Bad online behavior is nothing new — not the threats, not the stalking, not the bullying, not the ALL-CAPS vitriol, not the creepiness, not even the poor spelling, warped grammar and out-and-out malapropisms with which it is often expressed. Sometimes it seems that the Internet was custom made for social misfits to sit at home in their underwear, drinking beer and attacking others.
And all too often their behavior descends to the level of what used to be called a flame war. Well, I thought that term was obsolete, but I guess not, so here’s a definition (found online, natch): “A flame war is an unpleasant online exchange of verbal attacks and hostile insults. Flame wars take place in online comment threads, on people’s Facebook walls and in discussion forums.”
Sounds about right — although that doesn’t explain the “why” of it, which seems to come down to human nature: When people can say things from behind a screen of anonymity, certain heroic souls always take that as a license to abuse. No wonder some media (YouTube and The Huffington Post among them, according to published reports) are cutting down on anonymity.
While it probably makes sense that people would get all worked up about politics — especially about the kind of hot-button, blue-state-vs.-red-state issues that seem to dominate public debate these days, such as Obamacare, or the government shutdown, or gun control — I’ve been surprised to find little flame wars in progress even on sites where you’d expect nothing of the sort. One site I occasionally visit (it’s one of those hometown-nostalgia sites, of which there are so many out there) had a big kerfuffle going on not long ago, and it got so bad that the administrator had to step in and break it up. Believe it or not, the issue was whether the site should be limited to people from within the city limits, or whether folks from surrounding towns should also be allowed to post, and it took a vote of the site membership to settle the question.
There are sites for people with a special interest (for example, sites for fans of certain automobiles that are no longer in production) that also somehow fall into nasty flame wars. Then there was General Mills, having to shut down comments after a barrage of racist comments attacking a Cheerios commercial. And now I see that Popular Science has had to ban comments as well.
Science! Cheerios! Is nothing sacred? Is there nothing that people can’t get into a vicious tiff over?
And then there are Facebook sites that were started by one person and grew to include lots of new users, who eventually kicked out the founder. And we also hear in the news about sad cases of young people who’ve been cyberbullied, sometimes to the point of suicide.
Can’t we all just get along? Apparently not. Are we, as a species, really this savage and hostile? Apparently so.
The great thing about the Internet is that it brings the world — all the cultures of our planet, all the wisdom of the ages and more facts than you can shake a stick at — right into our homes.
It brings like-minded people together, whether their common interest be political, scientific, artistic, literary, nostalgic, historical, commercial — you name it.
Trouble is, it also brings out the creeps and the crackpots — people we’d cross the street to avoid (and with good reason) if ever we ran into them in real life. Weirdos. People like this are why we lock our doors at night. But they get in anyway, through a little wire.
And we pay for that wire.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.