. I’m sorry my generation is like this sometimes… It could be that I’m living in a bubble, but what I experience is that the newer generation (Gen Z) is already behaving more responsibly online.
    There are influencers who are looked up to by these young users, who have started to promote positivity and awareness. I think that’s already a big step into the right direction!
    But yes, we all still have a lot to figure out when it comes to social media. It’s gonna take a while I’m afraid.

  8. I see the internet as a suped up version of High School often times. The mean kids feel empowered to jump on others because there are less consequences than if they were in person. Even if someone were to call them out for their behavior, they just have to turn off their device and walk away and not actually be face to face with the results of their words or actions.
    I foresee things getting better and worse. More “mean kids” and yet more people advocating for those who do get attacked and wanting some kind of accountability. The thing is, where would the accountability come from? The crux of the issue is the lack of morals and conscience of those flinging the insults. You can’t exactly inject that into their brains unless there’s a generational change in upbringing. I’m personally raising my child to NOT be a douche, perhaps other non-millennials are doing the same and there is hope.
    Glad you are on the other side of pneumonia!

  9. This is a nice reflection. The connections I draw from this are connections to the Stanford prison experiment. With the anonymity of the internet we have the ability to award ourselfs with an unwarranted amount of perceived power. That coupled with the mechanics of media where strong emotionally backed ideas and words are awarded with attention while normalcy is ignored. And these two further paired with a hedonic treadmill like effect of our ideas of normalcy being shifted to a slightly more extreme normal every time we access the internet. All of these ideas come together to form the perfect storm of more intense behavior online. The only way I have found to combat this is by abstaining from internet every now and again and interacting with people and realizing that the world around me is not necessarily the same world that the internet percieves it to be. True, there are terrible things happening in the world, but there are also wonderful things and wonderful people and to not take advantage of the opportunity to interact with the good in the world is a shame.

  10. Perhaps, its simply a reflection of humanity. There are bullies, egomaniacs, narcissists, agitators and immature-provokers in real life, so no-surprise they also appear on a social venue of world wide exposure. With the added bonus of course, of anonymity. So to ask why they exist online, is to ask why they exist in society.

    And, are their numbers truly over-represented here, considering the billions who have daily access? Or is it because, though their numbers are small, they provoke our social outrage which attracts our attention — which incidentally, is exactly their goal!

    Take away our acknowledgement and reciprocation and we take away their means for self-serving attention. Contrary to the golden rule, sometimes when you ignore something, it does indeed go away by itself! Resisting the urge to react is the key, anything else, is playing right into their hands.

  11. Hmm.. sorry to break it to you. There is no going back. This is how the next generation is going to evolve. If all people do is hate, how are they going to turn off that behavior IRL? They’ll eventually forget that they need be kind and considerate and start hating people for no reason. They are going to call it being ‘straight-forward’ or ‘talking their mind’. They give what they have. Don’t get your hopes up!

  12. The anonymity of the internet is not anonymous at all. In my case, I have two grown adult children (1984 & 1987). The older child and I have a great relationship. The younger child and I differ in political viewpoints. Said child has not spoken to me since January 6th. She needs space…

    1. So sad that some people can’t deal with someone who doesn’t share the same views. I would imaging it’s particularly hurtful when that person is your child. My husband and I hold different views, but most of the time, it’s not an issue. We agree to disagree.

