Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

The Internet: It's Pretty Much As Mean As All Of Us

tying today up in a NICE NEAT BOWThe New York Times takes some time out to haul out the always-salient question "What Is Wrong With People On The Internet?" today, this time in a Styles piece by Taffy Broedesser-Akner that looks at the more vicious reactions she received to a Salon article she had penned on the PTSD she dealt with after the particularly violent birth of her son. The Salon story eventually resulted in pseudonymous Internet people taking time out of their days to tell her things like "Do us all a favor — don't have any more kids." Yeesh. So much for The New Niceness!

Akner was "confused" by the mean comments, the ones that were doing little more than the e-equivalent of peeing in her pool. Or as she put it: "What confounds me is why online commenters are so gratuitously nasty; why, when given the opportunity to have an educated disagreement with an author or other readers, they use the space allotted to spew venom instead of presenting a well-reasoned argument." Well, OK, this is a Styles piece, so there's bound to be a bit of Unfrozen Cavewoman Writer attitude lurking within. But: Really?

Having spent a gigantic chunk of my life online (More than half my life! And I'm 34! What am I doing?), I can say with a fair amount of confidence that the answers are actually not all that confusing! Akner's shock at people taking a cheap shortcut instead of typing out reasoned dissent is especially odd for someone who's worked on the Internet for as long as she has — of course people who are reading online as a leisure activity are going to trend toward the glib and easy instead of the well-reasoned argument, even if the article being responded to describes an experience that's absolutely horrifying. Generations of "wisecracking kid who always gets the laugh" characters being TV-sitcom staples is but one reason; there are also matters of time, of brainspace, and of just feeling like being an asshole. It happens to all of us!

About the "being an asshole" bit: We are in a place, and have been for quite some time, where schadenfreude is the name of so many pop-cultural games; the crappy facts of life that persist for so many people mean that the one-upmanship-through-putdowns game is ever-more-appealing. Hence the explosion in "oh my God Becky look at her butt" gossip sites, which when taken as a putrid whole make comments like the one quoted above look positively civil (not to mention extremely erudite and witty).

Tied into that is also the always-present nature of how content sites like the eternally struggling Salon make money — namely, by getting pageviews, whether it's via overpagination or allowing anyone who gives a valid e-mail address carte blanche to comment until they get flagged down by enough irritated passerby. Sometimes, aiming for civility just isn't worth the line-item on the budget, even if the resulting rancor has an overall effect of tainting everything around it!

And don't think that even the most obtuse commenters aren't at least dimly aware of their clicks' power. Akner spoke with self-proclaimed cyberexpert Jeff Jarvis about The Deal With People Being Nasty, and he brought up the whole idea of hierarchies:

"We give people this article all nice and wrapped up in a bow, and we expect them to be happy to read it. Now, with comments sections, we have to talk about when we let people into this process and how. This notion that we're done, now you can talk, is inherently insulting."

As someone who has actually gotten annoyed at Jarvis' immense capacity for issuing Grand Proclamations and who has voiced my ire right on the public Internet, I think I'm pretty qualified to note that this sort of capacity for insult ties right into the whole discussion of unpaid syndication from earlier today. Who gives one person the "license" to opine for money and the others the opportunity to maybe get extra attention via a "featured commenter" badge? It all amounts to Letting Them Eat Clicks, and it's a vicious cycle that will probably blow up even more as budgets shrink.

Akner also brings up the old saw of pseudonymity/anonymity online, and whether or not it makes people more willing to go there as far as meanness. The answer is probably yes and no, although the capacity for meanness can be heightened when more personal details come into play. (Which might be why the reactions to Akner's piece — and her reactions to those reactions — were so personally searing to her!) My online experience has evolved from CompuServe to Usenet to BBSes to Web-based forums to blogs to whatever Tumblr's dashboard is. In that time I've mostly been shielded from out-and-out "u suck" nastiness directed my way; I've also developed a pretty thick skin and an intolerance for dealing with people who can only muster not-very-witty quips in their own defense. (Which is why those of you who wanted to make the jokes about thickness developing on me in other places can save them, because I already made them for you.)

