Does the Internet Make Us Mean?


Does the internet make us mean? It’s a question that doesn’t seem so unreasonable if you check out the comments of nearly any news site or blog that allows them these days.

Once upon a time, people seemed more likely to abide by an old piece of wisdom: “If you haven’t anything nice to say about someone, you shouldn’t say anything at all.”

If it’s true that there ever was such a time, it was surely before the internet came along.

Since then, people say whatever comes to mind, often without a filter, as soon as it comes to mind. Without thinking of the consequences. Without taking other people’s feelings into account.

Somehow, having your say became more important than politeness.

I doubt if Emily Post would care much for the internet.

Consider this example from a recent hot story about an Ohio execution that went wrong, with the headline, “Ohio Says Controversial Execution of Dennis McGuire Was ‘Humane’”. Here’s a sample — a very small sample, mind you — of the comments to the story:

Comment #1: “It’s too humane!”

Comment #2: Yes, idiot. Too humane. We should go back to breaking on the wheel. We can start with criminals who murder people, then we can move onto criminals that steal a loaf of bread. Then anyone we disagree with politically. Finally, anyone who looks different. Ah, the good old days.
When you are in church this Sunday, learning about Jesus, mercy and forgiveness…..remember well this conversation.

Comment #3: Oh shut up.

Comment #4: Oh, give me a break, It’s people like you that take up for the criminal and could care less about the victim. BTW, you are the Idiot.

Comment #5: Really? In anything I have said, you saw the words “I prefer the criminal to the victim” ?
I said that? Show me where. Go ahead.
Nice fake picture, by the way. Posing as a chick. Yeah, right.

It goes on…and on…and on.

On stories like this across the internet. People so mean-spirited that some websites have had to switch to different comment systems, restrict the manner of login to leave comments, or shut comments down altogether.

I would like to think, and to a degree, it’s probably a perfectly valid guess, that if these people were all sitting around a table in some focus group, they wouldn’t say these things, or at least not in the same manner, if they were face to face.

But that relative anonymity the world wide web provides us seems to also provide a level of boldness that makes us forget a bit too easily that there’s another human being on the other side of that screen name. Even if we don’t happen to agree with whatever he or she is saying at the moment.

Maybe comments for some sites shouldn’t appear immediately. Maybe there should be a cooling-off period, in which the comment lingers for a few hours in cyberspace, then appears in the senders email box with a simple question: “Is this really how you want to behave?”

It may not make a difference, so long as you’re posting by just a random, generic, non-identifying screen name.

But if you’ve got the guts to post your real name or your real photo, maybe it’d make you think twice.

Do you think comments are more mean-spirited than they used to be? If so, why do you think that is the case?


  1. I know we point to anonymity often, but another change
    the internet brought into being was the removal of gatekeepers.

    Once upon time before the WubWubWub, all writing and commenting
    went through gatekeepers. All articles went through editors and were written by
    journalists. Public commenting was relegated to the “Letters to the Editor”
    section, and even those were filtered and edited.

    Private commenting stayed private. This happened in living
    rooms, or around kitchen tables or even leaning on the local bar. Almost
    always, it would be between individuals who had some sort of preexisting
    relationship. If they didn’t usually someone bought someone else a drink after
    the discussion.

    We often deride the function of gatekeepers, and few would
    argue that they did reject some worthy stuff. But we can see now that they also
    provided a valuable service.

  2. DianaCT  I’m not entirely convinced by that argument. I think it’s definitely true that people still have meanness in them even if they don’t express it, but the things we routinely choose to do are, I think, part of what defines us. And even if we still have mean thoughts and feelings inside us, I think it has to mean something that we choose not to speak them. We can’t control our feelings, after all; only the way we respond to them.

  3. David Denby wrote a great book on precisely this phenomena. The book is called Snark, and it traces the history of invective through the written word, and examines how the anonymity of the Internet has completely changed how we use it. Your idea about delayed comments might be a really good one, I think.

  4. MeghanMBiro patricksplace yes, the internet can be mean. No real dialogue. Maybe isolate culprits & make them talk to each other…live

  5. MeghanMBiro patricksplace takes away social attachment and reality in life guess it does

  6. I don’t think people are meaner, I just think that being
    able to hide behind anonymity removes their inhibitions. I noticed that when the
    local newspaper switched to using Facebook names the spitefulness decreased. I cringe
    whenever I see anonymous comments.
    When you have to sign your name to the comment it makes
    people think twice.

Comments are closed.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.