The Internet isn’t making us dumb. It’s making us angry.

September 16, 2013

(Google)

There's a strain of thought that because of the way Internet culture has changed the way we work and play, we're now a different people, neurologically. We don't just behave differently because of the Internet; we think differently, too.

The scientific jury is still out on that count. But if the Internet does have a role to play in making us more anything, a handful of Chinese researchers have concluded that it's "more angry."

In a study of 70 million posts on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, Rui Fan and a team of others at Beihang University tracked the spread of joy, sadness, anger and disgust across the social network. According to the MIT Technology Review, they found that angry tweets were far more likely to be retweeted by others — or be the subject of angry responses — up to three degrees away from the original user.

Joy, disgust and sadness weren't nearly as influential over others, the researchers learned.

It could be that China's Internet is uniquely angry. But if you've spent any time at all reading U.S.-based comment threads, digital rage should sound like a familiar idea.

People have proposed all sorts of remedies for online anger, such as making Internet commenters reveal their real names. Nobody really knows whether ending anonymity will civilize comment trolls, however. Other problems we think we face as a result of technology aren't particularly instructive, either. We've got no good remedy for those people who check their e-mail at the dinner table, nor any prescription for violent video games other than to limit their use.

Increasingly, though, there is one thing researchers think would almost certainly help a society awash in anger: better emotional intelligence, or the set of abstract skills that help human beings interact with one another without resorting to conflict. Almost by definition, a more emotionally intelligent Internet would be a kinder, more empathetic place.

The question is how to build it. As the New York Times magazine reported recently, some elementary schools are becoming the first testbeds for social-emotional learning. Students now go through detailed and sometimes "heavily scripted" training curricula that critics say is more rote than stimulative or engaging. But studies also show that emotional intelligence, when it's achieved, can pay off in the job market, in marriage, in school and a host of other areas.

Pro-social behavioral training is being sold as a way to reduce bullying and incidences of teen suicide. But if the byproduct of that training extends beyond the classroom, so much the better.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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