Hobbes on Online Anarchy
Right now on Twitter ‘#idontunderstandwhy’ is trending. All around the world four people every second are uploading their confusion and frustration about life, the universe and everything. The result is a dizzying stream of consciousness. Nameless faces flash past my screen accompanied by misspelt clichés, swearwords and other half-formed thoughts. People don’t understand why college is so expensive. Or why love is this difficult. Or why people complain about being fat. Or why Ms. Portmonova can’t put up the cast-list in a timely manner.
This is the Internet at work. Fast, chaotic and infectious. And most of all, as any quick scan of the comments below the average Tab article or YouTube video can attest, lawless. There’s a beautiful few seconds in the West Wing where CJ, the beleaguered press secretary in one extended metaphor compares the people who haunt online political forums to the cast of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. In many ways she’s not far wrong.
Because what the Internet does best is allow people to express themselves in ways that would otherwise be considered transgressive. It’s society caught with its pants down. Blogging is an amazing outlet for independent political thought, but it’s also a platform for racists, homophobes, extreme nationalists and religious fanatics. Forums and communities allow people to indulge in their shared passions, but only online is it acceptable to channel so many hours into an obsessive fixation with one person, game or television show. Theft of images, film, music or ideas is commonplace; after all how can it be stealing when nothing’s actually gone? And people cry out for attention or consolation or sexual gratification, when in real life we stifle those urges. In society there’s always a time and a place and a way of doing things. Online, you write the rulebook.
Where does Hobbes fit in? Hobbes wrote about what life would be like in a state of nature. He imagined life without government or rules or conventions, just men and women ruled by their own immediate desires. What he saw was ‘nasty, brutish and short’. A chaotic, discordant mess of individuals using force and violence to achieve their own ends without industry education or culture. It’s a pretty bleak landscape he sets out before us. But one that works incredibly well as a way of looking at the online world. Without any powerful social force to regulate it, the Internet becomes a depository for all kinds of destructively honest behavior. Sure we might not be tearing each other apart physically, but if you compare the level of vitriol in the standard online argument to even the most heated real-life political debate, you can’t help but conclude that our virtual counterparts are far more in touch with their Hobbesian selves.
So what’s to be done? Do we leave it as a psychological playground, a place to experiment with creating our own identity, seeing what humanity get’s up to when it’s not being so self-conscious? Certainly some would rather see it stay that way. A recent Guardian article suggests the Internet has created a more positive attitude towards sex in the UK, breaking down taboos and allowing people to talk freely and openly about something that should be talked about. Another is full of nostalgia for MySpace, a place where we could revel in the kind of gaudy teenage self-expression that would be unacceptable almost anywhere else.
But some have other plans. Already pockets of structure have begun to grow into what can only be described as online civilization. Facebook is now the social network of choice. It presents each person in terms of certain key details: workplace, university, marital status, and recent photos. The choice about how we portray ourselves is eroded in favor of clinical efficiency. Spotify has found a way to reconcile our insatiable need for free music with the demands of capitalism. Amazon and Google map out the choices we make, we’re customers and consumers whether we want to be or not. Blogs are encouraged to monetize, social networking has become social marketing.
The Internet has changed our discourse forever. We’re more honest, we’re aware of who we can be apart from the conventions and cultures we live in. Perhaps we’re more selfish for it as well. More in touch with what we want as individuals, closer to how we’d be in a state of nature. Yet this unique experiment in online anarchy is drawing to a close. Soon enough our virtual selves will fall in line with the overwhelming forces of civilization. It’s worth thinking about the legacy of this short reign of free expression. Nasty and brutish in places, short definitely. But at the very least it was undeniably honest.