page updated on August 24, 2017

The Asymmetry of Online Empathy

In the early '90s, what we now know as the Internet was very young. The Web was new. There were a few hundred web sites. That number grew fast, but in those days, much of the Internet was email, newsgroups (sort of a predecessor to message boards and a cross between email and comment sections), and chat (in the form of real-time text in countless channels devoted to one topic or another).

Twenty years later, many of us use the Internet far more than we ever imagined back then. (Your author might even edit this article on a smartphone while flying at 30,000 feet connected to in-flight wifi while sitting next to a retired housewife who's grown bored of watching in-flight TV streamed to her tablet and went back to reading a magazine.) The science fiction future we dreamed of—informed by writers such as Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, or Pat Cadigan—came to pass in a way we never quite imagined.

Internet culture as we know it today grew out of the Internet culture of the '90s. Spam, scams, and phishing in email are possible in no small part due to the anything-goes, just-get-it-working, let anything talk to anything else, decentralized anti-authoritarianism which rejected any central control, even when that control could have added security. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the implications of those deliberate design choices weren't apparent until bad actors did bad things.

As a further example, author Charlie Stross writes so well about the mind-bending implications of the hypothetical Singularity in no small part due to his "Oh my goodness, we're building the future!" experience developing early e-commerce software in the mid- and late '90s. He's not the only one to have those realizations. Then again, some people have grown numb to the amazing infrastructure which allows them to modify a home security system in real time from a device which fits in their pocket, using a cellular data connection from thousands of miles away. Also at single device has more computing power than the entirety of human history had produced up until, say, 1982.

The Meritocratic Internet Just Happens To Look Just Like Us

Back in the day, your author spent more time arguing about the then-current TV show Babylon 5 than thinking about the implications of a globe-spanning network where data is always available, the computing power available within an arm's reach would have embarrassed a supercomputer in 2005, and a video of a kitten riding on the back of an autonomous vacuum cleaner can reach a million people in a few hours. Even though William Gibson's Neuromancer was old news at that point, most of us couldn't even predict that Wikipedia would make encyclopedias obsolete, at least for the kind of middle school plagiarism that passes for research papers.

We complained about cable news in those days, but we had no idea that it would devolve into replaying those kitten videos and overlaying 140 characters of snark from random Internet users.

Given the relative obscurity of the Internet in 1993, only a few people were online. We had similar backgrounds: college students, researchers, and the occasional kid who loved computers and was willing to go to the work of setting up his (or her, but generally his) home computer to connect to something which connected to the Internet. In the US, at least, this generally meant middle-class or better white kids with free time and one or more parents who supported this hobby. That doesn't describe everyone who used the Internet in 1992 or 1993, but you can safely assume most of us fit that description.

We generally had similar interests: science fiction, gaming, technology, the Simpsons, Monty Python. The use of the word "spam" to describe unsolicited bulk email comes from a Monty Python sketch, after all.

With similar interests and similar backgrounds, the structures we built reflected our similarities. Unless you worked for a multinational business or were affiliated with a technically-minded research university, you had to get yourself on the Internet. Maybe you hadn't built your own computer (though some of us had), but you'd gone to the work of wrestling with hardware and software to send and receive email at home, read newsgroups, and chat in realtime about computers or gaming or science fiction.

We Had it Tough in Those Days

Gaming wasn't quite the hobby then it is now. It wasn't as easy as driving to a big box store with $400 (or waiting for Amazon Prime to deliver in a day or two) and coming home to hook things up to the HDTV in your living room. For one year in high school, the big deal was a text-based semi-multiplayer dungeon exploration game called Nethack. It has no graphics, unless you consider @ and & and f rendered in various colors to be graphics. It only has multiplayer if you run it on the same machine where your friends are playing, in which case you might run into the tombstone of one of your or their failures. (You can, obviously, loot the remains to look for improved equipment, or at least a magic scroll which can get you further.)

Sitting around the high school lunchroom talking about that didn't make us super popular, not that we were ever that popular anyhow. We listened to weird music. We did our homework. We didn't play sports. We didn't go to pep rallies. We liked sitting around on Friday nights playing SNES or Genesis games or arguing about Babylon 5 or the Simpsons on our dial-up modems instead of going to parties. We took astronomy classes.

