- People commonly view identical behaviors as worse if they happen online compared to offline.
- This double standard may be at the root of our distrust toward Internet technologies.
- This tendency seems to be obscuring a lot of our discourse about important topics, including political and social issues.
In some recent posts, we’ve looked at people’s attitudes toward internet-based technologies, especially social media. I am attempting to make the case that prevalent concerns about mind-manipulating algorithms, online misinformation, radicalization, and polarization are largely misguided and rooted in misunderstandings about how our minds actually function.
Part of this may be because we have double standards about what counts as improper, or “bad,” in society, depending on whether it happens online or offline. People seem to categorize behaviors as negative, mainly when they happen on the internet, but neutral or even positive when they happen in person or in a book.
Attitudes vs. Experiences Online
Recently, I published a study with a former student, Sydney Gideon, about young adults’ attitudes and experiences toward dating. We asked people to keep track of their dating/hookup experiences over one month, and when they did, we asked them how they felt about it and what they thought of their dating/hookup partner. Our paper title contained the upshot of the study: experiences of romantic attraction were quite similar across dating apps and offline dates in our sample of young adults.
People rated their dating partners similarly on attractive qualities (beauty, intelligence, warmth), and, although we did find some emotional differences between offline/online dates, they were small and inconsistent. But people’s attitudes toward dating apps were extremely negative–much more negative than other dating methods, such as meeting at a social event.
Our participants rated dating apps as a very undesirable method for meeting romantic partners or hookups. In fact, the only other methods they rated lower were speed-dating events and approaching a total stranger on the street. It's remarkable how much people’s attitudes diverged from their experiences. Hooking up with someone at a party? Fine. Hooking up with someone through Tinder? Not fine. But our research shows that those experiences were more similar than different.
This research finding prompted me to think more about people’s negative attitudes towards internet-based experiences as somehow worse than the same experiences happening offline. A good heuristic might be this: it’s bad when the internet does it.
Doxxing, Outrage, and Echo Chambers
There are other examples that follow this pattern. As noted by armchair historians, people would routinely publish personal information about themselves, including their home addresses and phone numbers, in publicly available phone books. The idea was that we should coordinate information about ourselves so that it’s easier to find each other and make connections, even among strangers. This was long considered a good thing. But online (and especially on social media), people are much more concerned about privacy, and may even object when others share/repost contact information that is already publicly available, such as an office address or telephone number. Why? Well, it’s bad when the internet does it.
Another example concerns news-based anger. It used to be very common (especially for anti-establishment liberals) to say things like, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” The idea was that people needed to stay informed of the news, and if they were disturbed or antagonized by what they saw, that was considered a good thing because this would inspire political action. But online, we are warned against following the news on social media too closely because doing so would cause users to feel disturbed or antagonized, which is extremely frowned upon. Why? Well, it’s bad when the internet does it.
Here's one more example. Over the past few decades, there’s been an increase in geographical segregation, which is the pattern of living near those who share one’s political values.
You can see for yourself using this New York Times tool whether you live in an ideological bubble. Many of us do. And this segregation between Democratic and Republican neighborhoods has come at a time of increased political polarization, which is why I think polarization is mainly an offline problem rather than an online one. Yet, no one seems to be concerned about this trend of living near only those who agree with your viewpoints. But people routinely lament ideological “echo chambers” in online spaces, such as Twitter. Why? Well, it’s bad when the internet does it.
With these examples, we can see a clear trend in the way that people think about online and offline behaviors differently. When people do, say, think, and feel things in an analog context, we view them as more humane or natural, and we feel mildly positively toward them. But our attitudes shift dramatically when the exact same things happen in a digital context, and we view them as unnatural, negative, and even destructive.
Let’s Not Use Double Standards if We Can Help It
Aside from the fact that this double standard doesn’t make sense logically, it also seems to be obscuring a lot of our discourse about important topics, including political and social issues. Going forward, I suggest one remedy. When thinking about others doing something online that you don’t approve of, ask yourself whether there is an offline analog to this and how people perceive that. If people feel more positively toward the offline equivalent, then maybe the online version isn’t so bad.
Selterman, D., & Gideon, S. (2022). Experiences of romantic attraction are similar across dating apps and offline dates in young adults. Journal of Social Psychology Research, 145-163.