Why Are People So Vicious Online?

Hey, you!  Yes, you.  The one with the keyboard in front of you and the mouse in your hand.  Step away slowly from the computer, with your hands up.  Oh, you were thinking about typing something really nasty, weren't you?  Something truly stinging.  Yes, that person on the other end of all of these "pipes" said something that made you mad.  Heck, it was downright rude what they said.  Now you are going to make them pay.

About time, right?  They deserve it.  I mean, it's not another human being that you are talking to.  It's just a screen name, a bunch of text on a screen, nothing that you really need to worry about.  When you're done and have sent your nastygram across the wire, you can walk away, go have a coffee, and go about the rest of your day, in real life.  In real life you'd never say the things that you just typed.  That's the beauty of the Internet though--why worry?

Of course, they responded back.  They're even more angry.  Now you can't back down...they'll think you're weak and chickening out.  Now you have to pull out all of the stops.  Maybe an insult about their name...no...better yet, and insult about their mother's name.  Ha!  Take that!  On and on it goes, more people jump into the fight, and you've got yourself one big brawl...all typed out, historically documented, and beautifully easy to forget about--just turn off the screen.

Alright...out of that narrative mode.  What I'm illustrating above is what I believe the absolute largest challenge in an online community is--keeping it civil.  Flame wars flare up, and it's tough to get them under control.  They can keep a community from being effective.  They really can hurt people.  And, in the end, they can kill a community, dead in its tracks.

What can be done to make people realize that they really are taking with other people?  Adam Curry, the podcasting guy that does the Daily Source Code podcast, has commented a few times on his show about his message board flame war problems.  He believes they are inevitable...every online community is destined to die the same death--overzealous people flaming the forums to death.

I have to say that I'm still more optimistic that Adam, but, we did lose our first moderator this week to flame wars.  This blog post isn't directly about that situation, although it's on my mind, and that's why I'm blogging it.  I don't have a great solution.  Rule the community with an iron fist, and at the first sign of trouble, bring out the ban hammer?  Let the community vote people off of the island?  Forget about it, and let people slam each other to death?

I'm not sure...but I'm open to suggestions...

Comments (7)

  1. Some Guy says:

    Oh, don’t be such a crybaby.  I ripped on Scoble when he was a mouthpiece for the Evil Empire, and I quit when he bailed for a startup.  Part of the price you pay for working for the Great Sweaty Chair-Tosser is that people are going to take cheap shots at you.  You’ll get the last laugh when you cash in those MSFT options.

    Oh, wait…   

    Well, sucks to be you, I guess!

  2. MSDN Archive says:

    Thanks for making my point.  đź™‚

  3. Peter Ritchie says:

    You know, I’ve thought about this type of situation for a while, and I really can’t come up with anything nice to say, so I’ve kept my peace.  I’ll agree, though, it’s disappointing.

  4. ReneeC says:

    This is from the moderator you lost. One of your questions struck me.

    "I have to say that I’m still more optimistic that Adam, but, we did lose our first moderator this week to flame wars.  This blog post isn’t directly about that situation, although it’s on my mind, and that’s why I’m blogging it.  I don’t have a great solution.  Rule the community with an iron fist, and at the first sign of trouble, bring out the ban hammer?  Let the community vote people off of the island?  Forget about it, and let people slam each other to death?

    I’m not sure…but I’m open to suggestions…"

    First of all a couple of these about social context. I come from a very different context which is the women’s community. We have our flames too and we don’t want to be divided by these behaviors. We work on " social context" something that men don’t usually attend to and something that women are accutely tuned into.

    We are opposed to top down rules and like to work on consensus. So we work on context. Implicit in social structures are "practices"

    1.) Non-judementalness

    2.) Ownership of our words like, "It is my perception that" or, "It is my feeling that….."

    3.) Boundaries. Boundaries means not impinging in someones elses space of affiars among other things.

    4.) We try not to patronize or to infantilize.

    5.) Non-dismissiveness

    6.) Active listening as opposed to ego talk.

    These would mean pretty significant changes in a predominately male culture, which brings us back to "inevitability". Yes, these conflicts are inevitable even in a women’s community if there is not attention paid to what I have briefly described above.

    Food for thought.  Silence and "topic control" is not the answer. That creates a tomb or robots, not a rewarding place to be.

    Actively striving toward resolution and being willing to self-examine and cooperate is a pretty simple solution, but this comes out of an acknolwedgement that  there are dynamics

    I realize I am an old feminist from way back and there aren’t many of us around. I can be counted on to confront issues TOWARD Resolution. I don’t foster egos or respond well when professional boundaries are violated or when there is infantalization. You can count on that.

    I posted this to suggest that there is another way of being.


  5. Mike Wachal [MSFT] says:

    I agree that there will never be a complete solution; unfortunately, some people will always feel the need to belittle others from behind their mask of anonymity. Jeers to those people, which leads to my first rule of civil discourse on the internet:

    1. Use your real name, at least for technical or business related forums.

    Save your gamer tags for the gamming forums, they just don’t belong in a technical or business forum. You wouldn’t call a support line and say "Hi, I’m Muffy the Mistress of Doom and I’m having a problem getting Excel to calculate Population Distributions." Why would you do it in an Online Forum about Excel?

    If you’re having a serious conversation, you should be serious about it. I find it difficult to answer questions about SQL Server when they come from Thundar the Barbarian. (Although I thought it was a great cartoon.)

    Corollary 1: At least sign your real first name to your posts, even if you e-mail/screen name is GolfStud@msn.com.

    Corollary 2: When responding to another post, start your post with a salutation:

    "Hi Bob, You should consider trying the Corbomite Maneuver."

    "Thanks Everyone, but I have a few more questions about Tranya."

    Just being polite,


  6. MSDN Archive says:

    Great comment–thanks.

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