“The Rise of Online Hostility”

I wonder… when did it become an apparently accepted online norm to try to silence people by insulting, intimidating and attacking them through aggressive online behavior? When did such actions against individuals too frequently become the reaction of choice instead of engaging in spirited debate and passionate dissent? And when exactly did the rest of us agree to stand by, often turning a blind eye, and allow this to happen, instead of speaking out in vehement protest and demanding a cultural change?

Read the post here

Comments

  1. #1 Albatross
    December 20, 2009

    If I recall correctly, having been doing this stuff since the Carter Administration, the answer to your question is “About fifteen minutes after discussion forums were invented.”

  2. #2 Jody
    December 20, 2009

    I’ve often wondered if the lack of on-line civility is part of the same process that turns otherwise decent folks into assholes when they get behind the wheel of a car.

    Since we have these big brains do to the demands of social interaction, is it possible that since we can’t see who we’re interacting with that the “social niceness” parts of our cerebellum never really engage?

    Or are we all just simply jerks? Well, everyone but me. I’m wonderful. And if you don’t agree, I’ll insult the hell out of you, because I don’t even know who you are.

  3. #3 george.w
    December 20, 2009

    There used to be a guy who’d come to my blog and say of everyone; “Well here’s a bunch of people from the low end of the gene pool” because he didn’t agree with a point someone made on politics or data security or road safety or whatever. He had lots of insults and the topic didn’t matter. He even went to one of my readers’ blogs and insulted her autistic son. So I called him out on it and he got all huffy and said he’d never be back.

    Usually, such promises are empty but he kept his promise. It’s the one thing he ever did that I really appreciated. But I could never figure out why he acted the way he did.

  4. #4 Lyle
    December 20, 2009

    Actually this is old time. Look at the beating of Sen Sumner in 1856 over the whole set of issues that lead to the Civil War. Back then broadsheets called politicians every name in the book. Today because people can post opinions without ever facing the person they are speaking to you are back to that mode. (For example Sam Houston was a drunard, and womanizer etc) Its the same spirit that allows wars to flourish if the other side is an unknown person it is easy to demonize the person. If you know the person, it is harder to make them into a non person.

  5. #6 Annon
    December 20, 2009

    When it is appropriate to turn on comment moderation?

  6. #7 Doug Alder
    December 21, 2009

    Albatross – You’re too generous – it was more like five minutes after the first Usenet forum went live in 1980 :) (long before the Internet – it used UUCP – think Fidonet type BBS systems)

  7. #8 Lyle
    December 21, 2009

    To carry my comment a bit further, was watching a c-span discussion on a book about James K. Polk, and the author was asked is political discourse worse now than in the past? The answer was no, that political discourse was pretty bad in the past, and seems to vary in civility over time. This IMHO starts when basic assumptions differ, and people don’t want to make their assumptions visible.?

  8. #9 Lyle
    December 21, 2009

    To answer the question, yes Charles Sumner 1856. Search on senate beating and you will get a hit.

  9. #10 Laura
    December 21, 2009

    I know! I used to think, though, that it was so cut and dried. But sometimes, it is so hard just to moderate those comments that ride the line. It would be nice if people would play nice, but even I have a hard time with it sometimes. There are moments I don’t want to play nice, either! The Internet is anonymous and it’s easy to get carried away when you can’t read tone or body language, or don’t have a face to put with the name.

  10. #11 MadScientist
    December 21, 2009

    I’m with Albatross. How is it any different than living in a big city where everyone’s middle name is asshole?

  11. #12 KJHaxton
    December 21, 2009

    Well, for a start not all of us live in a big city in America, so we have no idea what the normal standard of behavior is like there. Which brings us to cultural differences in the perception of civility – in many incidents of incivility in the blogosphere, the insults are incomprehensible to a certain % of readers because they don’t belong to the culture that created them. We know we’re being insulted, we just can’t pin down the precise nature of the insult, and so struggle to respond. Civility is a useful tool in making the internet accessible to more people – science, politics, medicine – what ever the debate is, it is more accessible to a wider audience, who are more likely to engage when it doesn’t degrade into a offensive rabble.

