A phenomenology of online assholes: With practical tips

It is a well-known fact that online forums tend to produce bitter fights more often than in-person discussions do. Someone who would never dream of yelling and name-calling in person may easily become very combative online — and interestingly, this often happens in response to perceived offence from others, giving the combatant a feeling of aggrieved self-righteousness that renders all their invective totally justified.

Why is this so common in online forums? I’d contend that this problem is a direct result of the immediate experience of the internet. We all tend to experience the online space as an intimate and personal one. Everything there is somehow “for us” — and if it’s unwelcome, it’s an intrusion on us. (This is, by the way, why online advertising can never be as effective as traditional formats where ads were passively accepted as part of a pre-given package. That basic receptivity is lost on the internet, where every aspect of our experience is, at least ideally, freely chosen.)

Meanwhile, even as we are experiencing everything as taking place within our most intimate personal space, the personhood of the other is stripped down to bare text. What is important here is not simply that the face-to-face encounter that would constrain aggressive behavior is absent, but also that this text is an invasion of our personal space. If it’s too long, it’s an imposition. If it isn’t responding to our messages in a way we feel is appropriate, it’s aggressive or offensive.

When people have this gut reaction, it’s not necessarily because they’re bad people or impatient or overly touchy — it’s the inalienable structure of the internet experience as such. I don’t think people can control their gut reactions, or at least it takes a long time to change them. What they can do, however, is to become aware of those gut reactions and introduce some kind of lag time so that they are not responding out of those gut reactions. For some of us, that will mean working off aggression, while for others, some kind of self-esteem boost will be needed.

Hence I propose that if we feel angry or aggrieved by a blog post or comment, we should take a break and do some push-ups before responding. This is particularly elegant as it both works off pent-up energy and produces a sense of accomplishment — helping both classes of the wounded online narcissists we all unavoidably are. If we all resolve to do more push-ups and write fewer snap responses, I bet we’ll all add years to our life (or at least stop subtracting them) and we might occasionally be able to wring something good out of the crappy format we’re more or less stuck with here.

23 thoughts on “A phenomenology of online assholes: With practical tips

  1. The reader will please note the difference from standard theories that hold that there are more assholes “out there” on the internet, whether due to lack of social inhibitions or abuse of anonymity. Those things do undoubtedly happen, but they are not and cannot be the central problem — the problem is each and every one of us, with our wounded narcissistic pride.

  2. I hate push-ups and people who try to make me do them. However, for people in my situation, masturbation can be an effective substitute.

  3. I have a friend who would completely agree with your “phenomenoloigcal” analysis. After he published a piece in a well-known journal colleagues who disagreed with him were less than civil in their disagreement in online forums and blogs. I told him to tell them to put it in print or else shut the fuck up.He’s one of those people who can’t help but feed the trolls. To my mind, he’s a bit naive in thinking that many of these folk want to engage in a serious philosophical discussion. I stopped “doing philosophy online” when some random person started emailing me about my dissertation and some article I published. Soon his disagreement turned into rage and ad hominems a plenty came tumbling out in his rants. That was the end for me.

  4. I don’t know what it says about me, if anything, but I often find that attacks and invective directed at me personally by others on forums have a strangely palliative effect (Feel free to try it out!). It’s as though by virtue of having learned what made the other person “snap” or expose their affective investments they’ve disclosed something important about themselves and an essential part of the interaction – or deadlock – has been localized. Often better that way than when you’re dealing with more coy types where you never really know where they stand.

    Though I don’t think the scenarios you outline exhaust the range of possible types of aggression that one can encounter online, I take it that what you’re really interested in here is aggression of the ideological type, a polemical encounter over differences of Weltanschauung. And that raises the question of whether it’s really injured pride that’s at stake and not the fact of coming up against another person whose view of the world is a threat to my own, or even more, a person who recognizes in US a threat to their own view and tries to slime us accordingly.

  5. I wonder if a similar pattern is work at many academic conferences? Combative Q&A sessions are quite common, and I might guess they stem from a similar feeling that the speaker, if he/she says something the listener doesn’t like, finds irrelevant, misconstrues the listener’s work, etc., is invading the listener’s personal space. Unlike a journal article that can be ignored, the speaker is giving a talk in the questioner’s own “home” community, that the questioner had to sit through. Responding to that by asking a pointed or even outright hostile question in the Q&A seems a common response. A difference might be that personal amends are often (but not always) quickly made, at least superficially, in the coffee break immediately thereafter, while blog comments never adjourn for the coffee break.

  6. That’s a great insight — Q&A sessions suck because it sucks to sit and listen to a bunch of papers! All the more reason to adopt a pre-circulation/real conversation model.

  7. “Maybe later we can return to the topic of why so few women tend to comment here.”

    Because the biggest crime in Psychoanalytical history was attributing hysteria more or less exclusively to women, and I would argue that identifications which regulate sexuation and their circuits of jouissance are such that men are too quick to displace perceived personal (hysterical) slight onto thought creating an unwelcoming environment for those who do not play that game.

