Can someone let me know…


…what about being online turns otherwise decent human beings into total assholes*?

(And I’m not excluding myself on that one.)

* (To paraphrase Phil Schwarz, I have to use the technical term here in the interests of precision. :-P )

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

27 responses »

  1. There could be a whole variety of factors, all of which are dependant upon the individual, the circumstance that the “arsehole -like” behaviour has stemmed from and, I think to a large extent, there does often arise the belief that you are “safe” behind a computer screen and thus, when feeling particularly enraged about something, sometimes people resort to methods that they wouldn’t use in real life. To some extent the other posters become depersonalised, reduced to words on a screen and thus the poster who is being an arsehole concludes that they cannot be responsible for any bad feelings about the situation that words on a screen has.
    Different interpretations of meanings and context is everything, of course. It is all to easy to get into an argument with something because you (not you personally ballastexistenz, I meant “you” to refer to anyone reading this post) misinterprets what the other person is trying to say, or what their intentions are.
    In any large community there is always, understandably, going to be a difference of opinion, we are not all clones incapable of independant views and perspectives. However, having a frank opinion about something can sometimes sway over into abuse and anger and the triggers for those may not necessarily have owt to do with the topics being discussed, but the topics being discussed can act as a trigger, through no fault of the topic.

  2. 1)we don’t have the advantage of real time tactics when we are conversing. So, we don’t clarify what we are hearing.
    “A + B = C”
    “what do you mean by that?
    “Oh, I see your point”

    Instead, someone online makes a point and then someone else either agrees with them or disagrees. A lot of times people argue semantics or tone, the latter is nearly indecipherable online. Things that are quickly explained in real life (or real time chat) don’t escalate so quickly or are smoothed over completely.

    2)Offline, people only deal with those that they choose. You hear someone saying something you disagree with, you’ll likely ignore the whole conversation. Or if you are having an unpleasant conversation, you might just walk away. You might even put the discussion/argument on hold.
    a)face to face confrontation is threatening for safety reasons, social consequences and many of us have speech and language deficits preventing effective debating skills.

    b)online we encounter opinions we might otherwise ignore. Sometimes people we wouldn’t ever welcome near us approach us on our blogs, forums, email etc. We are almost forced to deal with drastically different opinions and styles of conversation all the time.

    c)Most people aren’t equipped to hold conversations that include logical argument, deductive reasoning and objectivity. People regularly dismiss those tactics in online conversation and even use it against those of us that try. This happens offline too, but I think we are able to judge when it’s okay to engage someone else.

    I don’t know. I’ve certainly lost my cool enough times. I’ve also been attacked personally by people who don’t know me at all. I really don’t like people jumping from misunderstandings to character assassination. But fighting against it is futile.

  3. The internet is anonymous, it is safe. Behaviours that would normally be considered arsehole-type-behaviours and would never be shown towards a person in real life become an option because the person on the receiving end only appears as a screen name and becomes, as bullet says, depersonalised.

    Through it’s half-fictional nature, behaviours that would never be considered an option become an option online simply because virtual realities also serve as a playground for trying out new things, new character traits and strategies of behaviour for many users.

    I think. Or maybe it is because everybody is an asshole somewhere deep, deep down and the internet is the place to show it.

  4. If anyone else could figure this out, I, too, would be very, very grateful.

    (I’ve only dealt with a marginally larger amount of it than usual lately, but those marginal amounts sometimes get me reflecting on past instances of it that I’ve seen.)

    And yeah, certainly, we’ve been total assholes online before. The only motives we’ve really been able to discern for ourselves are 1) anonymity, the ability to say what you really want on a certain issue and then turn around and run after you’ve gotten it out, without being punished for it;

    2) feeling suddenly powerful after the realization that online, we could communicate on the same level as other people, instead of being the ones at a disadvantage when it came to verbal interactions, and doing kind of a combination of power-tripping on it/abusing it out of anger at the world for all the years when we couldn’t fight back very much and were just “the retard”/aggressively debating with others in order to prove that we were not “the retard.” (This applied to us a lot more when we first got online than it does now– we’ve been online long enough to be aware now that lack of power in the past does not justify abuse of it online or anywhere else, that some arguments are not worth getting into or worth continuing, and that yes, words do affect other people. I’m not sure if this one would apply so much to people who didn’t have difficulty with spoken communication before getting online, although more people could stand to realize the three things I just mentioned.)

