Tribalism, echo chambers, groupthink, fake news, splintering. More and more there is a vague awareness of the effect the internet has on shaping peoples’ perceptions of the world.
There is a modern phenomenon of internet hyper-normalization, in which individuals can stumble into communities of like-minded folk, with the eventual effect of distorting and warping reality. This has only been possible with the rise of the internet, as many types of communities were virtually un-assembleable in meatspace. With the need for human and physical social interaction diminishing every day thanks to remote jobs, Amazon, and more and more entertainment and daily life accessible online, these communities and the people in them get elevated to a seemingly representative view of the modern world and norms, mores, opinions, and culture.
Having spent a great deal of time on the internet, working at LiveJournal, chatting with depraved individuals on IRC, and rubbernecking the information superhighway accidents, I have some insight into this situation.
Do you know what furries are?
Furries are people that believe they have the souls of non-human animals, and act out this belief and fantasy by wearing anthropomorphic costumes, creating art, music, conferences and much more. This being the internet it goes without saying that there is an unbounded furry fetish pornography and distasteful works as well. The furry community could only exist with the internet. Why?
Imagine if you don’t have the internet. Would you ever know a furry community exists? Probably not. If you don’t know this community exists, your desire to join or create it is likely to be very small. If you do know the community exists, the likelihood you desire to join it grows proportionally with the extent of the community. Many people crave belonging to a group, any group. They want to have an identity. They are willing to change and adopt new customs to gain friends, and the undercurrent of fetishization implies a possibility of gaining sexual partners as well. Any established group, no matter its character, attracts members looking for something to belong to.
Now imagine if you don’t have the internet and you really are a furry, without ever knowing such a community exists. Say you think you’re a wolf. You want to howl at the moon. You want to hunt in packs with your wolf buddies, write wolf poetry, wear a wolf suit, yiff with other wolves. Well, how do you find other like-minded people? You have no option. Maybe you bring it up with your friends, or post a classified ad, or look for furry conferences. Imagine telling your peers you think you’re really a wolf. They’d tell you you’re a fucking goofball and ostracize you. Now consider if you have the internet. You can find others like you! You can share your drawings on deviantart and people post comments telling you how great it is. You can organize meetups and conferences and meet other furries. Suddenly, you have the possibility to connect with others and influence impressionable young people who happen to stumble into your community.
More than just making new friends
If consenting adults want to all be insane goofballs together, who is to say it’s a bad thing? So what if the internet has now enabled groups of weird people to get together and do whatever bizarre shit they’re into together. What’s the problem?
When humans operate in a functioning society they are checked by ostracism, judgement, ability to make friends and meet romanic partners and approval of their peers. These constraints can have a positive effect on people, preventing them from all sorts of harmful behavior and enabling positive interaction. We have a public road system for example that we can all share more or less harmoniously, because if you decide to drive on the sidewalk you will face considerable opprobrium. We can enjoy shops and jobs and entertainment events and all kinds of great benefits to living in modern societies, because we all work together as a culture to delineate boundaries of acceptable behavior. If you want to beat your kids in public or play the bagpipes in an apartment building at 4am or try to go skiing on the mall escalator wearing nothing but a bathrobe, someone’s likely to say something. We all learn what is acceptable and unacceptable within our society because we learn the rules from our interpersonal interactions. But this now becomes less and less of a check for greater and greater numbers of people moving to internet communities for acceptance and socialization.
Much like cultures in different parts of the planet, many communities on the internet have very deep systems of interaction and discourse. Whether you’re in an IRC channel, message board, forum, LiveJournal community, twitter social group, youtube channel, facebook group, or tumbler cross-section, you may have your own norms, language, rules, values and beliefs. The danger that I have observed from this is that humans aren’t really wired to give these relatively tiny and insular communities the appropriate weight when extrapolating the rest of human society.
Internet Hypernormalization Effect
I wish there was a term for this but there isn’t, so I’ll make one up. Call it Internet Hypernormalization Effect. It’s when individuals join a small and insular community and lack perspective on its place in larger human society. Because humans are wired to learn rules about their society from the people they interact with on a daily basis, they end up incorrectly projecting the norms of their small social group onto humanity at large, resulting in a profoundly warped and distorted view of humanity.
I don’t believe this is something conscious people do, or really fully recognized by people who haven’t been trawling the stranger parts of the internet for most of a lifetime, but it’s there.
If you hang out with furries online, or juggalos, or people into Harry Potter fanfic, or vegans, or UFO hunters, or channers, or /r/thedonald, or any other insular online clique, over time you begin to ascribe their values and properties to an inappropriately large segment of the population. It’s impossible to maintain perspective on the world when you don’t get out, don’t socialize with people in your IRL (in real life) community, and primarily communicate with your group day in and day out. IHE spills over into the echo-chamber effect on social media that more and more researchers and political scientists warn about.
Typical group dynamics are magnified on the internet here; rejecting views that don’t comport with the group, praising ideas, links, media, thoughts, commentary that align with the group’s values, and lowering in status or even humanity the out-group.
If you’re really deep into the juggalo facebook group, you subconsciously think that maybe 20, 30% of humanity is a juggalo. Not consciously, but your brain gets this impression because it’s whom you primarily interact with. It’s your community. It distorts your perception of the world. Drinking faygo and wearing clown face paint is a normalized activity and without a proper sense of perspective lent by interaction with cross-sections of typical human beings. By eschewing normie gatherings in favor of online and juggalo gatherings, you are no longer constrained by browbeating and censure. This freedom certainly has its merits but with the freedom can come a serious ungrounding and reality distortion field.