How the internet is turning us all into 'mean girls'

The hope with the internet was that we would do away with borders. That hasn't happened

The hope with the internet was that we would do away with borders. That hasn't happened

The binary nature of our digital platforms only emphasizes the us-versus-them dichotomy. We are given only two options: friend or unfriend. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

In the moments leading up to last week's presidential inauguration, Barry Bennett, a commentator on PBS's NewsHour, remarked that "division is the new normal."

Ironically, that's probably the one thing we can all agree on. No matter your political beliefs, we can all see it: we are divided.

Leading up to the election, there was widespread lament over the impact of online echo chambers. The premise of the echo chamber is that instead of participating in varied public conversations with diverse voices, we get our information from a self-selected social network: people who think like us, act like us and reaffirm our existing world views.

Us vs. them

But when our online social circles are no longer representative of the variety of people we interact with offline in our daily lives, we start retreating into a new kind of tribalism. We see the world as "us" versus "them."

Without realizing it, we've all become "mean girls," excluding those who don't fit in with the online communities we design for ourselves, one click at a time. Sure, at first we humoured them — those outliers who posted polarizing political views on our timelines for everyone else to see. But then we slowly started minimizing their presence in our online social circles, unfollowing, and then unfriending, often without explanation.

The binary nature of our digital platforms only emphasizes the us-versus-them dichotomy. We are given only two options: friend or unfriend? There are no shades of grey, and there is no room for conversation — let alone compromise. They belong, or they do not. They are part of the tribe, or they are an outsider.

And just as connecting with friends releases happy hormones in our brains, so too does the act of separating ourselves. In his book I'm Right and You're an Idiot, James Hoggan writes, "Resentment is like a drug. It feels good to go home and say: "Those jerks! Those liberals. Those conservatives… I'm right, they're wrong."

In and of themselves, tribes aren't inherently bad. We all long to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and tribes fulfil that need. But where we get into trouble is when we introduce borders, which separate my land from your land, and by extension, my tribe from your tribe. When borders are violated, we fight. This, in broad strokes is the root of all war.

Online borders

The hope with the internet was that we would do away with borders. Marshall McLuhan called this vision of the new world the "global village," based on the idea that the instantaneous spread of information would unite us. That was what the internet originally promised, and that's what we love about it. But it hasn't entirely turned out that way; we still have our tribes, we still have our borders.

It is at these borders that the ugliness of contemporary tribalism comes to light: someone with an opposing view lashes out on your Facebook feed, or a troll monopolizes a Twitter hashtag, and it's obvious that their comments aren't meant to engage, but rather to enrage. These are the war zones, the hotspots of digital dialogue. Or, to put it into mean-girl-terms, the cafeteria where milk gets poured on your head.

Out in the open, these border zones highlight conflict and catch our attention, but they're not where progress is made. Progress is made when tribes can meet on neutral ground. And so, it's worth reminding ourselves, as we retreat from the toxic front lines into the comfort of our like-minded tribes, that online is not our only option. Logging off and getting coffee together might just be the closest thing we have to a social media Switzerland.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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