It is no secret that where there are thousands of young people in one location such as a college campus, there will be a few…less than wise things said. A popular location to share these humorous and sometimes distasteful comments is a page on Facebook called “Overheard at UNL”. Most of the posts on this page are from students at UNL and are meant to playfully poke fun at these amusing comments.
It is also no secret that many college fraternities across the nation partake in underage drinking. The Sigma Chi chapter at the University of Nebraska is no exception to this rule. However, a night that got out of control for a few minors led to a sexual assault investigation, various charges from the University (that were later dropped), and a firestorm on social networking sites such as Facebook.
An event of this nature, of course, caused students to start gossiping including on Facebook. One post in particular on the “Overheard at UNL” page sparked a firestorm of over 80 comments. The post was simply a quote from a professor who joked that the newly renovated Greek house would soon be up for sale. One would think that the majority of the 80 comments would contain content such as “sexual assault is never ok” or “underage drinking should not be tolerated”, but instead two different sides were formed and the debate was on. The nature of Facebook is a prime medium for “instapolarization” to occur. The anonymity, the inability to walk away, and the ability to take time to better formulate arguments can turn nearly any post into lighter fluid just waiting for a match to be struck.
While names are attached to every comment and post that one shares on Facebook, there is no sense of immediate danger or repercussions from anything that one shares on the internet. Staring into a bright computer screen is a much less intimidating image than the face of your furious opponent. The luxury of having your opponent’s retaliations appear as a tiny red box in the corner of the screen rather than in the form of an ear-splitting scream laced with spit encourages Facebook users to say things that are a little more bold than what they would have otherwise said in person. This anonymity gave one “Overheard at UNL” user enough sense of security to call the girl involved in the alleged sexual assault at Sigma Chi a “slut”. The match had been struck.
When a debate occurs between two people in person, one always has the ability to end the debate by walking away leaving the opponent forever behind. This privilege does not exist on the internet. Logging off of Facebook does not prevent an opponent from continuing his/her public attack. By not responding, one simply gives the upper hand to one’s opponent. An argument without a rebuttal could be assumed to be a damning one. In the “Overheard at UNL” case, every time the debate was winding down, some Facebook user would stumble across the page, read through the comments, become infuriated, and post another polarizing comment. As was just addressed, this comment was not left uncontested, and another wave of livid comments followed.
Stuttering and mumbling do not exist on the internet. Anybody and everybody is granted as much time as they need to clearly formulate their arguments. Of course, it could be assumed that the extra time that cyber fighting gives us would cause people to calm down and reread what they have writing before posting comments. This is true in most cases. However, in the case of an online debate, the anger and frustration that the users feel could have the opposite effect. When a Facebook user is heated, it is obvious that their rough draft of their comment may have a few more choice words and vulgar analogies than it would otherwise have. Many, out of sheer fury, will post this rough draft without looking it over. If they do happen to reread their comment before they fatefully click the “comment” button, it is a likely possibility that they will use the time to incorporate harshness into their work even further. They may decide that a piece of their argument was not clear enough or that something needed further explaining. The ability to fine-tune opinions makes often make arguments in cyber fights more brash and thorough than personal disputes. This was seen in our case study, as many comments were several sentences, if not paragraphs long, strongly worded, and clearly put together in a furious fashion.
“Overheard at UNL” is just one small corner in the world of Facebook. While Facebook did not conceive polarization, the social networking site has become a battleground for opposing viewpoints. Every “like” is a gunshot. Comments fall like artillery shells. Many people have strong opinions, and a status bar is just another public forum for their ideas to be heard while still hiding behind the safety of their keyboards- and these opinions are often carefully crafted to pack the most punch. However, unlike on the street where disputes with a stranger may never be remembered or documented, the entire course of an argument on Facebook is visible to all those who happen to stumble across the webpage. In a sense, what is said on Facebook is written in virtual stone. It is true that comments can be deleted and Facebook users can be reported or blocked, but in a world of screenshots, what is said on the internet stays on the internet.