    3) fear– being in a situation where everyone else around us, or the people whom everyone was following, was being a total asshole (again, to use the technical term) and we thought we had to, also, as a kind of self-defense and/or to ensure that no one would turn on us. (And yeah– we’ve followed group behaviors before, even when we knew we were doing so. We’ve definitely heard plenty of howling about how autistics simply don’t have the capacity to do this, but actually, we were both doing it and were aware of what we were doing. Along with a lot of other traits/behaviors which other autistics have glorified their supposed lack-of/inability to do.)

  5. One of my favorite books when I was a kid had some words about this. The main character, who tended to get bullied, met this very sort of wise and mystical kid who always wore mirrored sunglasses. The mystical kid lent the sunglasses to the main character to help him stop getting beat up. The sunglasses worked because when the bully started punching you, he saw himself in the reflection and had to stop because he didn’t like watching himself do such a mean thing.

    I’m not sure what this has to do with this post or anything going on, it’s just a favorite anecdote of mine.

  6. “everybody is an asshole somewhere deep, deep down” – in general i think this is true, although of course some have more or less tendency overall and in certain situations.

    for me, i tend to do that MORE in face2face life than in online… perhaps, out of some misguided idea that by being in writing, the online stuff is recorded for posterity. as if real life were not full or witnesses, up to and including God?!

    there CAN be some longer thinking time in online writing, but it can also be exhilarating (often in a bad way) to write that impulsive mail or post and then hit SEND.

  7. Somebody once said to me [more or less] “this medium is virtually designed to incite abuse.”

    I suppose the asyncronous but fast nature of it lets people get maximally worked up — Sort of like having to listen to a long monologue where you disagee at sentence #2, but can’t stop to discuss it at that point, so you have to hear points 3-17 which you might also disagree with before you get to say (write) anything back. And the fast nature lets people reply quickly — when they’re still acutely angry and/or feeling hurt or defensive. And then those messages go out and the cycle repeats and maybe also gets hotter.

    And, if there’s a numbers imbalance, a few people might end up having 18 of critics demanding answers right away. Even worse, supporters of the person in the majority can pile up exponentially faster than those of the person in the minority. (BTW, I don’t necessarily mean “autistics=minority” here, although it is a fact that there are relatively few autistics online compared to parents and others.)

    To stick my neck out probably foolishly, the above is part of why I think that autistic leadership (as I understand Larry to be saying) is uncompromisingly necessary. It’s so easy for autistic voices to get drowned out or even shouted down by the sheer difference in numbers. I saw it happen on the St. John’s listserver many years ago — every autistic burned out and left. I don’t think it was but for the malice of a minority of parents, but even a minority among them would always outnumber and overwhelm the autistics.

    There is no possiblity of equal representation that way. And I don’t think it’s any more possible for me to imagine raising a kid (autistic or not), than it will for non-autistic folk to imagine living in this world autistic (not that that’s not a monolithic thing). But if the representation is supposed to be about autistics, and not parents of autistics, then autistics have to lead it. I.e. I think straight people can be allies to gay people, but not representatives.

    And if power is granted, even with the best of intentions, it will still have an unconcious clause that reads “unless we REALLY disagree, in which case the deal is off.” And revokable power (for any reason) is no power at all. I see this as similar to to the “Model Minority” thing, which I think is a foolish thing to believe in. To spare people a long explanation about that:

    [-> wondering if I just stuck my head in a fire]

  8. Oops, typo in my last comment:

    (not that that’s not a monolithic thing)”

    should read:

    (not that that’s a monolithic thing)

  9. I think there’s just as much total asshole behavior in real life, but it’s less visible because it is (usually) just a short conversation between two people. On the Internet, it’s greatly magnified because whenever someone acts like an asshole on a blog or forum, all the readers see it, others get offended and post comments or write their own angry posts, and what started out as one rude or careless statement easily can end up being a huge flamewar.