  8. Adam: Sorry for my slow reply (apparently update notifications not working for me any more). You’re right, I was conjecturing there a bit. I just meant that aggressive behavior online can take many forms, from stalking to threats of violence, etc., but when you refer to bitter fighting on online forums, that already narrows things down a bit. Discussion forums in particular, in contrast to say special-interest or “help” forums, etc., by definition lend themselves to encounters, which can become heated and disrespectful. Not that you don’t also hear of off-topic flame wars and cat fights erupting on more neutral (non-political) forums like car-repair sites or whatever, but my sense is that for sites like the ones people like us frequent, what’s at issue is mainly politics and ideology, so it’s always at least potentially oriented towards the polemical.

    James: your anecdote is interesting, seems to defy the idea that it’s mainly the anonymity that’s at the root of online aggression (I assume your interlocutor was emailing you under an actual name). I can’t remember which writer or site it was, but I was read recently that this writer had decided to stop taking comments altogether for his articles, so toxic were the slime fests always ensued among readers and between him and readers.

  9. Actually, I think the problem of women responding to this particular post isn’t because of references to masturbation or the crimes of psychoanalytic theory, but that they don’t respond to/write posts in general. (I know you have the occasional female participant, but citing us might be a bit like the old white liberal response of having a black friend.) In fact, across what we might want to loosely call the ‘continental philosophy’ blogosphere (sorry for the possibly abusive term, but I wanted to cast a wide net), you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of contributors (and I would guess readers) are young(ish) men. I know, I did a mini-survey one night. I was reading a particularly annoying piece of self-aggrandizing drivel from an OOO blog referred to (aggressively!) by AUFS, and began browsing through the posts and comments, then skipping from site to site across a large and impressively mutually-referential set of blogrolls. I don’t have exact figures for you, but I’d hazard that men make up about 95% of this blogging population. I must confess, as I clicked ‘n scanned from link to link, the term ‘circle-jerk’ sprang to mind… And in fact, if I’d been allowed to post comments on the site I’d started with that night, that’s exactly what I’d have said! (If it makes AUFS feel better, you and your blogroll are much less akin to the philosophical version of trainspotting than the OOO/OOPs lot, and considerably less obnoxious!) I really enjoy AUFS, and I haven’t stopped reading it just because it’s a bunch of guys talking to other guys. Still, it’s worth thinking about why this is such a male world.
    In response to Adam’s points then, I didn’t post a savage comment on the blog in question, because I couldn’t. Other times, I’ve been tempted to respond in a more serious fashion to serious blogs on AUFS, or even write one, but really, my general feeling is that it’d just take up time and energy that I guess I’d rather spend on other things. The only other time I’ve ever blogged on AUFS (or at all), was with a silly post on Adam’s sartorial adventures, which prompted a savage response from Chris, who clearly felt personally outraged by my attitude to plaid shirts and my Toronto area code. This does tend to support Adam’s theory. But still, I’m tempted to argue that the internet would make me less likely to act out my natural obnoxiousness and aggression, simply because the technology itself always requires one to pause, to take the time to type and proofread. In person, you just have to open your mouth. By the time I’ve blurted out the first obnoxious thing that comes into my head, it’s too late to edit. But that’s just me. To come back to the gender question, I think the reason women rarely post in the philosophy/pol theology blogosphere is the very strong sense it has of being a (sometimes willy-waving) boys club. That, and we’re way too busy doing other stuff…

  10. i actually used to spend a bit of time, wondering about the gender dynamics at work in the academic blogosphere. i’ll be perfectly honest: i have some machista tendencies that (at, say, the rare academic conference) i’ve failed to keep in check. i’m great at putting my foot in my mouth and kicking out a few teeth, while i’m at it. naturally impulsive, with too much to say. but i’ve definitely held back from weighing in on many debates – here on this very blog, even. part of it is an abstract and inflated desire to be a noble diplomat. part of it might be fear of a violent attack. but there’s also the *tone issue* that adam mentioned in his comments on alex’s post. i’ve been nervous that, because i’m a female, if i venture to make a critique, it will be taken as shrill. you know, the harpy phenomenon. i suppose there are probably other complicated factors at work, as well.

    another thing that i’ve pondered… is the genealogy of the blogosphere. it seems like eons ago, but i DO still remember the era when the only *appropriate* thing to do on the internet was to log into your AOL account and send emails to your BFF. i remember hearing about the *internet chat rooms* which sounded like frightening dens of iniquity. these were the forces that popularized internet interaction with strangers. if a young and vulnerable person were to wander into one of those things… she was sure to be spirited away within a fortnight to a terrible land from which she would never return. perhaps needless to say, i never visited one. but in my mind, i’m imagining them as places where you either forced yourself aggressively into the abstract interpersonal ether… or you hid in the shadows and became a slimy, pervy “troll.” i’m imagining that one would get what he/she was looking for based on how aggressive he/she was willing to be. unless he/she just wanted to peep. needless to say, things have changed. now we can all have totally meaningless and benign interactions with people and corporations we already know, on facebook. and i think it’s increasingly obvious that blogs are a potent force in academic life. the kinds of conversations they’re building are really quite nuanced. but thinking about the seedy ancestors of the blog does make me wonder what kinds of historical residues might be calcifying the form.

