Down the Rabbit Hole Part II: Who Watches the Watchmen?
Down the Rabbit Hole is our recurring series on obscure internet communities. The shared interests of these communities are potentially offensive, often in poor taste, and always fascinating. Their views are not my own, and do not reflect the values of anyone at Softcover. We're here to watch and learn about the various fringe elements that certain corners of the web attract. Do you think these explorations do more harm than good? Let's have a discussion.
As a general rule, like attracts like. People who hold similar interests tend to, when given the resources, find others who like the things that they do. This phenomenon is why hobbies or interests that began as obscure are now easier than ever to enjoy. The internet is the patron saint of geeks and nerds, armchair sports managers, and post-modern cinephiles alike. This is because online communities raise the sample size - someone who may never have met another like-minded enthusiast is no longer bound by geography. Do you have a unusual appreciation for turn of the century children's literature? There's a website for that. Model trains? All aboard. Nostradamus? No problem.
As with everything, there is a darker side to all of this. There are communities brought together by hate - towards whole races, identifiable groups of people, minorities, and specific individuals. This should not be news to anybody. What is perhaps more interesting are the groups that form around these, and other, internet communities. These are the watchdogs - people who identify against a certain group of people, and spend their time collecting, cataloguing, and dissecting examples of the behaviour of the other side. Often, these groups form around extreme views, but that is not always the case. If you look, you can find a group for any number of causes or anti-causes: anti-black/anti-white, anti-religion/anti-atheism, anti-iphone/anti-android. It could be a political movement, film star, philosophy, brand, or person, and most likely there are individuals who have banded together to talk about their dislike of it, and who have begun collecting examples of why it is bad.
When I began this journey, I struggled to find anything bad in this. It makes sense, for example, to talk about things like racism and to identify problematic issues. I'm a big believer in dialogue, and in having hard discussions and learning from each other, even when the subject matter is dark or potentially upsetting. What I have learned is that there is an interesting set of, we'll call them problems for now, that occur when you begin to identify with a group that exists to watch over another group.
Take the recent trend of "Minions"- the yellow, oblong, overalls-and-goggles-wearing cartoon characters that have become somewhat of an internet phenomenon. Like anything that reaches the mainstream, people have begun to grow tired of them. Really tired. Some people have grown so tired of them that they've formed online groups (reddit.com/r/minionhate, for example) to talk about their hatred of Minions. Here's where things get weird. The inevitable result of a group formed around the dislike of something is that all of its content will be made up of the disliked thing. If you open up Minionhate, you'll be greeted with hundreds of photos of minions, shoehorned into popular facebook shareables, cheaply made knock-off toys, and low budget advertisements. At the time of writing, Minionhate had 28 000 subscribers. These self-professed haters find themselves in the puzzling position of seeing a lot of content that they explicitly hate.
"Self-Identification, Investigation, and Obsession"
The battle over Minions and their place in the world is about as low stakes as they come. But what happens when this trend of self-identification, investigation, and obsession revolves around issues with actual political, social, and cultural value? Critical thinking suffers.
Consider the ever-present battle about feminism. If you look hard enough, you can find all manner of groups with varying opinions on the topic: anti-feminists, radical feminists, misogynists (woman haters), misandrists (man haters), trans-exclusionary radical feminists, LGBTQ+ activists, and many more. If you look even harder, you'll find groups who are entirely devoted to criticizing one or more of the others. Like-minded people form a community, search for offensive content, and discuss.
An anti-feminist group might consist of like-minded individuals searching for and posting thoughts, pictures, and articles from places like facebook, tumblr, and various feminist blogs and news sites. These would then be discussed with the rest of the community. The same phenomenon as before is present - people who hate a thing gathering to discuss exactly that thing.
"When the discussion is limited to a specific group, the audience is restricted from the outset"
So what's the point? From what I can tell, these groups exist to facilitate discussion, form a safe space for conversation about sensitive topics, and cause cultural change. It's easy to see the argument for safe space, whether or not you agree. In a society that values diversity of opinion, people should be allowed to express their opinion, have it challenged, and learn from others. But watchdog groups don't necessarily provide that service. Diversity of opinion is obviously lacking in a group that is built around a strong, specific view. An anti-feminist discussion board will not have the demographics to support actual debate. When you are sharing content for a largely homogenous group, cultural change is difficult. The result is an echo-chamber, where the proverbial mobs fall upon all who disagree. When the discussion is limited to a specific group, the audience is restricted from the outset.
What further complicates this is the problem of content selection. Consider the perspective that members of an anti- or hyper-radical feminist group have of the other side, when your primary contact with them is content that is selected, voted on, and curated by people who hold your viewpoint. What you see will be the most offensive, comical, and potentially fringe content available. Constant exposure to these curated views of the opposing side skews perspective, and begins the process of generalization. It soon begins to be difficult to distinguish satire from genuine thought, and extreme views from more 'normal' ones.
You can make a case for the purpose of these watchmen as being preparation - gathering like-minded people to prepare for discussions that take place outside of the group. That prospect seems problematic because of a lack of diversity, which is required for the tempering of opinions. I'm sure this is possible, but it would be reliant on collective vision and willpower, strict moderation, and genuine desire.
So what's left? I think for the vast majority of these groups - whether we're talking about Minionhate or Misandry - it's about some combination of empowerment, desire for belonging, and pleasure. It is not hard to imagine that some people enjoy laughing at the opinions of others, opinions which they consider ridiculous. Even hatred, or rage, which are both common, can give a person a sense of purpose and sick pleasure. Perhaps these groups begin with innocent (or merely comparably innocent) intentions - to poke fun at the other side. Regardless, left on their own to grow, the results of this group phenomenon are often dark, serious, and highly political in nature.
"the echo-chamber is the instrument with which critical thinking is crippled"
These groups' apparent seriousness is concerning because the echo-chamber is the instrument with which critical thinking is crippled. The moment the other side is vilified and strong boundaries are defined, the moment your main source of information on a topic is entirely partisan, and the moment the mistreatment of people outside of the group becomes pleasing in some way, is exactly the moment when the heart is hardened and the mind is closed.
Who watches the watchmen?