    To clear up any confusion… I wasn’t referring to you when I recently used the f-word on my blog.

  10. There’s this weird internet feedback phenomenon, which I will attempt to describe.

    A lot of blogs, particularly political blogs with a distinct point of view, get a collection of people who agree with the main blogger, and with each other for the most part. It’s pretty hard to get this off-line.

    The like-minded people gather, and compliment, approve of, and encourage each other’s statements. Some of this is good, particularly when it comes to talking about oppression, since it can make a huge difference to have someone say “I know it’s real. I understand it. I’ve seen it. They did that to me, too.”

    But then there’s the problem of people egging each other on, where it becomes a status-thing to be more radical, more impassioned, more extreme (you get this in off-line groups, too.) It’s a bit like the post on ortho-rexia you did, where in a group of vegans who only eat organic, the organic raw-food vegan can be the “purer” or “more dedicated” one. But online, it’s all what you say, and it’s much easier to expound a position than live it (I’m not really trying to go with the “everyone lies on the internet” line, which is an oversimplified generalization, but more about how honest or not, an identity constructed of words without outside reference is fundamentally more malleable than one tied to the real world.) And a it’s a lot easier to find and connect with the type of groups where this can happen online, because people divide up by interests.

    Another thing is the tendency to wonder what “those people” are thinking. Groups of like-minded people on the internet gather, and start speculating about how “those people” can not get it, or draw such fundamentally different conclusions. And the sort of explanations your side can come up with always feel more satisfying than the kind they offer. Because they think they’re logical, reasonable, and right. And it’s more appealing to attribute their opinions to their flaws than yours.

    So agreement gains status. Being more radical can gain status (although it depends on the community.) Offering explanations that show how those people who disagree only disagree because of their weaknesses or flaws gains status. Displays of cleverness gain status. And mockery can gain status, because even people who don’t normally like insults tend to at least tolerate insults that make them laugh. Throw in the whole oft-cited anonymous factor, and I think that’s a lot of the reason why so many people online are such assholes. Social games.

  11. I don’t have an answer to your question, but I too have experienced some very rude behaviour by way of the internet. It always upsets and hurts me, no matter how hard I try to be “thicker-skinned”.

  12. I think your speculation has backfired, basic pyschology should tell you that everyone thinks that everyone else is the arsehole and it is never them that is acting that way.

    I am glad to say I stand up for autistic rights off line as well and in no less a measure. Of course that makes me an arsehole to anyone who disagrees with that its part of the whole process isn’t it.

    The trick is of course to cease caring what people call you, but go on standing up for what you believe. If there is any lesson I have learnt from all this, it is for me to continue because never in the field of human endeavour have so many needed to learn a lesson from so few. (and them’s not even me own words entirely)

  13. bullet: “I fully accept that there have been times when I’ve behaved like a complete and total arsehole.”

    Don’t worry. JBJr does it as a matter of lifestyle.

  14. Teaching online, I would say its the anonymity. I never have trouble with students in live classes. I have too much of a presence in the classroom. Online, students seem to think its ok to cuss at me, make insulting remarks about me and each other, whine about how much work they have to do, complain that they have jobs/kids/broken cars/broken computers, and send me endless emails about how they have to have such-and-such a grade to transfer/avoid academic probation/avoid being kicked out of school/graduate. WTF? I mean, I’m still the professor- I can flunk you just a sfast online as I can in the live classroom. In fact, I can flunk you FASTER.

    Be nice to online teachers. They get grumpy if you aren’t.

  15. I don’t think that people are generally *more* arsehole-ish online than IRL; I mean, at least in my personal experience I’ve been bullied far more in realtime than I have in online discussions. But I have long been aware of the phenomenon of the flamewar, and of a particular kind of jerkiness that online communication seems to bring to the forefront.

    Various things factor in. There’s the anonymity aspect (in some cases), as well as the related distance aspect (basically, the fact that the people you are communicating with online aren’t necessarily near enough to you to threaten your safety in the basic physical sense). There’s also the fact that text is not the primary communicative mode for most people; I consider it to be my primary communicative mode, but I know that I’m not exactly typical in that regard.