In fact, the one time in the past 10 years that someone has been so brutally mean to me that I was upset enough to talk (and talk) to my therapist about it? The person's identity was right there on the screen, in an almost-taunting way. And the worst rancor I've ever witnessed has been levied by people who knew each other way too well. In one online community where I hung my hat for many years, where everyone was identified by name from their first post, February was historically the time for online blowups; the theory was that the month's nasty brutality, weather-wise, led to people staying inside too much, and hanging around their computers too much, and endlessly ruminating on the things that other housebound, modem-tethered people were saying. (At least the month was also short.)

There's been a lot of talk around certain watercoolers about "The New Niceness," which many people have seized on as a sort of organizing principle for the Internet going forward. But venture outside of a few safe spaces where people are pretty content with their jobs and their lives on the whole (and where they are probably saving their Old Not-Niceness for backchannel communiqués) and you'll realize that as an idea this is sort of bull, if only because, surprise, even the seemingly nicest people are just not nice all the time. And nor are the most unpleasant sons of bitches out there mean and nasty all the time! But it's the capacity for online communication to amplify and inflate that tends to turn the best and worst aspects of human behavior into announcements written in 140-point type and plastered over every nearby bit of Internet for all of us to see, and oftentimes cringe at.

46 Comments / Post A Comment

To be fair, didn't her folks just set her up for a lifetime of rancor by naming her "Taffy"?

missdelite (#625)

My thoughts 'zactly.

NominaStultorum (#1,638)

Eh, that's a stretch.

Bittersweet (#765)

She needs to pull herself together.

ow that hurt (#3,919)

(spits out beer)

(ruins keyboard)

now I have forgotten what I was going to say; it was mean, though.

NinetyNine (#98)

I haven't read any of the items in question, but I do find it interesting the nice/not nice is the metric. I have no doubt people whom I respect very much as people or writers (hi Maura!) have been as mercilessly attacked, but isn't some small slice of this rancor because these types of opinion/personal experience essays have been around forever (who remembers Jared Paul Stern's brilliant Lives parody in Spy, what, 18 years ago?), but never did the authors understand that a large proportion of their readership might have had pretty gruesomely mean responses, but traditionally they were just insulated. Salon seems particularly adept at fomenting this three act faux tempests (Ayelet Waldman anyone?).

There is no doubt that people are unvarnished, if not gratuitous (hi me!) in their criticism. But let's not leave off the table that some of these people are legitimately annoying and self-serving. And for some, they take the rancor as proof of something failing outside themselves, change not at all (or get worse — Maura wrote a spot on tumblr post on this a couple weeks ago), or inflate their own rhetoric. So the 'haters' who maybe at one time started with reasoned debate, become as recalcitrant and race to the bottom.

Everyone I know has someone they unapologetically hate read. Think about those you hate read — would you ever say you witnessed any change their thinking/doing/writing (regardless of your input or anyone else's)? Would that even be a little disappointing? The range is so odd and perversely constructed, it's same to assume that someone, somewhere is hate reading you right now (hi hate reader!).

In some ways, isn't this related to Balk's essay on Tina Fey? Attention, economy, fame, what have you. No matter the form, and regardless of the evidence to the contrary, why do people so guilelessly assume that once they cast their voice into the void (no matter how remote the corner) without considering that the echo might be rather contrary? I assume some of the knee jerk meanness is because at this advanced stage of reality television culture and meaningless fameballism, people really resent the naivety of those who even tip their toe in the water that this isn't the case. And don't like to admit there's a little pleasure in introducing them to 'reality.'

NinetyNine (#98)

Gah, when will the server update allow edits? I mean to say at the end that I assume some of the knee jerk meanness is because at this advanced stage of reality television culture and meaningless fameballism, people really resent the naivety of those who even tip their toe in the water without realizing this is the situation. And don't like to admit there's a little pleasure in introducing the unfortunates to 'reality.'

