ONLINE COMMUNITIES DO NOT EXIST

If you spend time on social media of any kind then the “flame war” (to use a fading phrase) is likely to become a way of life. Hate seems to be the first, and sometimes only, language of the internet.

Sometimes the divisions that prompt these furious engagements are obvious. “GamerGate” – whatever its origins – has come to pit Neanderthal sexism against the rights of women to express themselves freely. That the young men who scream abuse at, and threaten the life of, women dress themselves in the cloak of victimhood is perverse but it is also indicates something about the way in which online communications insulate people from reality and the consequences of their words.

The notion of belonging to certain “online communities” has come to be an important part  of how some people define themselves. But I have never found one. If fact, I believe that “online communities” do not exist.

The promise that cyber-libertarians and their utopian fellow travellers made in the 80s and 90s of weightless online worlds where people could come and go and “do what thou wilt” was always a promise of freedom from consequence for those for whom investments of emotional and social capital already had negligible costs. Incinerating relationships on the online pyres of self-indulgent anger means little to them because they place little value on those relationships in the first place. That the people in this position are most often young, white men doesn’t say anything about the inherent nature of any one individual – though individuals cannot shrug of the consequences of their deeds – but about the broad shape of power relations in our world.

The continued dominant position of this demographic in the companies that build (and the audiences that make profits for) online industries has further shaped the tools we use to communicate, creating an environment that favours consequence-free hate – obsessive anonymity, hatred of government, distrust of the different. The distance that screen-based communications create between participants makes trust harder to engender and so those whose world view is based on the idea that they cannot trust anyone – that they are the lone voice of reason and decency holding the line against the barbarous beliefs of others – is always justified. In a low-trust, no-consequence environment, behaving as if Hobbes was right and we stand on the constant precipice of the war of all against all is almost always going to be self-reinforcing. The merest slight becomes deep betrayal (Requires Hate). The slightest deviation or mistake in judgement becomes evidence of incipient evil (Molly Crabapple).

And because all that most people have to go on in these arguments is who they like best, initial divisions quickly become personalised, bitter and destructive. The idea that there might exist honest differences or simple misunderstandings become buried under accusations of corruption and conspiracy. Rinse and repeat.

For now, most online relationships exist only as sets of individualised transactions. They are the perfect realisation of the Thatcherite conception of the world  “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

But society does exist. And there are real communities.

Real communities have weight. They have history. They have mutual interdependencies that go beyond the gratification of instant emotional needs (*hugs*). They build things and destroy things as part of communal decisions that require investment of time and energy and faith. Of course such communities experience division, distrust and even mutual animosities that become hatreds, but the need for day-to-day interactions weighs against their disintegration. “Agonism”, as Chantal Mouffe has it, is fundamental to the nature of our communities, but they thrive because of these disagreements, because of the tensions, because there is a use in rubbing up against those with whom we disagree and yet still having to face them every day rather than just burning bridges and walking away. The weight of real communities acts against those who behave as though the needs, desires and basic respect due to others is none of their concern. We do not yet spend most of our lives in a “Lord of the Flies” dystopia – for all that they have been eroded, for all that they are underfunded and under-loved, the institutions and structures that we have built in our real world continue to bind together communities that are stronger and kinder than we sometimes suspect.

We could do with similar communities online but, so long as the libertarian foundations of the online world go unchallenged, we will continue to watch people tear each other apart needlessly and break the fragile ties they have created. Meanwhile, the only ones who benefit are those who are already in positions privileged enough that they don’t have to care.

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