    And on top of that, there’s also a weird thing where people seem to come to rather quick judgments about those they’ve encountered online. Not everyone does this, of course, but some (possibly many) do, and I think some of what comes out of that has to do with the thing where people tend to “fill in the spaces” between the various bits and pieces they happen to know about someone. Communication, even online and even when text is being used predominantly, is not just about using the right combination of words, it’s also a matter of temporality and familiarity. That is, sometimes in order to get to understand someone’s writing, you sort of need to get to know them as a person a bit. And that can happen through their writing, but it can’t really happen instantaneously.

    I also think that sometimes people have a sense of urgency associated with what they read online — as if, once they come across something that bothers or offends them, they need to address it immediately.

    While sometimes this can be done (and sometimes it should be done, especially if the matter at hand could affect people’s safety), for the most part I think that the rapid-fire comment fests that first occur in response to a piece of “inflammatory” writing (whether it actually was INTENDED to “inflame” isn’t the point, the point here is what kind of reaction it ends up getting) don’t necessarily represent people’s most well-thought-out responses. There’s a lot of emotion that tends to dominate, and when people are feeling hurt or insecure they can have a tendency to lash out. And of course some people are just jerky for whatever reason, but I’ve found that the vast majority of online arguments seem to be based in misunderstandings and unbridled emotion. I think most people are capable of being assholian if they feel sufficiently backed into a corner, and in fast-paced online discussions, there are a lot of corners to be backed into.

  16. something we were talking about in SL, sometimes what makes a person be a jerk online is the same as what makes them be a jerk offline: they have some other stuff going on that is making them upset and it spills over or makes overreactions way easier. happens all the time to me. sure it happens to others.

  17. And revokable power (for any reason) is no power at all. I see this as similar to to the “Model Minority” thing, which I think is a foolish thing to believe in.

    Makoto –> Dangerous to believe in the idea of “model minorities”? Yeah, in fact, the danger inherent in being thought of as a model minority and the whole concept of one is why I find “activism” like Temple Grandin’s to be abhorrent, and in general any other kind of autistic “activism” which starts from the premise of “high-functioning aspies good, low-functioning auties bad.” It defines your worth as a member of a certain group to consist in how you can serve the the dominant class and the existing system. Us high-functioning aspies are good because we’re all highly logical scientific geniuses, and XYZ famous scientists/historical figures were aspies too and all the great scientific achievements of civilization wouldn’t exist if not for aspies– so don’t get rid of us, really, we’re serving you non-autistics! Our existence is good because it gives things to you. But it’s okay to get rid of the low-functioning ones because they’re not giving anything back to you as payment for your letting them exist in this your society. Don’t worry, this has nothing to do with our having the right to exist for ourselves as ourselves or anything silly or wasteful like that. It’s all about what we can give you.

    …and that in a nutshell is my problem with that whole approach. (And the whole “you achieve great things that help the dominant society!” thing can also be applied to Asians or Jews or any other group that’s been defined as a model minority too; and in every case it also requires that group to only be given a pretense of having any power.) And it is scary to me how many people call themselves autistic self-advocates while trying to sell themselves with the “aspie model minority” myth.

  18. That otherwise decent people turn into assholes when online suprises me, because online communication gives time for people to reflect and consider what they are typing, unlike face to face communication in real life.

    Online communication is like a combination of the pre internet methods of the diary and the letter. People kept diaries in which they expressed their inner assholeness, but usually these were seen only by the writer themselves. Very few have survived and been published, and assholeness is regarded as the diary writer being their own waspish and bitchy self, which is all the more interesting if the targets of their comments have acquired at least some degree of fame.

    There is always a time interval, which may be several hours or more, between a letter being written, put in an envelope and posted, which gives plenty of time for the writer to reconsider what they have written.

  19. Maybe this isn’t the place to say this.

    And I don’t want this comment to be construed as evidence of my taking a position on this controversy. (I do have an opinion; hopefully I can blog on it if I can get over whatever seems to have been blocking me for the past couple of months).