Regina Small (#2,468)

"And for some, they take the rancor as proof of something failing outside themselves, change not at all (or get worse…"

I think you are correct here. This is as just as big a problem as "Internet meanness" — the tendency to treat criticism as white noise, so the distinction between comments that are truly ad hom and unhelpul and comments that are critical but thoughtful falls away, is frustrating and alienating.

That said, I think while it's understandable that someone who "started with reasoned debate" and met with resistance might "become as recalcitrant and race to the bottom," it's not really defensible. Really, the imperative is for someone who is critical (or someone who takes the role of critic frequently) to consider how to shape her criticism so that it's…actually received? And processed? And fuck, maybe even applied? Sometimes this won't matter! Sometimes the person receiving the criticism will, as you say, tune that shit out, refuse to change and/or tell you to die in a fire.

But if you give in to the temptation to be snide and dismissive, then it's not about the work or the ideas anymore. It's just about YOUR feelings — of frustration, anger, whatever. Doing that means being as much of an egoist as the writer who treats the Internet like an echo chamber — and a hypocrite to boot.

the Loud Coast (#1,362)

I read the comments at Salon mostly because they have a very special breed of nastiness. It's not the off-hand random malice that you would see in YouTube comments, but carries the extra harshness of people who take themselves seriously and also think that the writers can go fck themselves. There are also dashes of freeper zeal and extra-pretentious non-humor thrown in. The whole thing is a terrible, terrible convention of hate.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Much agreed that the Salon commenters are super nasty. Also yes, I too believe it is all that eighth-rate politics sloshing around that drives them batshit insane.

The more "seriousness", the less wit, unfortunately.

Loved this piece, btw. Very thoughtprovoking.

minerva23 (#4,497)

So many man-boys, sitting in so many basements (in their underwear), with so many clothes dryers banging away behind them… well, you get the idea. Mooooooom!!! Where's my fondue?!!!!!

Chewie (#2,980)

Whether anonymous or not, it is also much easier to be mean to someone when you don't have to say the mean things to their face. Back in the old days, when you wanted to be mean to someone without saying it directly to their face, you had to write a letter and do it that way. Now, we can turn our passing annoyances into major, life-changing jabs simply because we hadn't had coffee yet and hit the send button instead of the delete button.

krucoff (#560)

Maura, that's a lot of words to say Katie Bakes is the meanest of us all.

brad (#1,678)

i just love too much, is all.

She was using a very traumatic personal experience for pageviews. The nasty reactions were a commentary on that. Someone who has done something objectively ridiculous like that doesn't deserve reasoned response. The internet is involved only to the degree that she stooped to mine her (and her family's) personal history to feed it.

BadUncle (#153)

Having participated in pre-web command-line internet communities for 20 years now, I'm convinced the nastiness comes from media objectification. For instance, it's easier to yell into a phone than at someone than in person. And when they're reduced to pixel traces, their lives are abstracted even further. So for a lot of people with anger-management problems, the internet is like pouring tequila for an angry drunk.

Take me, for example. I'm a reasonable guy, F2F. But right now, I think you guys can all blow me dry.

missdelite (#625)

Judging by your avatar, it looks like someone beat us to it.

bmichael (#213)

Sure, but and maybe I'm naive but if you don't push civility and thoughtfulness, then the lack of them will start to seem like normal behavior, acceptable behavior. And maybe it is, but don't you want the world to be a world you want to live in? (Can you even say no to that question?)

bmichael (#213)

I mean, I'm sure 5% of readers of this post will just want to call you the C word, even if they don't mean it–just to be funny. It's not acceptable, though.

hihowareyou (#2,712)

I totally agree with you about the civility and I believe the issues with controlling internet behavior go even further than comments on news or weblogs. It's the shopping, twitter, facebook, gambling, porn, etc; I could go on. The convenience and capabilities of the internet have a tendency to spin out of control and corrode our sanity.

I read the introduction to a book about the internet (the name escapes me, I only read the intro) which compared our struggle to control the tubes with a similar struggle in auto industries to make cars safer back in the 1970s and such. Just food for thought.

