Conventional Internet wisdom tells us that the Web is a never-ceasing hotbed of negativity, a swirling cesspool of haterism. Don’t ever read the comments. Don’t feed the trolls. Block and unfollow with impunity. Haters, please show yourselves to the left. Thus it is, and thus it always shall be.

The only problem with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t actually allow for what the Web is best at, communicating in real time. If citizens of the Web are encouraged to brook no criticism, then they’re protecting themselves from the mindless assholes. But they’re also preventing themselves from actually talking with anyone who doesn’t agree with them.

Look no further than the recent online reaction to Richard Sherman. In a post-game interview, the Seattle Seahawks defensive back offered a — how shall we say? — spirited denunciation of Michael Crabtree, one of his opponents in Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers. Viewers quickly dubbed him a “thug” without understanding the context of his comments, or the fact that Sherman’s beef with Crabtree was somewhat justified. They took his exuberance as mere haterism without knowing all the facts.

Last year, several news outlets reported on a study, conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, that looked at negative bias. The study’s authors wanted to know whether people who already dislike something are disposed to dislike something else they’re less knowledgeable about. In typical Internet fashion, ensuing blog posts reporting on the study took it as confirmation that “haters gonna hate.”

Study subjects were surveyed on a variety of topics ranging from health care to camping to taxidermy, and they were grouped according to the negativity of their thoughts. Those who were on the negative end of the researchers’ scale were asked to weigh in on a new model of microwave oven after reading three positive and three negative reviews. The end result was that the generally negative were also negative about the microwave. Hence, haters yadda yadda and the Internet rejoiced.

I’m not sure that this study is actually talking about haters, though, mainly because the researchers’ definition seems incomplete. The researchers never looked into the reasons the subjects didn’t like these objects. This wasn’t the researchers’ fault; they couldn’t know their study would be hijacked by the “haters gonna hate” haters. Nevertheless, mere negativity doesn’t make a hater. After all, if someone expresses a negative feeling about a hateful thing, that should affect whether that person is considered a hater.

It’s an important distinction, because too often people accuse any criticism they receive as “haterism.” Don’t agree with me? HATER! You see? This broad a definition only serves to muddy the waters, allowing people to toss the accusation out whenever it suits them.

So let’s define “hater” more clearly.

A complete definition shouldn’t consider only whether someone is negative but why, too. A hater doesn’t just hate Stilton cheese. He arrives at a negative conclusion without justification. Haters deal in negative cognitive bias, prejudicially arriving at a conclusion first and then drawing in their reasons afterward.

That endlessly useful resource urban dictionary defines “hater” as:

A person that simply cannot be happy for another person’s success. So rather than be happy they make a point of exposing a flaw in that person. Hating, the result of being a hater, is not exactly jealousy. The hater doesnt [sic] really want to be the person he or she hates, rather the hater wants to knock somelse [sic] down a notch.

This definition reduces “hater” to an emotional state, an inability to “be happy” for someone who’s successful, which immediately makes me think of perhaps the most stereotypically hater-y moment ever, when Kanye West confronted Taylor Swift on stage at the Video Music Awards in 2009.

For all its legendary status in the halls of haterdom, Kanye’s outburst was grounded in his view that “Beyonce’s video was one of the best of all time,” which seems a flimsy basis by which to define “hater.” Opinions are, by their nature, not rational and not based in propositional knowledge, so one could see how they’d be confused with equally non-rational conclusions. Certain questions — like whether chocolate ice cream is better than strawberry, or Beyonce is better than Taylor Swift — are not based in rationality or facts; they’re based in taste. And being a hater can’t simply be a matter of taste, can it?

Based on how I understand opinion to work, I’d say no. Haterism is not merely a matter of opinion, even a loudly stated one. A culture decides what sort of taste is “good” according to the opinion of elite taste-makers. Sometimes these determinations are very arbitrary, as when a certain color is “in” at any given time. Good and bad taste is determined according to how elites experience culture as it splashes against their supposedly refined palates. And one can argue about what constitutes “refinement,” and who should be justly called “elite.” But that’s not the same thing as arguing over the validity of a specific opinion. The former is based on a set of values, the latter is based on one person’s experience.

In other words, you can argue about whether a person’s opinion matters culturally, but there’s no arguing about whether an opinion itself is right or wrong outside of that determination, because it’s non-falsifiable.

So by that reasoning, Kanye wasn’t hating at the VMAs. He was just being impolite. His opinion that “Beyonce’s video was one of the best of all time” was an opinion, and his credentials as a taste-maker are sufficient that he should be heard on the issue. It wasn’t the fact of the opinion but the manner it was given that made people think (rightly) that his behavior was inappropriate.

But the average Internet article has more vitriol in the comments than anything Kanye has said. Just look at some of the gems on this site here or here.

A simplistic definition of haters would be to place them in between trolls and critics on a spectrum of mere nay-saying. Except again hating isn’t mere negativity. It’s unqualified negativity. Haters aren’t really the same animal as critics; they differ not by degrees but by type. One couldn’t be an honest critic and stray into haterism without making a drastic change in approach, because, distinct from criticism, haterism does not take into account the value of its own claims.

And this is also the allure of haterism, and part of the reason why answering haters honestly with rational argument is so often ineffectual. A critic can answer another critic negatively by drawing attention to a weak part in his argument, or by questioning the validity of the facts cited. But then he also opens himself up to the same negative criticism. Part of being a critic means that your claims are just as up for debate as those of the person you’re criticizing; criticism appeals to a standard to which all are equally held.

Most critics hold to the dialectic method, that from many opposing perspectives something bigger emerges, while haters have no time for the thoughts of those who disagree with them. Haters value their own opinion, not because it relatively adheres to an independent standard, but because it’s theirs.

Usually when a hater becomes involved in a discussion that requires critical thought, everything descends into a shouting match, and the hater wins by default. A hater can’t lose, at least according to his own rules, because for him the issue isn’t actually up for debate. And as far as being recognized by others, the deliberate forward rhetorical momentum haters employ, slowed down by neither reason nor doubts, too often draws the casual observer into agreement. If a hater chimes in, and the argument descends into yelling, then often whoever yells the loudest gets declared the winner.

Like that quote by Bertrand Russell goes, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Another thing to consider, though, is that everyone is susceptible to the cognitive biases at the center of haterism. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and researcher Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” about the two systems by which people make decisions – one is fast, instinctual, and based in heuristics and biases, the other is slower, more willful, and based in logic and calculation. Kahneman says that people tend to identify their personality based on the second system; they think of “themselves” as the deliberate decisions they make. But the first system accounts for most of what people do. Kahneman says that instinct never shuts off, and that it takes effort, sometimes great effort, to apply rationality.

In other words, if according to Kahneman everyone starts at a baseline of instinct, and a hater is someone who instinctively forms a negative conclusion, then everyone has the potential to be a hater. And it should be noted that instinctually positive conclusions are just as, if not more, common than negative ones. Thus the difference between a hater and a critic is not negative feeling but that critics apply “slower thinking,” while haters allow their negative instincts to hold sway.

So if haterism is a measure of instinctual, heuristic bias, it’s not so much that “haters gonna hate,” but that “people have instincts, some positive, some negative. Haters let their negatives instincts go unchecked, loudly.” Doesn’t have quite the same ring, but there you go.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]