  12. #13 Spiv
    December 21, 2009

    It was like that on BBSs, then on usenet stuff, then on forums. If I had to guess? People probably acted like assholes to each other over singing telegraph.

  13. #14 davem
    December 21, 2009

    Rudeness on the Internet? Have people forgotten harassing phone calls already? As long as people have communicated, they’ve been calling each other names. Only difference is that now, it can be anonymous, therefore even more cowardly.

  14. #15 Greg Laden
    December 21, 2009

    I think Minneapolis might count as a big city. Rudeness is not the rule. Where I lived for many years in South Minneapolis, the cultural norm is to greet people that you encountered on the sidewalk. On quiet streets, this is verbal (“Hi, nice day!” etc). On more crowded streets, a nod. On very crowded streets just eye contact. Which gets a little creepy, I admit.

    If by chance you are standing next to someone in a video rental store, it is normal to point to a movie and say “This is a good one” or to otherwise converse. Which is also creepy, I admit, but it is meant to be anti-rude.

  15. #16 Barn Owl
    December 21, 2009

    We know we’re being insulted, we just can’t pin down the precise nature of the insult, and so struggle to respond.

    I felt that way throughout my three years living in the UK (I’m from the southern US). I think people make a lot of assumptions about the intellect, motivation, character, activities, and education of others, based on superficialities, and that this tendency is magnified at least 10-fold on the internet. Elsewhere on this blog, I expressed the idea that these assumptions, in some people, arise from clinging to childlike egocentric and magical thinking practices. My comment was roundly ignored, so my internal response was “Meh”. Perhaps I should have been incivil?

    Incivility and smugness will get you a lot of attention on the internet … whether it’s “good” or “bad” attention doesn’t matter, maybe.

  16. #17 Stephanie Z
    December 21, 2009

    Barn Owl, I didn’t ignore it. I just didn’t have anything to say in response but, “Hmm.” I’m still thinking about it.

  17. #18 Greg Laden
    December 21, 2009

    I agree, Barn Owl, I think you are on to something.

    The presumption phenomenon is interesting. It can be induced experimentally, and thus studies.

    One way to induce it is to write a post about something you know a lot about but express some humility. For example, I could say “I don’t know much about Linux, but I think it is inherently more secure than Windows.”

    In fact, I know quite a bit about Linux, but I’m not a world class expert on it, and I know almost nothing about security. But, I can make an argument that is correct and rational as to why Linux is more secure than Windows XP. However, saying “I don’t know much about X but…” will elicit the Presumption of Limited Knowledge Reaction. I will look like this:

    “YOu yourself said you don’t know what you are talking about, so let me drive a nail into that coffin and explain, in overbearing and obnoxious terms, how totally fucking wrong you are about this, and I’ll point out that since you don’t know what you are talking about in this regard, NOTHING you say about anything can be trusted!!!11!!”

    I had not thought of this as related to magical thinking. I’d like to hear more about that.

    Maybe a guest post about it on Quiche Moraine.

  18. #19 Barn Owl
    December 21, 2009

    Reading your “Presumption of Limited Knowledge Reaction”, I almost laughed coffee all over my keyboard, as the example reminded me of someone. Bwahahaha!

    I think the limited knowledge/humility approach can be useful in the context of teaching, especially for a subject about which the instructor can’t possibly know everything, or which is outside the area of expertise. My training and research are ceertainly not in gross anatomy, but nevertheless I have to teach it several months out of the year. I might know the actual anatomy and embryology quite well, especially from a comparative vertebrate biology perspective, but there’s no way I can know most of the clinical aspects. Using the humility approach of “I don’t know all the clinical implications” is also a good way of including and validating the experiences of the senior med student TAs, who have completed their clinical rotations. They’re just beginning their clinical careers, but even so, they have more medical experience than I do, and I think it’s important to be honest about that with the freshmen in the anatomy lab.

