Comments on Internet discussion forums have been the subject of much analysis ever since electronic conversational spaces first made their appearance back in the 1970s. Pioneering scholars of ‘computerized conferencing systems’ like Murray Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz–who conducted most of their empirical studies on the Electronic Information Exchange System–noted that several features of these systems made possible not just the rich and vigorous discussion that was their hallmark, but also much of the hostile, aggressive and abusive behavior that was its distressing counterpart.
The ‘anonymity that these systems provided was crucial. The ‘anonymity’ was not just the kind that was engendered by the provision of the ‘Anonymous’ handle for writing online. Rather, the ‘anonymity’ of a computerized conferencing also included the variant created by the simple distancing between two identifiable users; a named participant from Macon, Georgia, is for all practical purposes, anonymous to me. This ‘speaking from keyboard to monitor’ made it possible for users to shirk conventional notions of face-to-face interaction in favor of several variants of verbal confrontation.
And just as important as the anonymity was the asynchronous nature of the communication: you didn’t have to respond immediately to a point like you had to in face-to-face conversation. You could wait, draft your reply, think it over, polish it, make it as hard-hitting as possible, and then post it; you were not going to get cut-off by your interlocutor and you had the time to compose your thoughts and then offer a response. For every user that was embarrassed by a too-hasty reply, there was one who took the time to compose a devastating rejoinder, composed at leisure, its rhetorical edges sharpened to a cutting point.
Online spaces for conversation removed many of the handicaps of physical discussion spaces; perhaps you were not a confident conversationalist in offline, physical spaces but online you could be a veritable ninja. Your stuttering was no longer a handicap; you could not be out-shouted; the raised eyebrow, the smirk, the grimace, in short, the entire arsenal of off-putting body-language was not available to those who sought to resist your argumentation. What mattered in an online space was, interestingly enough, your writing. Conversely, perhaps you were a bully offline, but online if you didn’t have an argument, you could be taken apart rather easily. An interesting leveling of the field was made visible; indeed, the most salutary effect of the online space was the voices that could now be heard, that used to be swamped offline, but now found a medium suited to them.
Soon, aggressive, bristling personas who composed wrote intensely forensic arguments and who were not shy of using sarcasm, irony and invective and sundry other rhetorical devices made their appearance in online ‘conferences.’ They were accompanied by those who sought only to abuse, who freed of the fear of the social sanction that was immediately visible in a physical space, lashed out in every manner imaginable.
It is this latter group that invented a new species of online bullying and hectoring and that is now commonly associated with the degradation of online discourse. But it should not be forgotten that the online space also gave voices to many that were previously silenced.