The internet is arguably the most potent communications device known to man. Never before have so many people been able to communicate so much, so easily, and so inexpensively. Not since the printing press has information been so widely available. However, that availability of global communication has some downsides that we are only just now beginning to realize. This article is not here to answer questions. It’s here to post questions and start a discussion.

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Toxic Connections

Toxic People = Toxic Culture

Most internet toxicity goes under the radar of mainstream culture. It just doesn’t make the news and most serious journalists don’t take it seriously. However, from time to time something will happen that is so heinous that it makes the news. Enter Logan Paul. Logan Paul is an incredibly popular Youtube vlogger. In a trip to Japan in early 2018, he decided to take a walk through the “suicide forest.” This is a natural place where people tend to go to kill themselves. It is a place filled with tragedy and Logan Paul happened upon that tragedy in his video. Dressed in candy kid gear, he shows up with his camera and takes video footage of someone who has recently committed suicide. Rather than cutting it out of his heavily edited videos he made the conscious decision to include the footage. The cultural backlash was swift and unrelenting which led to the following apology.

Logan Paul is not the only offender Pewdiepie makes news somewhat regularly for questionable uploads and then there was the Gamergate scandal where a female video game developer was harassed by her community. The common denominator here is people. Would these people still be doing toxic things? Probably. We just get to see it in the public eye thanks to the internet. Is it sometimes easier to blame technology than to blame the very real people behind the screens choosing to post certain content?

But it’s online, right? We shouldn’t take any of this seriously, right? Yeah?

Don’t Be So Serious Man

Can a communications platform have its own culture, rules, and norms?
I would argue the internet qualifies. One of the big parts of the “internet culture” (if we want to call it that) is that nothing should be taken seriously. Much of the toxicity has to do with people wanting to say and do anything that they feel without a thought about how others might feel about it or how it might affect real people. The general attitude is “don’t be so serious.” The culture, especially among the internets youngest citizens is that their memes, videos, and jokes shouldn’t be taken seriously.

“I come here to be free. I say all the things I can’t in the real world.”

The Culture of Toxicity

The toxicity of internet culture comes in many forms. Some of those include:

  • Toxic memes 
  • Casual use of racist language and stereotypes 
  • Videos about controversial topics
  • Posts advocating sexism, racism, homophobia
  • Attacking LGBTQA people
  • Anti-semitism
  • Blatant Sexism

Within the internet culture, especially as it exists right now, there is a certain desire to break out of the bonds of the PC culture. The world is a scary place. If you same something racist, sexist, or hurtful, someone may respond physically. However, in the world of the internet, there is the safety of anonymity. You can say what you would never dare say in public and sometimes be applauded for it. You can get acceptance for your racist views or your sexist complaints about women and men. Don’t like gay people? There’s a welcome internet community for that. The internet allows a consequence-free zone where you can truly be “free.”

A Sample of Racist and Sexist Memes

The PC Cleanup Operation

Over the past decades, there has been a focus on cleaning up the language. There has been social pressure to remove all sorts of words from the national lexicon when referring to women and black people. What used to be a common language has been slowly removed, using social pressure, from the language. Some say that it limits good humor, self-expression, and can be simply oppressive. However, what it does not take into account is that when you have toxic language that is endemic to society, you end up with a situation similar to the haves and the have-nots. Those that aren’t affected by the jokes or don’t feel like the truth of the joke applies to them get to have a laugh. Those for whom the joke may hold some truth (and all humor does have a kernel of truth) the joke can be hurtful, at least emotionally and psychologically.

PC culture has been focused on ending this language and fighting back against those who traffic in it. However, it is evident that the more people that fight against it, the more people want to use it and the more humor is derived from it. Isn’t that the opposite of what PC culture is trying to create? The goal of ending the language and attitudes is a noble one, but what are the consequences of that? Can you ever get rid of it?

I don’t mind trans-people. I just don’t want to be told what to think about them.

Do We Need Toxic Jokes?

Slavoj Zizek is one of the world’s most popular and well-known philosophers. One of his most controversial topics is racist/sexist/homophobic and otherwise off-color jokes. His argument is that these jokes create a sense of belonging and brotherhood. By making fun of someone else together, the participants in the joke feel closer to each other. It builds things like trust and comradery. It might build brotherhood for those in on the joke, but what about those on the outside of the joke? How might it affect them and their own self-perception in the world? How might it make people feel excluded or simply not welcome in certain spaces?

Let Me Be Free

This culture of internet toxicity has spawned a response in the form of Social Justice Warriors. SJWs came out of the Occupy movement. These people work through word, deed, protest, and public exposure to expose people for actions and words that don’t meet their own standards of decency.

People want their racist humor. They want their homophobia, they want to call things gay and not get called homophobic. SJWs may have been fighting people online who just “want to be free.” They might not even share the actual opinions they post online. They just want to say it to get a reaction. This, of course, is the very definition of an online troll. What if most of the offensive posts online are just people trolling us for jokes? What if the whole social quest of the left is just fighting some people trying to have some fun?

The Internet Is Culture Now

Whether we like it or not, the internet is culture now. Most of the cultural sharing that goes on happens online. Videos, memes, podcasts, writing, and audio are all happening online. Most of the modern cultural heritage is distributed digitally, and if it isn’t distributed that way it is certainly promoted that way. What happens online makes news and certainly, with the tweets arriving daily from President Trump, Twitter has an outsize effect on the news. Much of the public outcry from the #metoo movement started on Twitter, with women openly talking about their experiences with sexual assault. People, including children, have committed suicide.

In the past, many opinions of people that wouldn’t be described as popular have been hidden from view. The internet has broken open ideas considered dead in the water. It has aired out racism, misogyny, and more to the open air by providing a public forum where these opinions can be expressed and heard. This has led to people of a similar view forming communities around their views and finding others of like-mind. This has led to real life consequences like the Charlottesville protests (which resulted in 1 death and other injuries) and has fueled other racist attacks. Because people are able to organize effectively online, they are able to take their issues to the street and air their grievances with society. This organization has also led to the DC Women’s March which was the largest in history, mostly against President Trump and his shoddy treatment of women. This is the cultural moment we find ourselves in. Nazi’s are able to organize online on places like the VNN network and other places. Twitter has been forced to shut down accounts. Reddit has been forced to ban communities to try and stop the flow. But the reality is that nothing is going to stop this cultural moment. Would we be having this conversation in the same way if it weren’t for the internet? That is hard to say.

If one thing is clear about toxic internet culture, is that it is apart of our culture now. How we handle it and the people behind it is the conversation we need to have as a society moving forward.