How to make everybody on the internet behave

This week’s news that a Twitter abuser suddenly saw the light when it was suggested that his tweets be sent to his mum reminded me of this, a column I wrote for .net back in 2008.

Britain may not have an empire any more, but we still rule the world of bad driving. Sure, the Italians are maniacs, the Americans are too busy eating to watch the road and the Germans seem determined to drive faster than the speed of light, but when it comes to sheer arrogant, ignorant, arsey and downright dangerous driving nobody can touch us.

I’m guilty of it too. Give me five minutes in a city centre and I’m shouting the c-word at cyclists, the b-word at bus drivers, the p-word at pedestrians and every expletive ever invented at Audi drivers. Only the last one is really justified.

What these various offenders have in common is that they can’t hear me or see me – and that gives me a licence to be utterly unpleasant, just like everyone else on the roads. It’s why people block box junctions, or cut you up, or drive at 200mph through primary school playgrounds. They’re not bad people; they’re just not sharing the world with the rest of us. Brits are particularly bad for it, because we’re so buttoned-up the rest of the time.

There’s a proper scientific term for this: disinhibition. In his book Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt explains that while we’re forced to interact with others on the roads we don’t – can’t – communicate with them, so we become overgrown toddlers, interested only in ourselves and reduced to eye-popping, throat-shredding, nappy-filling fury at the slightest frustration. Interestingly, Vanderbilt reports that people in open-topped cars tend to be nicer and more patient, not because they’re happier, or because they’re getting lots of Vitamin D but because they’re less insulated than other drivers, less able to pretend that the world isn’t there.

And of course, disinhibition is a key part of being online. Our computers are our cars, ensuring that people don’t know us, can’t see us, can’t make us immediately answerable for our actions. They remove the respect for authority that prevents us shouting “Oi! Specky!” at Stephen Hawking and they erase the empathy that stops us going mental in Morrison’s when the person in front attempts to pay with string. That can be a good thing, because it encourages people to open up and express themselves in ways they might not in the real world, but of course when someone is in a negative frame of mind (or young – the bits of our brains that handle inhibitions aren’t mature until after adolescence, which is why we do so much dumb stuff as teenagers) then it turns them into online Audi drivers.

So is there anything we can do to make the internet, well, nicer? According to Vanderbilt, rules and safety systems just make drivers worse; it turns out that the best way to make car owners more responsible would be to mount a dagger in the steering wheel, its blade pointing directly at the driver. Perhaps we need an IT equivalent, like a remotely operated boxing glove mounted on a giant spring – or better still, a system where every abusive email, blog comment or forum post is copied to your mum.