Sunday, February 19, 2017

There Are No Girls On The Internet

Back in 2012 I had a final project I procrastinated where I needed to film a video presentation on... I forget. Anyway I pushed it back and pushed it back and finally I checked into a hotel in south Los Angeles, filmed it, threw up, and fell asleep for fourteen hours (there were other things going on).

Here's the script.

I'm going to let you in on a secret. There are no girls on the internet.

Now, that's a sentiment that reflects back to the earliest days of the internet, when the majority of computer network users were men, the stereotypical nerds. But there's a trick of the internet, a side effect, to many a defect, that allows that sentiment to persist, even to this day, and that may inadvertently be what causes democracy to become what it always wanted to be.

Namely, anonymity. And I'm going to propose that the anonymous discussion board is the ideal forum for democratic thought because it eliminates repercussions for unpopular ideas, blocks prejudice, and builds on the intelligence of each participant.

To live in a society we accept responsibility for our actions. When something serious happens, bad or good, criminal act or charitable contribution, and no one claims responsibility for it, it's a big deal, and the very unpopular actions that we call crimes are tracked to their sources and punished.

Now, it's very important to our society that unpopular thoughts be allowed to remain anonymous. Books written under pseudonyms. Letters to the editor. Leaflets. All of these have been able to stir up change when the individuals behind them may have been exposed to repercussions from the government or may have exposed their ideas to  from their personal lives. In fact, in 1995, McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that "anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority."

In the internet of today anonymity is much harder to find than twenty years ago, and, of course, we can tell there are a lot of girls around. Our identities have an easier time sticking to us. But the old culture of anonymity still has a home in the imageboard.

This is an imageboard. It has a very simple, very old design. It does not require anyone to sign in or to take upon themselves any name. Everyone posting here is anonymous. In normal online discussion boards as well as real life, people have names that begin to have triumphs and disgraces attached to them as soon as they are introduced. Reputations.

In real life, first impressions are hard to shake. In the non-anonymous internet, first impressions can stick around forever. Here, we don't know who has been around for years and who found the site today, who is a world-renowned expert and who is a child skipping school. The ideas stand for themselves.

In a Technology Review article in 2010, Julian Dibbell discussed the idea that if failure is costly, there is little drive to succeed. If you know people will think you're an idiot for saying something, why say it? He contrasted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg's statement that having more than one identity shows a lack of integrity with one from Christopher Poole, founder of the 4chan imageboard: "People deserve a place to be wrong."

When we have a place to be wrong, we can speak our minds. We can set our ideas free of ourselves and see how they survive. Everyone can be an equal contributor.

Let's compare this with old-fashioned, human-to-human interaction. As Doctors Roets and Van Hiel explained in 2011, as soon as we meet someone our brains feel a need to classify them. Typically the deepest part of that classification comes from their physical appearance. And we are bad at judging people based on their appearance.

Look at this chart. Here we have two individuals that wish to communicate.  They look at each other and - well, now they're immediately judging each other on their appearance. No matter how educated and cosmopolitan they are, it's a natural reaction. Now one of them opens their mouth and, whoops, now there's the way we communicate, getting in the way. They build a perception of each other that colors all of their interactions.

Contrast that with what John Suler calls "solipsistic introjection." In a paper published in CyberPsychology and Behavior in 2004, he noted that in the absence of these normal, typically inaccurate face-to-face cues, we make up personalities with the people we communicate. In fact, for people that don't distinguish themselves much, that is, people that use normal spelling and punctuation, we don't imagine them as separate from ourselves at all. It's as if the entire discussion takes place in our heads. Much less of an opportunity for prejudice to weigh us down.

That leads right in to the next point of my presentation. I've been talking about how these anonymous discussion boards remedy natural problems with communication, but this is about what it adds to what we already have. The spirit of democracy is in how the people as a whole, as a bigger entity, have the ability to make decisions, but a problem that every democratic system has had is groupthink, mobthink. Tyranny by majority. The problem isn't that people that deviate from the norm don't have good ideas, in fact it's usually the opposite, but these barriers to communication that I've mentioned function very well to keep the odd man out.

But there are no girls on the internet. Or there may as well not be. A woman posting on an imageboard doesn't command attention for being different. Maybe they're all women. None of them know. Their ideas speak for themselves. The opinion of the group comes out, and it can be swayed by any member without regard for physical appearance or even reputation. That, I propose, is how democracy works best.

To look back. The anonymous discussion board is the ideal forum for democratic thought because it eliminates repercussions for unpopular ideas, blocks prejudice, and builds on the intelligence of each participant. When no one knows your face, your bad ideas don't follow you, your appearance doesn't keep from being listened to, and you are better able to become a part of the larger democratic society.

-fin. The video seems to be, for now at least, lost.

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