  19. #20 Greg Laden
    December 21, 2009

    I agree but I recommend that you use a certain kind of wording which reduces the “if you don’t know this you don’t know shit” effect and works well in a teaching setting. Always use the word “we” and use it a few times in a way that clearly indicates you don’t think you are the queen of England.

  20. #21 Lou FCD
    December 21, 2009

    The basic underlying assumption here needs some examination. Define civility.

    I freely admit I can be and have been what is commonly referred to as “rude” or “uncivil”, both online and in person. I am not one bit ashamed of it, either.

    The problem as I see it whenever this discussion comes up is that the focus always ends up on tone or particular verbiage. I see this as too narrow. Taking Christian Fundamentalists as an example (since they are usually the target of my venom), is it really uncivil to give them a verbal spanking when they show up and “politely” declare that this country needs to be run according to their particular interpretation of their particular dusty old anthology?

    Is the implicit assumption that everyone who does not conform and submit to their authority is worthy of death and eternal torture not itself uncivil, regardless of their language choices? I find it rather personally insulting, and will respond without regard to “civility”. To do otherwise is to allow the cancer to metastasize, and give passive consent to its spread. History provides copious illustrations of what happens when that goes unchecked.

    What about the ignorant and/or lying creationist who pops up on a science oriented message board and declares that every biologist ever is wrong, that all those man-years of labor are in the service of deliberate deception? Is anyone honestly suggesting that my response to this should be civil?

    Sorry, there is a time and a place for incivility, and I won’t shy away from it when it’s dumped on my doorstep, my blog, my kids’ schools, or my Facebook page. Be a fucktard, get called a fucktard.

    Online, my blog and my Facebook page are extensions of my personal space, like my living room. The door is open to anyone, and everyone is welcome to come in and set a spell. No one, however, is allowed to shit on the carpet.

  21. #22 Barn Owl
    December 21, 2009

    but I recommend that you use a certain kind of wording which reduces the “if you don’t know this you don’t know shit” effect and works well in a teaching setting

    Yes, I try first to establish a track record of expertise in the basics, especially in the practical aspects of actually finding structures in the cadaver or drawing neuron pathways, before I start ‘fessing up to my clinical ignorance. Given the advanced age of most willed body donors when they die, inevitably we, the dissectors, will encounter pathologies and implants in the cadavers, for which I often have to say “I don’t know what that is, but let’s see if we can figure it out/find someone who might know.” To make something up in this context would be a huge mistake, but I suspect that people get away with it on the internet all the time.

  22. #23 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 21, 2009

    One way to induce it is to write a post about something you know a lot about but express some humility.

    That shit is fucking boring. It’s much more entertaining to write a post about something you don’t know jack shit about, but express extreme self-confidence in your opinion.

  23. #24 Paul D.
    December 21, 2009

    And you should know, CPP!

  24. #25 Comrade PhysioProf
    December 21, 2009

    And you should know, CPP!

    What the fuck would *you* know about it, dumbass?

  25. #26 Paul D.
    December 21, 2009

    I am an expert.

  26. #27 jane
    December 21, 2009

    Barn Owl wrote:

    “I think people make a lot of assumptions about the intellect, motivation, character, activities, and education of others, based on superficialities, and that this tendency is magnified at least 10-fold on the internet. Elsewhere on this blog, I expressed the idea that these assumptions, in some people, arise from clinging to childlike egocentric and magical thinking practices. My comment was roundly ignored…”

    Perhaps because your comment incorporated the exact same behavior that it meant to criticize, and your argument turned on itself and started eating its own tail, leaving readers trapped in an endless loop from which they could not escape to comment?

    Just sayin’.

  27. #28 Jim Thomerson
    December 21, 2009

    Some time back, someone on TV remarked, “The internet gives everyone the opportunity to be a jerk!” However, I do not think you have to leap at every opportunity which comes your way.