  11. how discouraging to read that Beatrice, clearly a woman after my own heart re impulsive kicking out of teeth etc, holds back on blogs for fear of violent attack or being thought of as ‘shrill’ or a ‘harpy’. that’s just the sort of thing that makes me kick really hard against the pricks. as it were.

  12. Ha, what an enticing title. I find writing as an exploratory process to be more helpful than hurtful. The beauty of the internet is that it’s actually slower paced. Even in chatrooms, you have a good thirty seconds to retype your reply several times before you come to the words you want to say. In real-time dialogue, you have many variables of communication that must be kept in check: your expression, your posture, your tone, your style of speaking, and your message. These are all things that stress me out in public situations, and it seems to me hard to have many meaningful conversations outside of the written word.

  13. Ruth and Beatrice, This is very interesting — this notion that women are less likely to jump into the fray because they anticipate that others will respond by projecting all kinds of things onto what they’ve said (such as harpiness). It sounds plausible to me, given that women are socialized to have greater awareness of social dynamics. (Of course, I’m sure some would read that and say, “You’re being hysterical — obviously we treat everyone like equals!”)

  14. Evgeni, My hope is that Facebook will eventually fade away, as people seem to be getting more and more dissatisfied with it. I was talking to a friend last night who felt that the whole promise of “social networking” software has been something of a farce and who planned to avoid it in the future. As I’ve written before, I never signed up in the first place, so I don’t know firsthand — but it does seem like people are starting to realize that Facebook isn’t actually enhancing their relationships and may even be hurting them.

  15. i would also second what ruth says about the [willy waving] boy’s club aura. i do think that this blog has been overt about its genuine desire to have more women participate (and has even written about feminist issues, linked to blogs like women in theology). but, given that the conversations are so often being framed and amplified by men… as a female outsider looking in, i think there’s this sense that to participate would merely mean becoming an honorary boy for a minute or two. or to raise a perspective that’s not really *necessary* for the environment. for the record, i don’t think that’s what i’m doing say… right now. but i think the feeling that this might be the case could be a barrier to entry. also, like ruth says: woman have waaay too many better things to do than comment on blog posts. like find something better to wear. haha.

  16. Your advice about waiting before posting, replying, or otherwise reacting to posts online parallels the lessons I learned in the Ur-days of email as a university administrator (before starting grad school). 1. Do not reply to email (or blog posts and comments) while seized by righteous, justice dealing rage—I would leave the To field blank to prevent “accidental” sends. 2. Do not send someone a message via the digital realm that you would not say to his/her face and want others to hear—I add the last part, because there were indeed times I would not have objected to less than polite conversation.

  17. Your entire article is outrageous, infamous, an imposition, aggressive and offense at the same time! It’s a violation! An intrusion! A personal affront!

  18. I’m another computer user from the text-only days, starting in the late 70s (as my kids say, “When Mum was young, when dinosaurs ruled the earth” ;) ) and I have the same preset: read/listen carefully, think, write, edit, re-read then eventually post in the assumption that you are standing on a dais and speaking in public. It has undoubtedly saved me from a number of foot-in-mouth episodes.

    *mumbles uncomfortably around toes*
    *removes foot from mouth*

    Yep, definitely easier without the foot in there. (Note: need to cut toenails. *wince*)

    This is my first time reading this blog (I came here from independent Australian news site Crikey). So, why am I commenting here, and not on any of the other news and views sites?

    I recently read an article about whether people set themselves to “transmit” or “receive” before attending meetings or participating online. The author felt that many people only saw the Internet, in particular, as an opportunity to transmit their message. Quite often, I’ve found in reading supposed discussions online, people are not willing to listen. They might as well have been automatically flashing billboards at each other across a highway.

    I don’t know if this is a predominantly female characteristic or not, but I prefer – even need – to be involved in a conversation. I am willing to listen, and put time and effort into doing so, and in return I appreciate people listening to me and to others. Here, you appear to be capable both of transmitting and receiving (both essential in the learning process). Today, coming here, I have food for thought in the idea that many people see an Internet connection as an intimate experience, a line straight into their privacy and “safe place”. That’s intriguing, especially when combined with the idea that “possessing” someone’s location and/or time will cause a defensive and even aggressive response. Are we all defending our caves against imaginary night-monsters? Or can we see past the FUD and think about the issues?

    Thankyou for the ideas. :)

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