The Internet: A Safe Haven for Cowards

A beloved 1990s Peter Steiner New Yorker cartoon now adorning countless refrigerators depicts a cute canine seated in front of a computer terminal, where he says, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” 

As we’ve learned in the ensuing decades, on the Internet no one knows if you’re a man, woman, adult, child, Nigerian con man, suburban pedophile, dangerous crackpot, or bona fide expert, either. The Internet, connecting a menagerie of self-promoters and anonymous authors spouting mostly unverifiable “facts” and intensely passionate opinions, is simultaneously a brilliant celebration of free speech and a demoralizing reminder of how badly free speech may be abused. Since contributors to the ongoing global cyber-“discussion” need not identify themselves (or, more precisely, identify themselves accurately), the World Wide Web is littered with the kind of chicanery and vitriol for which most decent folks wouldn’t want to take credit.

We speak not of the homosexual picture collector posting as a nymphomaniacal woman on Craigslist and posting personal ads seeking photographic proof of an applicant’s genital endowment. Nor is our concern the politically motivated rumor monger, who circulates spurious claims about, say, Barack Obama or John McCain, all of which are easily debunked with thirty seconds of (Internet) research on sites like Such frauds are easily exposed, and their pathos seems more profound than their transgressions.

What causes most alarm is the anonymous bully: the chat-room troll, the anonymous blogger, the unidentifiable Web page builder. While it’s easy to excuse their bad behavior on the grounds that anyone who has the time to spend countless hours on an Internet bulletin board is a certifiable loser with way too much leisure on his hands, the harm that these folks do to our beloved freedoms of expression is subtle yet profound. No, our national dialogue on race, class, consumerism, the environment, religion, and all the other stuff that matters (to some of us) isn’t going to be completely undermined by angry teenagers dedicated to, say, “American Idol,” vociferously insulting other anonymous chat-room denizens about their view of  “song choice.” But the general lack of civility, respect, and veracity one encounters on the Internet reflects our national demeanor: aggressive, intolerant, and self-satisfied. If the American character were solely defined by how we communicate with each other on the Internet, it’s no wonder that the rest of the world abhors and mistrusts us. We’re brutes.

The alarming frequency with which bloggers and bulletin board posters employ the words “I hate,” “I’d like to [insert unprintable sadistic act here],” “He’s a [insert slang word for female anatomy],” suggests a simmering violence on the verge of overflowing. The vast majority of these commentators will never actually do anything with their angry impulses; it’s easier to spout off on a forum with other angry sociopaths than to act. But although the mean-spirited verbal ad hominen attacks will almost always remain theoretical, the underlying miserableness must give us pause, like the persistent pain that never manifests itself in a recognizable tumor yet suggests some kind of festering disease.

The objects of the attacks — actors, authors, singers, members of academia — are people with husbands and wives, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. When you don’t have to sign your (real) name to your indictment, apparently it’s all too easy to forget that the scorned target is a brother and sister, too.

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