Human Subspecies Identified: The Drive-By Critic
What prompts people to be ruder to one another online than they would ever be in person?
I pondered this question this week when, having suffered without a computer for most of the week, I noticed a bizarre pair of quick comments buried on my page. The first comment branded someone a “liar.” Since I haven’t had that particular experience with the person in question, that comment was easy enough to ignore, especially since it was left by someone I had never before encountered whose profile has now been deleted.
The second comment by that same person was a bit odd, even as far as odd comments go. It said: “Why dont you tell everyone how you said everyone on your list are loosers,unemployed bums and you are just having fun with them to see that they have no life and believe your bullshit stories,lies and how they are just a number. (Dont whisper ever a word to anyone Tom please I am just having fun with them but I dont care if they live or die as long as they keep me entertained).”
Since most of what I write isn’t personal and has nothing to do with real people, this was a strange statement to be directed at me. Obviously the person has no idea who I am or what my blog is all about. Even more obviously, it has never read my page. (I’ll settle on the pronoun “it” for this commenter, since assigning a “he” or “she” would humanize it beyond what it deserves.) I doubt that if it bothered to read my blog it would even understand it.
First of all, it should be aware that if there is drama on my page, it will be an outrageous fictional drama of my own making. Witness the recent Giant Cock/Baby Chick Paternity Scandal. Secondly, it should be aware that anyone on my friends list, or for that matter anyone on the friends list of one of my friends, who is suffering through a personal crisis will have my sympathy and support, never, ever my derision or insults.
Obviously the commenter was lost and thought it had found the page of someone who would get stirred up by its weird allegations. What’s so strange is that I cannot imagine anyone I don’t know coming up to me out of the blue and calling someone a liar. Nor can I imagine anyone spreading gratuitous untruths just for kicks in real life. Why does this happen here?
So I am led back to my original question, prompted by this commenter’s bizarre antisocial behavior: What prompts people to be ruder to one another online than they would ever be in person?
I read a column in the April issue of Discover, one of very few publications I’ll actually pay money for. The columnist, Jaron Lanier, suggested that online nastiness is the product of easy, “drive-by” anonymity. When the commenter can create a quick and disposable ID, more hostile comments are left. Where more information must be given, and the ID creation-process is a little more cumbersome, fewer hostile comments seem to be the rule.
For instance, on sites like Slashdot, where a new ID can be created for each comment without providing much information to the host site, people get indescribably nasty with one another. The same holds true for some of the edit wars hosted by Wikipedia. On the other hand, players on World of Warcraft rarely encounter such boorish behavior. One reason for the politeness of the WOW site might be that the penalties for such conduct result in the person being banned from the game.
Lanier proposed several different considerations as to why online behavior can be either good or bad. Demographics of the users and the times of day that the users in question tend to visit the site to leave their comments were two considerations he named. I would add something else to his list: topic. If the blog or article contains a personal topic, then personal comments are made and sometimes those comments are personally insulting.
You can see it right here on Yahoo 360, probably among people on your own friends lists. People who have the “diary” blogs, the ones who talk about their personal lives and their trials and tribulations, often seem to be the ones whose blogs attract insults and “drama” from perfect strangers. There are people who allow the public, or even friends of their own friends, to view their blogs even when highly personal matters are addressed. Mental illness, chronic physical illness, dealing with family members who have substance abuse issues, and the crises that necessarily go along with such things are fodder for judgmental people. And so many judgmental people love to cast those stones at the ones they see making decisions they wouldn’t make given their arm-chair quarterbacking of someone else’s life.
How can we truly claim that someone who is living with a dealing with a mentally ill family member, and coping the best they can, is making bad decisions? Even if we read their blog every day we don’t have the whole story. We don’t have the nuances of interpersonal interactions, or even a vivid description of what the caretaker is dealing with on a day-to-day basis. What about the person who is writing about her fibromyalgia? Who among us can really say to her, “Quit complaining. It can’t be that bad,” when we really don’t know what it feel like to be her? And what about the mother who is dealing with the drug-addicted son who is stealing from her, beating her, and otherwise abusing her? Can we really tell her she is stupid not to call the police when we don’t know how long the police will hold that abusive adult child or whether he has access to a gun and will use it against her?
I am aware of blogs whose authors write about extramarital affairs they have, or who write about overtly sexual matters. They provide gossip to others about themselves and even about other people. Their soap opera of life is right here for anyone to read and comment upon. Some of them claim to eschew “drama,” but they seem invite that drama in the same breath. Do we blame anyone for jumping on that melodramatic bandwagon? I don’t think too much of the people who either pass judgment on these writers or who attack them.
“Sexy” writers of a different sort post fun little contests and laugh about sexy things. They intend nothing but smiles and jokes, but what they say occasionally offends other people. I’m aware of a couple of women who have sexy pictures posted (not of themselves, but of models) and who intentionally keep things light in their blogs with those fun little quizzes and contests. They have been attacked by hyper-religious or judgmental people who threaten them personally and viciously. Do they deserve this kind of treatment? No.
Then there are the bloggers who are not who they seem to be. Whether one person has multiple IDs and different pages where they post different blogs, or whether they have just the one page but pretend to be someone they aren’t, they are masquerading. When they are unmasked, some among us feel righteous and triumphant. Others feel betrayed. Occasionally the “victims” of this duplicity feel a need to strike back. I have seen multiple blogs suddenly disappear because their owner(s) felt persecuted.
The bottom line is that no one deserves rudeness. No one, even if they seem to invite criticism, should be judged by anyone else. The evil pettiness in our human natures that tempts us to throw stones at someone else’s glass tower is our undoing. No one, ever, deserves our enmity. If we don’t like what someone says in his or her blog, the best way to handle it is not to clash with it head on, but to pointedly ignore it. It’s none of our business, anyway.
There are exceptions to the “ignore it if you disagree” rule. Debating issues is one of them. I like it when people disagree with me and explain why. The key word here is “debate” – labeling someone as “stupid” or lumping in them with an ill-defined “you all” isn’t debate. It’s insult. There should be no place for it here. Articulating an opposing point of view is not offensive. Assuming someone is “liberal” or “Republican” or “fundamentalist” because of their views is. Name-calling is not debate. If a commenter says they disagree with me because they “feel sorry for my shortsightedness” then they can go their merry way to hell, and please never darken the door of my page again. They have given me no reason to listen to them at all.
Yahoo 360 is a place where we should all feel free to create and recreate ourselves as we see fit. We can be anything we want to be. We might decide to be a pirate, a lion-tamer, a virgin, a debutante, a musician, a model, a Wench of Aramink. We can be anything we want to be. Where else is such a flight of fancy possible? Where else can we live out a dream and not hurt anyone?
By the way, in case anyone’s not sure, I probably don’t really qualify to be a wench. I’m too old. Who ever heard of a wench with gray hair at her temples? And my name isn’t Aramink. Aramink is a place. Gasp. Don’t hate me because I’m such a bald-faced liar. Embrace me, and admit that occasionally you decide not to post unflattering pics of yourself in your blog, too. I promise not to be critical as long as you’re polite. And I promise lively debate where it’s appropriate.