Little did we know that everything we learned about how computers worked, how networks worked, how the Internet worked, how Internet culture worked, would serve us well in the first dot-com boom (those of us who learned how to program, at least). Some of us felt the boom and bust of stocks which made us millionaires on paper and then embarrassed ex-millionaires who at least had the pedigree to make a good six-figure salary and the bitter experience to be wary of the Sand Hill Road hucksters funding a second bubble of local/social/mobile apps for marmots, or whatever. We couldn't predict any of that (even though we'd read all of Gibson's Sprawl trilogy, devoured everything Bruce Sterling had put out, and seen how awful that smarmy Wesley Crusher behaved.)

We were nerds, darn it, and we didn't really fit in anywhere in person. We were awkward teenagers. We had nerdy hobbies that most people didn't understand. (The 68 year old housewife on the airplane next to your author has just purchased a book wirelessly, while on an airplane, on a dedicated e-book reader that puts to shame the proposed electronic reader your author remembers from a stint at HP in the late '90s during an existential crisis there which eventually resolved himself in the impending printers/everything else breakup. That housewife now treats the Internet as plumbing; if it ever comes to her attention, it's because it's failed to make her daily life easy.)

We were nerds. We didn't really get along with everyone. We didn't share the same hobbies and interests. We had our small group of friends—we were outcasts together—but we didn't have the context and maturity of wisdom to understand that a small band of friends is enough.

When we went through the work of going online, we found like-minded individuals who could argue that G'Kar was more awesome than Londo, that the Simpsons went downhill after the fourth season, that Picard was better than Kirk (or vice versa). We could even find people who posted the playlists of They Might Be Giants concerts (along with reports on whatever was new on Dial-A-Song). After we'd passed through the hazing ritual of finally making our dial-up modems connect to some passthrough Internet node, we'd earned the right to be taken seriously among peers. It didn't matter if we were 13, 14, 15 years old. We merely had to follow the nascent Internet culture, act like reasonable human beings (according to that standard), and let our words speak for themselves.

It's telling that your author was considered one of the moderate voices on the moderated Babylon 5 newsgroup when he was all of 16 or 17 years old. The words "moderate", "measured", and "clear-headed" do not come to mind when he thinks about all of the other silly things he did and thought in those days.

If we felt like we didn't belong in the real world sometimes (and what teenager doesn't?), at least we'd passed through the gauntlet of demonstrating our merit. We'd shown we could be taken seriously in the serious marketplace of ideas, the bodiless discussion of pure information about Monty Python sketches and Illuminati jokes and urban legend recipes for making pens which shoot fire.

We'd earned our place on the Internet.

Then AOL and Compuserve and other walled gardens started to open their gates a crack at a time. Suddenly you could be a bored housewife or a middle manager or any other middle class average Joe or Jane Sixpack with a couple of thousand dollars to afford a computer and someone else would get you on the Internet and, By Great Crandall's Hammer, you hadn't earned the right to invade our little sanctuary.

The Asymmetry of Anonymity

People who've been on the Internet a while sometimes refer bitterly to the Eternal September. In the very early days, there was a noticeable bump in Internet activity every September as college students first found themselves connected. It took a while, but they'd eventually either get bored and wander off or acclimate to existing Internet culture and act like everyone else. By mid-October or November, things would get back to normal.

The Internet wasn't designed much for security. It expected people to behave reasonably, for the most part. We had our arguments and flamewars and feuds. (Some are still going.) The Internet had the ability to absorb people who didn't know any better, either by boring them into going away (not everyone has the stomach to put up with repeated quotes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) or by letting the rest of us ignore them (you could have a killfile which pre-emptively blocked messages from people who provided more noise than signal).

Then someone realized that the very same mechanism which allowed bored teenaged nerds who grew up in a slightly-less outrageous Napoleon Dynamite movie to interact with the creators and producers of a TV show also allowed someone who wanted to sell fake Green Cards to reach hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously. Sure, most of them didn't care and wouldn't buy it, but it was so cheap to reach them all, it only took a few suckers to make it worth the time.

The Internet made it easy to waste a few seconds of everyone's time for modest commercial gain. Collectively, that's multiple human lifetimes spent reading the original Green Card spam and its first couple of sequels.

It didn't take much to figure out how to send email apparently as [email protected]. It wouldn't fool everyone—certainly no one savvy enough to know the specific shortcomings of SMTP which made that responsible as well as the particulars of SMTP delivery which help identify that these messages were spoofed— but thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of people were getting online. They hadn't gone through the hazing we had. They had it easier. There were too many of them to acclimate to the existing Internet culture. This wasn't limited to September and early October. This happened all the year around; the Eternal September had come.

