Grown-up talk

13 June 2013 | Non-fiction, Tales of a journalist

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Would you say this to someone face to face? No? But anonymously, in writing, you do. Columnist Jyrki Lehtola takes a look at the way Finns tend to behave on the Internet

Babies. They’re cute. They have to be – they are babies after all. And their parents are lovely people, because they have those cute babies. Even they have a hard time believing how mellow and happy they are now that they have a baby.

But what happens to parents when the baby falls asleep and they get to creep off to the Internet? They completely freak out and turn into belligerent trolls.

In Finland, we have two magazines specialising in babies and parenting. Both have websites with large discussion forums where new parents can chat and exchange opinions. Often the discussions careen out of control. A new mother expressing uncertainty is accused of ignorance deserving derision: what a bad mother, she never should have been allowed to give birth. Mothers professing religions other than Lutheranism are immediately accused of everything from paedophilia to whoring. A good number of discussions that begin sensibly enough end up devolving into debates about the mental health or sexual proclivities of the writers.

Fortunately the children wake up eventually and receive care from parents who are relieved after they’ve had a chance to vent their frustrations online.

New parents represent the calmer end of the spectrum on Finnish message boards. Around here, few online discussions or questions end with a peaceful resolution, because there’s always the opportunity to declare that everyone else participating is an idiot.

If you go online and ask why your 2002 Toyota Corolla is leaking coolant, you might get two matter-of-fact replies before someone manages to ask if you’re a deadbeat retard for driving such a crappy car. Why don’t you get a better ride and stop wasting your time with that rice burner anyway? Almost without exception, an opening like this will elicit a response along the lines of, well, you must have a BMW, because BMW drivers are idiots. And thus the question ends up not receiving any answer because the discussion has gone off the rails yet again.

In addition to everything else we were promised, the Internet was supposed to be a tool for making everyday life easier. If you can’t get your outboard motor to start, you can go online to ask for tips on fixing it. Although, really, if you have any interest in your own peace of mind, you should just call a mechanic directly instead of sitting in your summer cottage staring at your laptop reading messages about how the person who asked the question is a queer since he chose the wrong kind of motor for his boat.

Over the last year in Finland, we’ve talked a lot about hate speech, about how much aggressiveness there seems to be online against minorities. People have organised protests and campaigns against hate speech, with celebrity representatives of various minorities headlining them.

That’s all well and good, but these campaigns always overlook a fundamental issue. They completely ignore the everyday hate speech we direct at each other in normal conversation in Finland. We aren’t a people who anonymously express our hatred for minorities, immigrants and other religions on the Internet, we’re a people who anonymously express our hatred for absolutely everything on the Internet, especially each other.

Frequently these conversations are such depressing reading that they undermine many of the basic assumptions of civilisation and raise questions about the quality of mental health care.

We can take a more positive tack though. We are a people who have finally been given the opportunity to express ourselves as we really are. We have finally removed the editor standing between the individual and the world. For decades, those of us in the media have pointed to PISA test results and nostalgia to pretend that, as a people, we’re fundamentally good. Of course we chose only the most sedate, humanistic letters to print on the newspaper opinion pages.

Now control of the conversation has been stripped from the media, which finds itself discomfited by the opportunity the Internet has created for people to interact outside the bounds of rational discourse we in the media tried to create.

I blame Facebook. What good could ever come from only allowing people to relate to the world through ‘Liking’?

Facebook has become an oasis of fabricated dialogue: no one has any wrong ideas, and we really, really like any right ideas we encounter – i.e. the ones we share with our Facebook friends – even though they aren’t usually real thoughts, just the amusing catchphrases and attitudes our Facebook friends expect from us. On Facebook, we repeat the adorable things our offspring say, remark on how marvellous it is that the sun is shining, and, by the way, here’s a stack of pictures of cats doing silly things.

And we like all of this infantile drivel, because that’s the only option on Facebook. If we accidentally express any aggression or negativity, thirty people rush to say that hey, it isn’t that bad, be more positive, here’s a picture of a cat, that’ll cheer you up.

After something like that, anyone would need to go find somewhere to say something really extreme, free from rules and restrictions.

And since the Internet is a vehicle for quick generalisation, it’s good to remember – what with campaigns, columns like this and general worry – that maybe it’s not worthwhile to talk in such a concerned tone about a whole nation, if a few hundred people don’t have anything better to do than bludgeon each other online.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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