Why Is There So Much Negativity on the Internet?

The upside of the Web: It gives everyone a forum. The downside: Sometimes we don’t use it very civilly. So why are people so mean on the Internet? And can’t we all just be nicer?

Photo by Ashley Jouhar/Getty Images

Ever since people have been communicating through computers, they have been nasty to one another via the same. Back in the 1970s, computer scientists chatting in the first electronic discussion boards noticed that when they talked to one another virtually there was “an escalation of critical comments, and an increase in the frequency with which people would respond with short negative messages,” says Lee Sproull, Ph.D., professor emerita at the New York University Stern School of Business and an expert in electronic communication and online communities. The scientists called these exchanges the “flame wars,” making them the first documented instance of jerky behavior online, but hardly the last.

Flash forward some four decades and our behavior hasn’t improved. Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at MIT and the author of Alone Together ($29, amazon.com), has found, based on hundreds of interviews with people over 15 years, that “we allow ourselves behaviors online we never would in person” and that these behaviors have consequences beyond the online realm. “We do things online that hurt and damage real relationships: We’re curt with people we work with; we’re aggressive with people in our families; we bully people we go to school with.”

Is it possible we’ve all just devolved into self-centered misanthropes who can’t even be bothered to rustle up a little respect for one another? Or is there something about turning on a computer, running our hands across a keyboard, and hitting “post” or “send” that changes how civilized we are when communicating with others? Experts say it’s the latter. What’s more, they say our behavior is understandable, and that we can change it.

And it’s literally in our best interests to do so, because here’s the kicker: Being negative actually hurts the perpetrator more than it hurts whoever is on the receiving end. Let negative feelings run rampant, and you risk damaging not only real-world friendships or your social standing in online communities, but also your physical health long term. On the flip side, psychologists say that learning how to dial up the good vibes and play nice online may help you feel happier, improve your health, and make you feel more connected to others. And isn’t that what this whole Internet revolution was supposed to be about?