Matini chewed hungrily on the cooked forearm of the monkey as I watched, thinking, “WTF, is he really not going to share?” The others watched him with looks of incredulity that told me they were thinking the same thing. Finally, Latala said to Matini, thumb pointing sideways to me, “You know, he knows the rules.”
“Huh?” Matini replied, looking up vaguely with his eyes while chewing the arm.
“You killed that monkey with an arrow he had given you. Therefore, that arm is his, according to our traditional way of dividing up the portions of animals we have hunted. But you are not sharing.”
Matini glowered at Latala and the others. He cursed in a language I did not know, and handed me the monkey’s arm. Knowing the rules as well as anyone else, I would have been obliged to give this piece of meat to a woman …. my wife, daughter, mother, whatever … who would then see to it that it was shared with the others fairly, in a communistic manner, to each as his need. That is how it is done among the Efe Pygmies of the Ituri Forest. But there were no women, just us guys. So I handed the arm to Latala and said, “You can be my wife today.”
And everyone but Matini laughed, and the remaining meat was cut from the arm and divided up evenly so everyone got about the same amount. Except Matini. He was ignored as he sulked on the periphery. Within two weeks of that incident, Matini was gone never to be seen again, disappearing as quickly as he had appeared a few weeks earlier. Matini was a pathological non-sharer. He cheated in ways one was not supposed to cheat and called out others when they were obeying cultural norms that did not happen to be in his interest. He made an utter pain of himself, snarkily demanding and never giving, following none of the tractions that kept people who lived in this small face to face group from driving each other nuts, until finally everyone stopped giving or respecting him, and he was forced to move on.
Latala told me, and others confirmed, that this happened now and then. Someone like Matini would come along, but could never stay long. Such individuals had a clear pathology. This pathology may not be recognized in Western Society as anything, or it may be a form of sociopathy. It may be, in fact it is almost certainly true, that behavioral pathologies are defined in no small part by the cultures in which they exist. The pathological inability to share may be something that can exist only in a culture where sharing is waft of the common social fabric. (As an aside, one wonders if there are pathologies that would emerge in and remain unique to the blogosphere.)
I am deeply cynical about the ability of people who impose their voices on the Internet (bloggers, commenters, facebookers) to gauge their own positions in relation to larger scale meaningful and important objectives. When I think of the bloggers with whom I know I share similar opinions about gender, race, and other elements of progressive politics, I believe the majority of them are displeased with me and the feeling is quite mutual. And I am not alone. This phenomenon that seems to permeate the blogosphere … adherence to a new rule, “keep your enemies clicking on your blog and your allies annoyed,” affects everyone. And I think it is because of a systematic bias in how people on the Internet tend to react to each other. I think this is a systematic and inappropriate shift in reaction to others or their opinions that results in part from the simple fact that we did not evolve here, and in part because this behavior benefits the actors. We evolved in small face to face groups where asshatitude is instantly addressed, relationships are matters of life and death, and, at least in my experience, humor is the social glue and snark that is reserved for outsiders. So when we are divorced from that setting we may act poorly, but that poor behavior may not be the simple result of relaxed constraint. It could be beneficial.
We arrive at the table knowing we know better. We view ways of thinking that we did not initially think as violations of our pristine ideals. Re respond, post hoc, by setting boundaries (that have already been crossed) and by making up new rules that have already been broken. We often seem incapable of having a conversation in which respect is even a consideration. In fact, we’re told that respect is a bad thing. You can’t make a move without someone getting jiggled, and for that, they will take offense. But not because you’ve offended them. Rather, because it benefits them.
Here is a simple thought experiment. A situation arises in which I have a comment about something in mind, but you speak first. You say something I wasn’t expecting, something I was not going to say, with an idea or perspective that is new to me. I hear what you said, and I react in one of the following ways:
A) I think, “Oh, interesting. I see that, now that you mention it.”