  13. So sorry to hear about the pneumonia. Hope you are feeling better. I recently listened to a podcast with Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis that made me think about this situation differently. His take is that humans are pretty unique in our ability to cooperate, sustain friendships, love people who are not in our family. But we’ve evolved some ways to do that in large numbers. In a room of 1000 people, it seems overwhelming to try to cooperate with them all so we either associate with people we identify with (like we divide the group into 10 groups of 100 and put a colored arm band on and then we just cooperate with the people with similar colors) or we cooperate with people we create friendships with. Not to excuse the unkind Internet behavior but I suspect that those that didn’t like your comment had formed a “friendship” with the original poster and you are an unknown. It might be that until we all see ourselves as part of a bigger group (like earthlings vs. aliens), this behavior will continue. But the more friendships we develop, we strengthen our bonds. A long way of saying, I’ve got your back, jackcanfora! 🙂

  14. The hidden inner nastiness in some. They know it is unpleasant and often aren’t brave enough to be nasty in real life. The internet has proved a fertile ground for those who are brave enough incognito.
    Best to walk on by and not give them the pleasure of attention…

  15. JAck, you need some chicken soup, stat! With or without matzo balls? With, of course. Is there any other kind? Sorry you’re a sick puppy, but at least one of us suspected as much.
    I had tried to bombard you with a lengthy and undoubtedly witty diatribe on the problems with today’s Youth, but it didn’t want to adhere to the site. Whatever. Others have echoed my thoughts, so it seems we’re all kind of feeling the effects of this unfortunate and ill-mannered condition plaguing the pixels.
    Get well, and go on with your own bad Dweeby self!

  16. Oh my. I believe online communications greatly diminish vulnerability because we lack physical touch and social cues. The decreased vulnerability & exposure to another human makes it easier to be mean to them.

  17. Social media is a like mirror reflecting what we are. It consistently shows that. I’d probably say that the internet shows the often hidden meanness of people because it bestows on them a certain anonymity which unchains them. It also is a vehicle for goodness and action coming from that but there is, in my opinion and experience, less of that than the other.

  18. Maybe you did (or didn’t) follow a recent scandal Chrissy Tiegen faced due to old tweets of hers that resurfaced where she bullied and made fun of other stars… Well, apparently Ms. Tiegen would bully people on social media in the name of comedy. However, her remarks were hurtful and now she is meeting backlash for her actions. I read a statement she shared recently that I thought was really interesting, and relates to your question about whether this state of affairs is repairable. Well, she pointed out that her actions were wrong and that she feels ashamed for getting so carried away in being so cruel. She basically said that it’s easy to get carried away like that when you can hide behind your screen, and write to or about someone on your screen, because it kind of makes you feel like it’s not a real person — i.e. it’s a twitter handle. Anyway, that’s one thing I interpreted from her apology, and it spoke volumes to me. Social media, while bringing us closer to people we care about, DOES create more separation personally. I mean, think about it. The photos you post, the stories you share are kind of an enhanced version of yourself. Or at the very least, it’s you and your family at your best (most of the time — all smiling and posing for a photo). That in itself represents a dehumanization of the “Facebook person” vs the real person. What do you think?

    Another thought is that us humans are able to make the best of things, and we are also able to corrupt things. So long as we live on this Earth as the human race, anything that exists will be vulnerable to corruption — and in that sense, I don’t think it’s repairable. Sorry for such a pessimistic comment! I hope it didn’t bring you down haha It just got me going.

  19. wow lol I laughed so much while reading this. And I enjoyed the conclusion and questions you had about this. While I have no answers, I do have a few thoughts though. As a millenial myself, I kind of hate the way the people can’t agree to disagree and move on anymore. It makes things very uncomfortable especially considering conversations about politics, race, and other worldly issues. Gone are the days when you can have a good discussion with someone and invite them to lunch afterwards. There’s no more “trying to understand the other persons perspective” while still having your own standards and views respectively.

    I don’t have any “solutions” per se but I will say that I keep my friends close to me. Regardless of whats trendy or popular in culture these days I keep things simple while being as honest to myself as I can be. I love discussions. I love talking and hearing things from a different perspective.

    What I hope for is that one day we can have discussions or disagreements and still be able to sit and laugh together. I’m also a hopeless romantic so maybe my hopes are a little over ambitious??

  20. I try to recognize and stay out of frays that I know are losing propositions. I do this by remembering the Mark Twain quote, “Never argue with a stupid person. They’ll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

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