    Part of advocacy is to be steadfast in the face of opposition. But wisdom like this becomes a platitude when applied carelessly or to an extreme.

    True wisdom is in learning how to balance the extremes. And sometimes, it’s wise to listen to what others are saying.

    Larry, you don’t need to learn the lesson of “not caring what people call you.” It’s a skill you’ve appeared to have mastered.

    You need to listen to what A LOT of people are saying about you. Try to learn something from it.

    Get over yourself, Larry. Just get over yourself.

  20. While I’m still worked up….

    I truly do respect Larry, and I value his input in this community. To paraphrase something Amanda said, my saying something indicates that I care.

    And I know he’s been through some dark times, recently in fact. And I know it can’t be easy. I just wish he would stop alienating the people who can help him the most.

    What should have been an enlightening discussion about the Hub has become a clash of egos; what should have been about the issue is now about personalities.

    This is due, in no small part, to Larry’s apparent carelessness. I don’t hold him solely responsible for this; others have joined in with careless inflammatory remarks. The difference is that on Larry’s part, the carelessness is characteristic. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, and I don’t mean it as a condemnation.

    I just wish he’d drop the damn defense, and let in something good, because this community has a lot of good to offer.

  21. Ah, there is something to be said about people turning into “assholes”, or more specifically, people that seem more likely to get involved in heated debates and resort to verbal aggression… This is well researched in computer-mediated communication. This happens in contexts where individuals are less known, and the social details of the people involved are not salient. In these situations (including some non-CMC contexts), people tend to self-stereotype. Self-stereotyping causes people to become more dogmatic, and less willing to consider opposing points of view. Self-stereotyping also pressures people to evaluate differing opinions as automatically wrong. This is unfortunate, because many people in our lives only appear on the Internet, and the tendency of people to self-stereotype discounts the value that an opinion ployglot offers.

    Decreasing anonymity only helps remedy the problem of the “asshole” indirectly. The important variable is whether a conversant’s identity is salient. For example, if the people involved know each others’ sexes, this will help decrease the tendency of individuals to self-stereotype. Of course, there are a lot of parts of a person’s identity, and an identity is never completely transparent. This is why there are still indications of self-stereotyping in many more immediate forms of communication, such as face-to-face conversations or written correspondences where the conversants know the names of the people they are communicating with. When I speak with a person, there are many things that I do not know about him/her, besides his/her name and location, which affects what I think about that person.

  22. I find personally that I get worse in offline arguments. There are several reasons for this:
    a) online, I feel much less time pressure. Since I’ve had many experiences with verbal abuse where they leave me no chance to reply, this is a big thing for me. I don’t feel like if I don’t immediately jump in no one will hear me.
    b) it’s easier to keep track of what they’re saying and what I’ve said. When I’m upset, I tend to process things mainly in terms of emotional meaning, such as interpreting a phrase simply as ‘insult’ with no comprehension of the actual words. But written words stay there, I can quote the person, reread as need be, etc, thereby giving myself a chance to use actual evidence to back up an objection to what someone else is saying.
    c) I know they can’t hurt me. This is the biggest one. I often feel, in offline arguments, like I’m being overwhelmed by the person’s threatening presence and I must fight vigilantly with my mind and be on constant guard for the next way they will attack me. The only time I came remotely close to feeling that way online is when watching Autism Every Day (which, as a video, has much greater presence and more time pressure than text).

  23. A number of theories are floating around on this blog entry.

    I don’t agree with the last bit of this comment in the least, but the analysis seems like it might be right.

    The really weird thing I’ve been made aware of lately is someone in my friend’s hierarchy at work, her “grand-boss”, if you will, who just is incredibly uncivil and practically screaming at everyone in e-mail, and in person, she’s gentle and soft-spoken. (I would be a lot more careful in my work e-mail; the rule of thumb for that would be, never put in an e-mail anything you wouldn’t want read aloud in a court of law. Then again, not enough people have had their e-mails subpoenaed to really grok that one.)

  24. Julia, thanks for the link to that thread on internet arguments.

    I also thought that comment #30 in that thread (if you disregard the first and last paragraph) was a particularly good analysis of why flame wars seem so common on the Internet.

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