The Frontal Cortex

Internet Manners

Now that the broken windows theory of crime has been experimentally validated – disorderly streets really do make people more likely to steal – Jason Kottke wonders if the theory also applies to online spaces:

Much of the tone of discourse online is governed by the level of moderation and to what extent people are encouraged to “own” their words. When forums, message boards, and blog comment threads with more than a handful of participants are unmoderated, bad behavior follows. The appearance of one troll encourages others. Undeleted hateful or ad hominem comments are an indication that that sort of thing is allowable behavior and encourages more of the same. Those commenters who are normally respectable participants are emboldened by the uptick in bad behavior and misbehave themselves. More likely, they’re discouraged from helping with the community moderation process of keeping their peers in line with social pressure. Or they stop visiting the site altogether.

Unchecked comment spam signals that the owner/moderator of the forum or blog isn’t paying attention, stimulating further improper conduct. Anonymity provides commenters with immunity from being associated with their speech and actions, making the whole situation worse…how does the community punish or police someone they don’t know? Very quickly, the situation is out of control and your message board is the online equivalent of South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, inhabited by roving gangs armed with hate speech, fueled by the need for attention, making things difficult for those who wish to carry on useful conversations.

But what about a site’s physical appearance? Does the aesthetic appearance of a blog affect what’s written by the site’s commenters? My sense is that the establishment of social norms through moderation, both by site owners and by the community itself, has much more of an impact on the behavior of commenters than the visual design of a site but aesthetics does factor in somewhat. Perhaps the poor application of a default MT or WordPress template signals a lack of care or attention on the part of the blog’s owner, leading readers to think they can get away with something. Poorly designed advertising or too many ads littered about a site could result in readers feeling disrespected and less likely to participate civilly or respond to moderation. Messageboard software is routinely ugly; does that contribute to the often uncivil tone found on web forums?

My sense is that Jason is right: messy, haphazard sites send an implicit message to commenters. I’d also argue, though, that there’s a proliferation of rudeness online because the form of interaction is inherently more impersonal. It’s now become clear that many of our moral intuitions are rooted in emotional reactions to the emotions of others. In other words, you’re nice to people because you know that if you’re not nice then you’ll make them sad, and their sad face will make you sad. This emotional cycle, of course, depends in large part on body language and facial expressions and the fusiform gyrus and mirror neurons and all the rest. The human brain evolved to socialize in person.

However, when we interact online, all those normal moral instincts are tweaked. There are no live faces, just anonymous signatures. And so it’s easy to forget that the other person is actually a person, full of emotions and feelings, and not just a big fat ignorant idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about and is completely wrong about everything.


  1. #1 Kelly
    December 1, 2008

    I have to disagree with the generalization. I have been a member of a rather interesting experiment in yahoo groups. We have only one formal rule and that is no one can threaten physical violence. Otherwise, anything goes. Even though the group is pretty freewheeling, it developed its own norms pretty quickly. For example, enough people have bsometers that people are called to task for making allegations w/o any evidence. Sloppy thinking is called to task.
    Trolls are quickly identified and either “played with” or ignored. By making sport of the trolls, it really is an inhospitable place for a more casual troll. If not ignored, they are played along till they hang themselves with nonsense. Or they get ripped up one side and down the other with basic logic. They are generally guilty of violating logical fallacies and throwing out statements w/o evidence. Some have been shocked to find they won’t get any automatic sympathy because so and so threw me off the email list so they are mean. The general attitude is…tell us what happened and we will judge for ourselves if so and so is mean. Really — there is a social science study in this for someone somewhere :)

  2. #2 Anath
    December 1, 2008

    Interestingly, I’ve also notice the opposite of the first paragraph to be true. The more strict the mods are, the worse the behavior overall. People seem to resent strict moderation, and eventually give up “being good” as they begin to disagree with the moderator’s decisions. The best boards (behavior wise) I have been part of have been very loosely moderated, where the moderator is not above joking around and instead simply discourages the hateful/ad hominem instead of outright deleting the comments. Generally in these forums there tends to be greater peer pressure than moderator-pressure, as the group looks down on the hateful bigots as childish and spoiling the fun.

    I have noticed also that it is far more effective to allow a certain amount of trolling and to “slay” the trolls rather than to simply delete their comments. When new members enter looking to troll, and see a history of “slain” trolls, it seems that discourages them from the start. One particular message board I belong to has never actually banned anyone, and has the lowest troll rate.

    Additionally, sometimes “trolls” aren’t ACTUALLY trolls, they really are misinformed or ignorant in some way, and we have set some potential trolls right before, and seen a dramatic turnaround in their behavior. The problems we have seen in flat out deleting their comments come from cases like this, where you can not always tell who is and is not a troll. People can get isolated and angry very quickly…

    However, I agree with this totally: “And so it’s easy to forget that the other person is actually a person, full of emotions and feelings, and not just a big fat ignorant idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about and is completely wrong about everything.”

  3. #3 Brian X
    December 1, 2008

    If it’s already wrecked, people will be drawn to wreck it further. There’s any number of abandoned shopping carts that wound up in a schoolyard in Cambridge, MA that will serve as evidence.

  4. #4 Anibal
    December 2, 2008

    It is interesting what you say in the last paragraph.

    Internet as a medium, or whatever artifical device that connect people in order to communicate, is a quirk to our evolve mechanisms for social interaction “in situ” face-to-face.

    Andrew Meltzoff´s experiments (Meltzoff, A. N. (1995). Understanding the intentions of others: Re-enactment of intended acts by 18-month -old children. Developmental Psychology, 31, 838-850) point to the fact that young todllers cannot atribute intentionality to mechanical pincers (with the same kinematics as humand hands trying to separate something)as they do to human hands trying to separate something.

    In this sense, internet is a medium where the normal theory of mind mechanism is disrupted and there is more probability to les empathic behaviour and antisocial manners.

  5. #5 Greg
    December 2, 2008

    It would seem that the broken windows theory of crime could also be applied to internet piracy. Try looking up ‘tv show season 1 episode 2′ and most of the results are for various torrent sites. However the grand theft has the added benefit that although you likely are being watched (thanks google) being alone in a room allows you to perceive the act as an unseen crime.

  6. #6 Herbal Amanda
    December 3, 2008

    Hmmm maybe we should post a sad picture of ourselves whenever someone says something disparaging in the comments section about us so that they have to respond to facial expressions. Liekwise post a happy smiling you when the comments make you happy :) Hey it could work…

  7. #7 Sean McCaughan
    December 15, 2008

    “Now that the broken windows theory of crime has been experimentally validated” – This was proposed in Levitt and Dubner’s FREAKONOMICS, wasn’t it? I’m really curious for your opinion on that book. I’ve been reading your blog, and I’m rather amazed (although not really surprised) with parallels I see between what neuroscience is discovering about human behavior and the economic conclusions of Freakonomics.

    Neuroscience=Economics of the brain?

  8. #8 mietwagen
    March 12, 2009

    Sehr gute Seite. Ich habe es zu den Favoriten.