the Internet, considered as a mirror

This story about some fiftysomething YA authors holding up a mid-twenties college student for ridicule because she dared suggest a piece of YA popcorn fiction was not worthy as an assignment for an entire incoming college class to read is making me think about some discussions I’ve had lately with people I only realized were kids halfway through.

On the Internet, age is largely hidden. Is this person you’re making fun of someone your own age, who it is appropriate to hold to the same standards of critical thinking and underlying knowledge you hold your colleagues and yourselves to? Are they someone much older than you, whose vast store of experience must be dismissed because it always seems to be used in the service of telling you to do boring shit? Are they someone much younger, who should be patted on the head and gently shown the error of their ways, or simply ignored if you don’t have the time for that?

Maybe you’ve got an icon to give you a guess. Maybe. If you’re lucky. Lots of places don’t have those. There’s no guarantee it’ll represent the user even if you do – I tend to favor cartoon dragons, for instance. Maybe there’s a scent of another nationality coming off of particular word choices. Which could sometimes just be autocorrect. It’s hard to tell. You might get some clues if you went and looked at someone’s profile before responding to them but who the hell can be bothered to do that nowadays?

And I find that the default for me has always been to assume that people are pretty much the same as myself. When I was a teenager I assumed everyone I met on dial-up BBSs was a teenager. Now that I’m in my late forties, my default is to assume that everyone has a similar depth of experience as I do. I’ve gotten a little better at remembering this is not true, but it’s still a thing I have to make myself do. Unless someone is actively disagreeing with me, in which case the tendency is to very quickly stick them into one mental box or another, that’s probably filed inside a larger box of “enemies”.

Sure, sometimes it’s good that this exists. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, to quote a once-ubiquitous New Yorker cartoon of two dogs sitting in front of a computer. You can be free of some prejudices and stereotypes. But you’re just as likely to quickly be sorted into other boxes based on a few bits of pattern-matching. Especially on an Argument Machine like what Twitter has become.

I don’t really have any conclusions or deep thoughts about this. I just feel like I’m suddenly really aware of how much this is a thing that happens.

(I also find myself wanting to make a feature suggestion for Mastodon of “when replying to someone, display their profile text next to the reply box and the text you’re replying to, to help combat this effect”. Because honestly it’s gotten worse over the years, BBSs and forums had a lot more side data about who you were talking to than just “a name and maybe a user icon”.)

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