Faggot isn’t what your mother might call a “dinner table word.” For most social purposes, it’s been restricted to the metaphorical basement. You wouldn’t, for instance, use it to address a professor or TA, to get your waiter’s attention or even (most likely) to swear when you stub your toe on the steps of Campbell Hall. It’s a moderate social taboo, on par with shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and that’s why it caught my eye as I was scrolling through the comments under a YouTube video last week.
In context, it sounded something like this: “Avatar is shit. Anyone with two brain cells can see right through that bullshit. All it is is Pocahontas with blue people. You are a gay faggot who only likes shit that is popular. Think for yourself, sheep.”
That was CommandoBro69, in response to GoBananazz’s modest assertion that James Cameron’s blockbuster “Avatar” was “pretty good.” Immersed in their dialogue, I had totally forgotten to which video it corresponded. I scrolled up to check and saw it was a trailer for “Jurassic Park 3D.”
Now, I’m not passing judgment on the alternative “F-word” itself. This column isn’t about gay rights or pejorative slurs. But the F-word’s use in this conversation — and thousands of others that flood the web’s open forums — exposes a glaring inconsistency in our rhetoric. Namely, if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, why would you say it online?
The most obvious answer is anonymity. The Internet provides us with the efficiency of face-to-face communication while eroding the subsequent accountability. CommandoBro69 can say faggot as much as he likes, because as far as the World Wide Web is concerned, he’s a name without a face. And unless his parents are genuine assholes, that name isn’t even a real one.
Identity on the Internet is therefore little more than a collection of usernames, e-dresses and photographs, the latter of which rarely correspond to their respective users (If every online profile has an accurate picture, then there are at least 1,000 clones of a young Brad Pitt running around Los Angeles). But while virtual identities quickly become lost in translation, words retain their import.
This is the essence of the problem. The comments section is a middleman with no ethical code. He doesn’t ask questions, he doesn’t have restrictions and he’ll never give you the classic retort: “Why don’t you tell them yourself?” Your Internet profile, be it on Facebook, Google, CNN, YouTube, The Huffington Post or some Big Brother conglomerate of them all is yours to use and abuse. It is a virtual chess piece — both pliable and dispensable — for a game in which you have no stake.
Of course, if you threaten to commit mass murder, assassinate the president or detail your experience in manufacturing explosives, you might find yourself in a windowless room chatting with the rejected cast members of “Men in Black.” But barring these more obvious transgressions, the comments section is a place where almost anything goes. It’s the cyberspace equivalent of the Wild West: vast, lawless and teeming with scoundrels. Remember the town drunk from every old Western flick? That’s EmoKid123. Remember the gunslinger who never lost a draw? That’s MegaTroll666. The Western genre might be dried up (for everyone but Tarantino, at least), but in the realm of Internet discussion forums, it’s chugging along at full steam.
The results are resoundingly negative. What’s developed over the Internet in the last decade is a culture of malicious antagonism, ranging in severity from your everyday dick-around “troll” to the schoolyard bullies that have driven their victims to suicide. From Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame linebacker who discovered his Internet relationship to be a hoax last month, to Jessica Laney, the 16-year-old who took her tormenter’s advice to “kill herself already” last December, the consequences of communication without accountability speak for themselves.
Most disturbing of all is that these comments exist online. While it’s quite easy to say something hurtful in the heat of a spontaneous verbal argument, typing it up requires time and deliberation. These are not regrettable statements that “just slipped out,” these are statements people had an infinite amount of time to edit and revise, rethink and second-guess before clicking “submit.” It speaks to our nature when the only thing CommandoBro69 used that time to do was check if faggot is spelled with an “o” or an “e.”
So the next time you find yourself hovering over that enter key, stop and ask yourself: “Would I say this in person?” You may be surprised to discover that more often than not, the answer is no. The way we act behind the curtain is worlds apart from when it’s raised. And with the ever-accelerating rate of change online, there’s no guarantee it will always be there to hide behind.
Mark Strong (a.k.a. CowBoiWritR13): They’re not just blue people — they’re Avatars!
A version of this article appeared on page 16 of April 4rd, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus