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Towards an Internet Etiquette


"The Tobacco Inn" by Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638). In real-life scenarios, men naturally sort themselves into hierarchical structures. This generally does not occur on the Internet.

With the Internet came the potential for a greater degree of anonymity than most people regularly experienced in their personal lives. Although there are certain advantages to this, there are also certain downsides. Whereas once you could not engage in asinine or childish behaviour without experiencing social censure for it, it is now possible on the Internet to be as impolite and churlish as you want, easily avoiding any unpleasant backlash and even receiving positive reinforcement from fellow trolls. In real life, such behaviour might get you a punch in the face, but on the Internet you far beyond arms’ reach of the people you are insulting; you are largely insulated from the consequences of your bad behaviour.


In real life, people sort themselves out into hierarchies, but the Internet allows an unnatural environment where everyone is equal, or at least perceives themselves that way. There may be advantages to this, but the presence of only a few trolls upsets everything.


Even among people who are not inclined toward purposefully offensive behaviour, the anonymity of the internet allows anyone to adopt online personas that do not match their real life selves. Where there is no social hierarchy, there is no way to learn or enforce proper behaviour.


I am not certain that it is possible or desirable for all online interactions to resemble real-life scenarios, but the lack of hierarchies does cause problems and distractions, and I think it has been a step in the right direction for online personalities to begin enforcing proper and “normal” behaviour through the enthusiastic use of banning. It is rather heavy-handed, but it is effective at enforcing a hierarchy. The online personality is saying, “I’m the boss, and if you misbehave, there will be unpleasant consequences for you.” Through banning, he can very easily enforce socially acceptable behaviour. It’s an overly simplified hierarchy consisting of boss and subordinate, not like the multi-tiered hierarchies we experience in real life, but it’s a start. Of course, a lot of people get banned who did not intend any hostility, but this is unavoidable since it can be difficult to convey nuance and emotion through short strings of text.


Many first-gen online personalities, such as Pewdiepie, learned to thrive in environments where there was no enforceable hierarchies, but second and third-gen personalities like the makeup artists, mukbang stars, and instagram starlets have proven largely unable to cope.


I think it may be inevitable that social hierarchies will become much more enforceable on the Internet in the future, possibly when the use of virtual-reality chatrooms becomes more widespread. People’s natural voices and body language would be a tremendous asset in sorting out social status.