Losing Yourself on the Web

Can individuality survive on the Internet?

There is anger, there is rage, and then there is the comment section of YouTube.

Misspelled expletives run wild. Capitalization is reversed: The first letter of a sentence is lower case, but everything else screams in all caps. One exclamation point is never enough.

It’s easy to condemn the world of YouTube commenters and never think about why this world exists or what it means. This lack of reflection is too bad, really, because the mere existence of such a well-defined YouTube culture has a lot to say about us—our values, our insecurities.

First, let’s acknowledge that the YouTube comment section is not unique. Sure, the level of vitriol is abnormal, but the crucial fact is that YouTube has a characteristic user culture. We can stereotype the website as a place of elaborate insults and avant-garde punctuation because these attributes are so consistent.

You could drum up a dozen other examples of separate website cultures. Yahoo Answers users are earnest but clueless, Humans of New York users are sentimental, SoundCloud users are appreciative, Quora users are academic, and so on. (Even commenters on The Crimson website have notable characteristics; readers can hash out that identity on their own.)


In the physical world, you can impersonate nationalities: Tell me to pretend I’m French, and I’ll produce a baguette and a bad accent. The same is true in the virtual world, except with websites instead of nations.

Step aside for a moment and consider the seriousness of this observation. You can be whatever you want on the Internet, and yet so many people have chosen to become the same thing.

Here lies a total chasm between what the Internet seems to be and what it is. Everyone has heard the interpretation of the Internet as the last frontier for free expression. It is the Wild West without tumbleweed, a place where you can truly redefine yourself.

We expect a haven for free expression, but we get a structured society in which being connected virtually means self-sorting into a pre-existing group identity. So much for individuality: Internet users are pulled towards conventionality.

The signs are all around us. Memes, geek culture, YouTube celebrities like Key & Peele, the incredible popularity of a select few websites—all these widespread characteristics suggest the virtual world is a place of well-known favorites, not hidden gems.

Not that conventionality is an apocalyptic outcome—after all, we the users created it. YouTube could theoretically be a forum for intellectual discussion in addition to “first” posts. Only the decisions of commenters prevent this outcome.

At the same time, you have to wonder how conscious these decisions really are. Most Internet websites prioritize popularity. The most liked Facebook photos appear on your newsfeed; the most read articles drift to the top of a news website. It is more difficult to buck the expected current and strike out on your own idiosyncrasies.

Outside of website structure, our psychology pulls us to sacrifice personality for belonging.  We need groups because being an individual is lonely enough. We don’t have the same fundamental urge for uniqueness. Nowhere is it clearer than on the Internet that when push comes to shove, human beings prioritize easy community over lonely individuality.  

As usual, the final stop for this train of thought is Harvard University. Have you ever heard of a college student fronting in order to fit into a group? (Now imagine the self-adjustments that Facebook users make when commenting in different groups.) Do you ever walk into a dining hall and notice three self-sorted tables of distinct communities? (Now imagine users from Reddit, Yahoo Answers, and BuzzFeed sitting side by side.)

Admittedly, belonging to a community in actual life involves more complex factors than I’m acknowledging. However, if we want to begin to understand such real-world dynamics, we might start by considering why User325 is writing in all caps beneath his favorite YouTube video.


Sam Danello ’18 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Grays Hall.


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