Worse yet, they didn't all care about Star Trek, or Doctor Who, or Babylon 5. They couldn't quote Monty Python sketches. They thought Bart Simpson was a cartoon character for kids, even as he was a terrible role model.

They couldn't read SMTP headers. They were easy to trick.

Empathy Keeps You From Getting Punched in the Face

One of the defining and cringeworthy characteristics of your author's teenaged years is a profound lack of empathy—not that he was a heartless, cruel little person, but that he failed to understand both that other people have feelings and that his words and actions affected their feelings. The good news is that he was merely oblivious. He had a lot of maturing to do. Even so, he realized that calling other people names to their face was a good way to get punched in the face.

As it turns out, pretending you're a Vulcan (an emotionless alien race in Star Trek designed as a story foil to show how awesome the womanizing, fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants, throw-out-the-rulebook Captain Kirk was) is a good way to miss out on a lot of great experiences. It's also very common among the kind of nerdy, middle-class boys drawn to computers.

Your author's stints in high school and college ended far before online gaming grew from Nethack into Halo, Call of Duty, Assassin's Creed, Battlefield, and the countless other shooter/slasher/kill-em-up games that draw in adolescent boys. Yet if he'd had the opportunity to play games online instead of fiddling with his modem and terminal emulator settings to get on better relay nodes to get to better parts of the Internet, perhaps he'd have done so.

Do those cultural activities now draw in the kind of awkward, nerdy adolescents that were drawn to the Internet in the early '90s? To some extent. Yet others are drawn to message boards and discussion groups of other nerdy pastimes such as anime or science fiction (Young Adult and otherwise). This can be profoundly empowering, when teens can talk about family problems, body, gender, identity, or sexuality issues, stress and academic worries, or the thousands of other concerns that can make any human being feel like an outcast.

Of course, in the world of violent online gaming, where players are ranked in order of their ability to have one avatar kill other avatars, the element of aggression is encouraged—even rewarded. This is not to say that there's anything intrinsically wrong about video games or playing games online or exploring violence. Rather—like anything else which affects human beings—the context of the violence and the consequences are important to its analysis. (A movie with the violence of Scarface may not be appropriate for all viewers, but the nature of its depiction of the violence and its consequences raises the artistic merit of the movie from a mere celebration of bloodshed for its own sake. Similarly, the movie The Cabin In The Woods tells a straightforward teenage summer horror story while challenging the audience to consider the tropes and clichés present in these stories and how they reflect cultural values and demands.)

You won't often find that critical reflection of the meaning of images and actions. Even though the Halo series touches on the question of whether galactic genocide is justified when confronting the loss of individuality, play online and you'll hear adolescent males hurl sexual and physical vulgarities and insults at each other.

Imagine a football or lacrosse or basketball player yelling those epithets at the opposing team. Right or wrong, the reaction is likely to escalate to the point of physical violence.

Empathy is difficult enough for a teenage Vulcan boy. Now remove the threat of physical reaction (even a mostly harmless punch in the arm).

Twitter Threats are Cheap; Reactions are Priceless

Sometimes shooting virtual aliens isn't enough to make you feel alive and valuable. There's always someone better than you shooting back. Sometimes a teenage girl dates a skeezy college guy to get her father's attention. Sometimes a teenage boy steals a car because he believes his mother doesn't care about him, and making her leave work early to pick him up demonstrates something. Sometimes you just want to feel something. In a cold, cruel, and unfeeling world—the world you discover that has gone on without you for countless years and would keep moving on if you were never born—the primordial scream of identity can keep you sane. Maybe it's not the barbaric Yawp of a romantic poet, but it's something that makes the world acknowledge your very existence.

Now put that bored teenager online. Give him access to a platform where he can reach millions of people cheaply. Maybe that's YouTube. Maybe that's the comment section on your local news website. Maybe that's Twitter, where all that stands between you and any random celebrity with thousands or millions of followers is the @ symbol (shades of Nethack).

If you're that bored 15 year old, you don't have much to lose. It doesn't take much to be anonymous on an Internet with a billion other people. You can create a Twitter account about as fast as it takes to read this paragraph. You can choose anyone you like: friend, foe, or famous face. You can write the most horrible thing you can imagine, then get up and walk away. If you get a reaction, great. If you don't, it's cheap to do it again.

It's almost like playing a slot machine of abuse. You're the calm, cool, and collected Vulcan. You pull the handle, and sometimes you get the payout of watching someone else lose his or her cool. You didn't mean it. Someone else flipped out. Hilarity ensued, and it can't be traced back to you.

