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The Politic Blog The Sophist

Rebuilding the Online Acropolis

Before there were online forums, there were actual forums—believe it or not—where ideas could be openly and publicly exchanged. Instead of users logging in on their laptops, “users” of the original forums would show up to public spaces to share, or express their opinions about things pertinent to them. The most famous of these public spaces would be the Acropolis—an ancient citadel and public space built atop a hill overlooking the city of Athens in Greece in the 5th century BCE. This space incorporated religious temples, markets, courts of law, and other structures to accommodate a diverse populous—much like how the public space of the internet is shared by people of diverse interests today. However, while the Acropolis of Ancient Greece hosts a reputation as an idealistic, and literal “city upon a hill” for democracy,  its contemporary counterparts on the new forum of the internet don’t exactly garner the same respect. The difference, ultimately, lies is how we enter, use, and interact within this new space.

Online forums should, idealistically, or at least by their original design, be the public spaces of our new globalized world—the Acropolis of the new digital age—places that thoughtful, respectful online users can go in order to probe and navigate the unique opinions, conditions, and points of view of others in a way that they’ve never had the opportunity to before. And even better, users can incorporate what they find in this online space into a grander narrative, one made of diverse opinions that we’ve never been as fortunate to be privy to before. Thanks to the online forum, serious discussions had the potential evolve that supportively, or even critically assess online content—whether or not that content derives from a particularly controversial news article on Facebook about a political crisis abroad, a photo of a family trip on Instagram, or even a YouTube video of animated cats playing the bongos. Regardless, all content became easily accessible to a potential audience of thousands, or even millions, to view, assess, and interpret.

But, like the original structure of the Acropolis, the sophists of the forums are long dead—and what we’re left with are public areas dominated less by critical and thoughtful discussion, dialogue, and debate. Rather, when we log into forums, we’re encountered by what appears to be angry and virulent people. They often hide in relative anonymity behind usernames like XXXswagdaddy69, have a profile picture of Guy Faux from V for Vendetta, and spew nothing but angry comments and make offensive posts.

From this, it’s not easy to understand how to navigate around these users, especially when they have as many rights to view and critique our content as anyone else. Online forums across all platforms have become dangerous ground—a place where an honest online creator or user may feel like they’re taking a risk by posting new content. Some platforms for posting content, particularly social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, have allowed individual users the option to disable the comment section on the content that they post—discretely avoiding the risk of harassment and angry commenters, yet concurrently avoiding the capacity for people to express genuine sentiments as well.

Take the simplest case—sharing an article on Facebook. Virtually everyone is a part of Facebook now; If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably had one to post memes since 2010, your mom logged on in 2014 to see what you were posting for the past four years, and your grandma eventually got one last year so she can look at photos of her neighbor’s chickens.

However, with so many people on one platform, there are going to immediately be a lot of diverse opinions. I, for instance, may have found a particular article very interesting, thinking that the author made some particularly unique points about whatever political or social issue. After reading it, I decided that the article was worth sharing with her immediate vicinity on Facebook. However, as I copied and pasted the link to the article, added my own little comment, and was about to hit send, I might wonder to myself: what would my friend who doesn’t exactly share my point of view think? Will they share this article with people who think like them, but aren’t necessarily my friend? What if XXXSwagdaddy69 sees this? Will those people flock to my post, scroll past it without even reading the article I posted, and start flaming me with comments telling me to go f*ck myself, or go take my opinion and shove it up my ass?

This anxiety isn’t just overthinking the possibility of receiving hate, its acknowledging a serious risk, and problem, that we currently face in minefields of comment sections on the internet. Due to the relative anonymity of communication the internet, compounded with the space’s sheer size, internet commenters writing nasty things aren’t left in the best circumstances to have honest and rational discussions that we would have face-to-face with someone out in the real world—in fact, it may have seemed kind of inherently oxymoronic (emphasis on moronic) at first to assume that internet forums could even be those Acropolises of democracy in the new digital age.

Despite the inclination to abandon the acropolis—to disable the comment section or just not post in forums at all—we’d be too quick to abandon the spaces that have such potential, and unfair to those millions of users who wish to utilize it for good. Instead of refusing to participate, we should recognize that online forums ought to be those places of discussion and dialogue—as they were originally intended—and personally work towards molding them into those places.

The first way to go reshaping this space is through language—most importantly in the content that posted online, but also in the way we engage people who post content that we may disagree with, or are provoked by. While online, it’s easy to read what we perceive to be angry or close-minded comments, and respond with equally snippy or antagonizing language—a tit-for-tat sort of scenario, intended to cut the other user down to size. This may be immediately satisfying, and may grant us the feeling that we’ve chased an online troll back under its bridge. However, firing back at angry commenters doesn’t always necessarily make them stop commenting. In fact, it may give a commenter more reason to continue, or even increase their hateful or angry speech—acting either in equally angry defiance or misguided defense.

Moderating our own language to assertively, yet non-aggravatingly disarm and expose the inappropriate comments of online trolls is ultimately a much better method of curbing their aggression. Call attention to the fact that what they’re saying is rude, aggressive, or misinformed—because more often than not, angry commenters online, through their anonymity or small scale relative to the entirety of the internet—are detached from the power of their words. Users do this all the time to expose hypocrisy and aggression in the words of politicians or other public figures online, hoping to bring attention to the language they use and how they use it. Recognizing the power of words, speech, and how we engage with one another in these vast yet ambiguous online forums is the first step towards bringing it closer to the forums of reality.

In addition, it’s important to note that while online forums, comment sections, etc may seem proliferated with angry and fervent people, the voices represented here often don’t reflect the vast majority of people in reality. Most people, when they see a video that they particularly like on YouTube, for instance, just take a second to drop a like. The same goes for a dislike. One click, and move onto a better video of a cat playing the bongos. Most users don’t even react to videos, or other content online, that they like/dislike—because they’re largely indifferent to the influence of this content on the vastness of the internet, almost reciprocally of how the commentator with a harsher opinion lacks constraints under the same circumstances. The comment section, therefore, tends to attract users with much stronger opinions on the content, and who are more likely to leave stronger words behind.

Ultimately, a world online ought to function similarly to how we engage and interact in reality—we can do this through the language of our online use, by recognizing the trappings of the internet’s space, by inversely supporting the content we find valuable or honest, and by continuously working towards building a world online that reflects the values, customs, and means of expression that we live in our everyday lives.