08/21/2013 03:34 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

Why Stereotypes May Be Helpful to Online Culture


The Online Marriage Proposal

I recently proposed to my girlfriend (now fiancée) over the Internet using memes and commissioned artwork. The proposal, which played out over Reddit (a wellspring of online news and discussion), garnered passionate and polarized responses from individuals and media outlets. While some were swept away by the romantic gesture, others saw it to be horrifying.

Ubiquitous amongst negative responses was the imposition of a set of stereotypes that have developed around heavy Internet users. At the forefront, they can be seen the stereotype of the "neckbeard," an individual who is overweight, has no friends, lives in his mom's basement, never leaves his house, is a virgin, and lacks both basic hygiene and social skills. Not a single aspect of this stereotype applies to my fiancée or myself. In fact, this stereotype almost never serves as an accurate description of an active online citizen.

The Emergence of Online Stereotypes

It is likely these stereotypes emerged as a defense mechanism. If someone disagrees with an individual's opinion online, it is much easier to dismiss this person by tying his or her identity to the "neckbeard" straw man, utilizing a personal attack as an easy out. Applying the neckbeard stereotype to the majority of Internet users allows one to feel as if one is smart, sexy, and rich by comparison. Use of the stereotype creates an environment in which everyone but the accuser manifests as an amalgam of traits associated with a low position in a social hierarchy.

Stereotypes Applied to Online Art

Unfair stereotypes have been used by the general public to give second class status to online culture and art, allowing it to be dismissed as a pathetic hobby that could only entertain the dregs of society. In truth, online art forms have had an enormous impact on the general public. Simply consider the fastest selling book in history, 50 Shades of Grey, which was adapted from a Twilight fan fiction, or the most played game in the world, League of Legends, which was an adaptation of a DOTA mod (mods are alterations programed on top of popular games). There are few more uniquely-online forms of art than fan fiction and game mods. (Though similar art forms have existed in the past, they have never existed with such prevalence or richness as they do in online communities.)

Equality as the Result of a Uniform Stereotype

Ironically, the same obfuscation of identity that allows the general public to create a straw man dismissing others' value has created an environment free of the stereotypes that plague our society. An individual's contribution to online discussion is judged by the merit of his or her argument rather than the individual's ethnicity, sex, age, education, or income.

Online forums without prejudice (or rather, with uniform prejudice) allow for rich discussion. Consider /r/AskHistorians, a section of reddit devoted to discussions about history in which one's input is given precedence based on relevance, quality, and the use of good sources rather than the possession of prestigious degrees.

Stereotypes as a Gatekeeper

A focus on the value, authenticity, and relevance of a participant's input is what has led to the prevalence of trolling in online culture. An ability to determine quality and relevance is ingrained into online denizens. It is therefore seen as funny when someone lacks this skill (and reacts to trolling, which, by definition, lacks reason and authenticity), in the same way you might view it as funny if you saw someone eating an ice cream sandwich or a candy bar with the wrapper still on.

Perhaps the very stereotypes associated with individuals involved in online culture have played a crucial role in its development. They have fostered an environment free from individuals who are unable to weigh the value of ideas independently from those who generate them. It may very well be the crutch of the neckbeard stereotype that has ultimately protected the development of a rich and unique online culture.