(Adults do this too.)

The Asymmetry of Threats

A bored 14 year old in Topeka, Kansas might say something horrible to a prominent person in Los Angeles or London or Sao Paolo and forget about it immediately. After all, how's he going to get there? Even if he knows the victim's address and threatened rape or assault or theft or murder, it's a hollow threat, from his point of view. He can immediately forget about it and move on to the next victim.

The victims have no such recourse. There's no way of knowing this threat came from someone who's laughed about it and already found the next round of targets. For all anyone knows, this is a targeted stalker who really does have a syringe full of something vile and a dungeon under his house where he's done this before.

The odds may be against a violent physical confrontation ever happening, but the risks of that confrontation are high.

This asymmetry is the worst part of Internet harassment. Eventually something awful will happen (again), but will we ever learn?

Empathy that Goes Both Ways

When that 14 year old boy in Topeka reads a headline gleefully proclaiming that Gamers are Over, he's going to react with as much understanding of nuance as any 14 year old boy has: none.

Understand this. He's grown up in a privileged world in many ways, but he doesn't see himself that way. He's been bullied, perhaps often and perhaps incessantly. He knows he doesn't fit in. The things that interest other kids his age—the things that interest his family—just don't make sense to him. He's figuring out who he is, and part of that identity is gaming. Gaming's a safe place. There are rules and they're well understood. He can make progress. He can measure his progress. There's unambiguous progress, and he can find his place in a rigid hierarchy based not on his looks or how well he dresses or if he stutters or has bad skin or sweats when he thinks about talking to a girl or is too tall or too short or bad at sports or always gets his homework done on time or has a single mother or two dads or isn't sure if he even likes girls or somehow otherwise sticks out in any way. The hierarchy is based on ability. In this world, he can matter because of the single objective measurement of his character that matters: are you a good gamer.

Maybe that won't all be true from the perspective of that same person's adult self a couple of decades later, when he has a stable job, perhaps a family, a house, a mortgage, and the perspective of adulthood revealing that adolescence is an awkward time for everyone but the slights that mattered so much back then really weren't the end of the world. Hopefully that'll be his perspective.

Yet in the moment he reads that headline, he realizes that the real world—the world that's been cruel to him in a way that's crueler than any cruelty he can imagine anyone else has ever felt (hey, he's 14 and bad at nuance and perspective)—has turned its baleful eye on the one place he felt safe. Worse yet, it's mocking him. It's mocking his safe place. It's telling him that his safe place doesn't matter, that his identity doesn't matter.

When he sees the (valid in part, if not in whole) criticisms of violence, sexism, jingoism, and racism in games, he feels like he's being criticized for liking what he likes. The world is mocking and bullying him. He's being called sexist and racist, when all he wanted to do was shoot some aliens in the head with his friends.

Maybe he swallows his pride and takes it. After all, he's learned that fighting back gets him pounded and mocked more.

Maybe he lashes out. Remember, he's 14. His perspective isn't all that broad. Any slight is much bigger, because his feelings are a mess and he really isn't that strong, silent, logic-driven Vulcan he's always wished he could be. His counter-argument isn't great, but the response is predictable. (You can probably all see it coming.) Someone tells him to get back in his mother's basement. Someone mocks him for his weight (even if he's skinny) and tells him to eat his greasy snacks and drink his energy drink.

Those aren't even the worst insults he'll get.

Maybe he shouldn't take them so personally, but he does. Even if you've developed an empathy for people who have it worse than you, it's still difficult to hear that the assumptions you make or the words you use help perpetuate a culture that actively harms other people even if you didn't intend that insult. That's not easy for a mature adult to handle, let alone a 14 year old boy who's already struggling with his identity and navigating an adult world. As true as it may objectively be that this straight, white, middle class young male is playing on life's lowest difficulty setting, he doesn't feel that way.

He doesn't feel that way because he's the hero of his own story. Sure, heroes struggle. They have setbacks and they have to overcome them, but they eventually overcome them. Eventually things are supposed to turn out alright for them. He's the underdog, intended to overcome insurmountable odds.

He's also 14 and bad at nuance and impatient and already upset that he's discovering that the world can be a cold and careless place where black and white ideas of mortality aren't nearly as easy to find as they are in his games. (There's no evil wizard secretly trying to collect magic rings to bring about the end of the world. In fact, there aren't even that many completely corrupt politicians cackling as the user in a socialist/neoconservative new world order.)