B) I find what you said substantially different than what I was thinking. I’m glad to have this perspective that had not occurred to me, but I need to process it.
C) I don’t agree with you but I see how we are generally in agreement, and I move on.
D) I don’t like what you said, and I see your statement as something that should be corrected.
E) I disagree with what you said, and I think you are doing harm to the larger causes with either the content or the tone, but I see your approach as part of a broad spectrum of which we are both part.
F) I am alarmed and annoyed, and offended and angered by what you have said. I feel the need to tell you so, and to take a stand against your tone or to disprove your content, or at least, distract your argument away from its intended goal so that this horrible thing you are doing is derailed.
Now, imagine that you are looking to buy a house. Every house you are shown by your agent has a set of features that relate to the houses value to you, and every house has a price. The smart thing for you to do is to choose the house that meets your basic requirements but that has a higher value than the price indicates, because there is some feature that has been overlooked in the pricing scheme. Suppose you are shopping for books in a used bookstore. You find three different copies of the same book, and you’d like to buy one. They are in differing conditions so you inspect them closely. One has a worn binding and when you open it is it heavily marked up. You put that one aside. The second is not too worn and inside there are no markings. That’s better, you may chose this one. The third one has no wear on the binding, and when you open it up, you see that it has no markings other than the signature of the author. And, used as a bookmark by a previous owner is an old envelope with a stamp on it that you happen to know is worth $10,000. So, given that all three books are the same price, you pick the third one.
My contention is that people, when choosing a reaction along the A to F scale outlined above (and that is not the only measure of a reaction … it is just an arbitrary scale I’ve devised for the present purposes to make the point) will tend to shift their reaction in the direction that benefits them the most. In small relatively stable interactive groups, like the Efe I started out this discussion with, this means shifting towards A. The hunter gatherer, who tends to shift towards A gains status, will have an easier time in the future negotiating important interactions, and if consistent, will be well regarded by everyone else in the group. When a “headman” emerges in a hunter-gatherer group, it seems to be that sort of person most of the time. In contrast, people interacting on the Internet will tend to shift towards F. That people do this is not really a question. It is utterly obvious that this is what people do. The reasons may be a bit elusive. It could be the “firing squad effect.” It could be a group identity effect.
Or, it could be a wide range of different proximate causes that mostly lead to a sense of power. I gain little power telling you that you’re right. I gain a number of things by telling you that you are wrong. Or, more subtly, by ignoring what you say and stating something that I can make look more relevant or more correct, and most importantly, like mine, even if I’ve merely restated what you have already said.
I accept and understand that people are bad at managing environments in which we as a species did not evolve. But only to some extent, because we actually evolved in a dynamic and socially complex environment. This is generally known as the EEA effect (environment of evolutionary adaptiveness) and has been applied to many circumstances, often uncritically, often ineffectively. But I accept that there is an element of “alien environment” here in the Internet, and that it can matter.
But that is not the primary explanation for the observation that the average person in the blogosphere is a flaming asshole. Rather, oppositional behavior, passive aggressiveness, and snark benefit the actor more than considerate or respectful behavior or the fair exchange of ideas.
To put this yet another way: It is often said that people are mean to each other when using electronic media because of the lack of checks on that behavior. I’m sure that is true, but it is also true that there are benefits to this behavior. The average behavior of denizens of the blogosphere is poor by most accepted social standards in part because people who can’t get along in normal society thrive here, in part because nobody knows if you’re a dog on the Internet, but also, and in an important way, because that behavior benefits the actor, in the context of normal day to day human power relations. All of the different explanations that are typically suggested for people’s Internet behavior involve a balance of costs and benefits to the individual actor (not surprisingly). But most explanations I commonly hear speak to the relaxation of costs as primary. In truth, a strong motivating force is the tangible benefits one gains.
When you can’t tell vilification tennis from a conversation you are witnessing, you know you’ve arrived at the blogosphere.