In short, he lacks perspective and especially empathy. "Sure," he doesn't think. "It's not easy to be a teenager who doesn't even want to look and act like everyone else." He doesn't think "The one kid in my class with a different skin color obviously has it worse, because he can't not ever stick out." Or maybe it's a poor kid around the corner, or a kid in a wheelchair, or a kid for whom puberty started at age 10 or a kid on a medicine saving her life but causing her to gain a lot of weight.

Mainstream role-playing games often allow you to take on the virtual identity of someone else, such as a muscular warrior or a weak but brilliant wizard or a sneaky, deadly thief. Race and gender are often options, but when you create a character, you'll often see the disclaimer that the game plays essentially the same whether your skin color is mocha, cream, taupe, blue, or rainbow or whatever gender association your character identifies with (apart from pre-recorded dialogue which may use different pronouns). What if instead there were real, substantive differences? If you played a female character, you'd get jostled and bumped and catcalled when you try to walk through a town. You'd have to prove yourself more often in conflicts, and you'd experience dismissal and condescension in conversations. If you played a character of minority race, you'd see people eye you with suspicion or hurry their children away or follow you at a threatening distance. This would be difficult to accomplish well in terms of tone and context, but it could add a verisimilitude to an often whitewashed world of high fantasy. (To some degree, games such as Skyrim offer some degree of racism, but it's minor.)

It's not easy to jumpstart the process of getting that 14 year old boy to put himself in the shoes of other people who don't have it easy for other reasons, but we're talking about a hobby—an identification—that presents the convenient fiction of a world based purely on merit. It's not his stutter or his voice cracking or his bad home haircut that defines him. It's his ability. That's a nice place to get lost for a little while, even as it reinforces some negative stereotypes about the world in general.

Video games have the possibility of exploring strange new worlds. You could be a hot air balloon. You could be a bacteria. You can be Joan of Arc riding a cybernetic giant scorpion into battle on an ice moon of Jupiter. Yet all of these things, all of the images they present and the stories they tell, they all mean things. The culture around these games and their playing reinforces certain ideas and minimizes others. This isn't bad. This is normal. This is how culture is transmitted.

That bored 14 year old who eventually takes to Twitter to say something awful about the lovely and kind Felicia Day isn't thinking "I'm going to do something to ruin the mood of another human being with feelings just like mine, with fears and doubts just like mine." He doesn't have that empathy yet.

Weaponized Social Media is Weaponized Unempathy Culture

Maybe that's a flaw in how we built the Internet. We're still treating it like it's our little clubhouse. Back in the day, you had to have a thick skin. If you couldn't compete in a world of ideas governed by a wall of words, you didn't belong. You had to prove yourself before you could even be here.

Now you can walk into a phone store in the US with a pulse and a credit score and walk out with an always-on device that lets you send and receive Tweets to and from anyone else in the world without any filter whatsoever.

There's no excuse for angry online mobs to rile themselves up and send death threats. The asymmetry of the result is surreal and only makes this behavior the more dangerous. Unfortunately, that's a consequence of the assumption that free speech is the primary virtue of an unfiltered Internet. (Don't misconstrue this point; the mechanisms of free speech which allow our bored teenager to join a Pick Up Artist subreddit or tell some C-list celebrity that she's not funny and looks somewhat like a horse are the same mechanisms which allow protesters in Hong Kong to spread a message about their desire for democracy.)

It doesn't help when we treat games as something awkward and weird on one hand while acknowledging that they're popular beyond that subculture which grew up in the '80s and '90s on the other. Our celebration of a medium for unlimited exploration (in all the positive ways we haven't discovered yet) should be one of joy of expanding access—games are available to more people and can tell better stories and help us empathize better—rather than dismantling the No Girlz Allowed clubhouse of socially awkward gamer boys. When we put it the latter way, we put those young men on the defensive. How do you think they're going to react when they feel that their identities and inner sanctums are threatened?

What we don't have is a good mechanism for encouraging empathy—not just for awkward teenagers to put themselves in the shoes of someone wondering if this threat is from someone crouching beneath her bedroom window right now with a knife but also for the rest of us to take on the task of ending the Eternal September. Sure, it's not easy to give a 14 year old kid in flyover country a crash course in identity, social responsibility, and the ethics of group dynamics, but if at least we can attempt to understand his sense of isolation and why he feels personally attacked when the medium from which he draws comfort and courage to be himself, unashamed, we can at least start to relate to each other as human beings outside of hashtags and sloganeering.

The danger is, in other words:


— Film Critic Hulk, On Despair, Gamergate, and Quitting the Hulk