My only suggestion for the blogs is that people who are capable enough, which I think many of us are, is to control themselves and choose their battles more wisely. If you want to call someone out for being a jerk-off once and while that's fine. But don't get all masturbatory in your hatred and dissent. People will see right through that.

alannaofdoom (#4,512)


even the seemingly nicest people are just not nice all the time. And nor are the most unpleasant sons of bitches out there mean and nasty all the time! But the capacity for online communication to amplify and inflate and generally turn the best and worst aspects of human behavior into announcements written in 140-point type and plastered over every nearby bit of Internet for all of us to see, and oftentimes cringe at

So the internet is a mean vodka bender, then. Got it.

HiredGoons (#603)

You left out the rampant narcissism.

But I don't really see what this has to do with me?

Matt (#26)


krucoff (#560)

Backchannel is one word, asshole!

#getting my jorts in a bunch

Matt (#26)

Victor Yngve first used the phrase "back channel" in 1970 in the following passage: "In fact, both the person who has the turn and his partner are simultaneously engaged in both speaking and listening. This is because of the existence of what I call the back channel, over which the person who has the turn receives short messages such as 'yes' and 'uh-huh' without relinquishing the turn."

I was just 'kicking it old school,' you douche.

#do we still say douche? #how 'bout old school?

Tuna Surprise (#573)

My baby. My baby! My baby didn't want to come out of my vadge so they had to cut him out of my belly. My baby! This made me sad! And nervous. So I saw a doctor who talks to women who are sad even though they just had babies. But I didn't have resentment or contempt for my baby. I love my baby! My baby! So I saw another doctor who said I had PTSD. But my baby is not like a gun. My baby! But I'm not looking for pity. Just writing an informational piece. And talking about my baby.

Perhaps Taffy has not considered the fact that she's an insufferable twat.

Who got to mine her tragedy for at least two blog posts! And I bet she writes a follow-up to this one.

untitled HD (#4,555)

-Joan Rivers

Kevin (#2,559)

All of this to explain why I never read about O.P.P

roboloki (#1,724)

i just skip articles with bunches of words (makes my brain hurt) to read what the really smart people have to say.
obtuse commenter
p.s. i have a tainting done by steve jobs. i have it hanging near my rectal area.

Vulpes (#946)

Rod is very, very disappointed in all of us.

Abe Sauer (#148)

ha ha ha. Good PTSD joke!

And as an opiner for NO money:

This is self-aware poison of the worst variety. I'll reload tomorrow to make sure The Awl didn;t really run this after Alex's claim that "One of the things that's most important to me about this site is that we try (most days) not to insult anyone's intelligence (too much)."

As a technical editorial note to the next generation of internet journalism (churnalism?): don't link The New York Times in the same sentence in which you use a quotation IF THAT QUOTED SENTENCE DOESN'T APPEAR IN THAT LINK. Fuck. (EDITOR!!!!!!???) You are devaluing online reporting.

The putrid whole? Self-linking inside jokes within your own op-ed piece is cheap as shit, as mean (and helplessly pointless) "as all of us."

Steve (#1,777)

Maybe your comment is so insidery that it completely sailed over my head, but re: the "quotation" I think she was paraphrasing and using the quotation marks as a way of indicating that.

Too outsidery?

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I am going to assume that this is some sort of meta-joke about unhinged rage on comment boards.

mkrotov (#1,740)

Seconded. I really do not understand the rage and would love an explanation.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Abe, are you OK?

ow that hurt (#3,919)

Also: when you post Mean Things (usually with a drink in hand)
remember that 6,000 years ago, when Jesus battled the Dinosaurs,
a primitive cave man drew something judgmental and rude about his neighbor, on a cave wall.

And, it it still there now, after all this time, for us to see.
(unless the British stole it, in the days of Empire)

My mother taught me, when i was nine–
You are only as good as what you write, while you are drinking.

Nothing new under the sun.

"This document is a collection of insults gathered from many
years of BBS and Usenet use, so the real credit goes to the
many fine flamers who have had their work added to this
document over the years. I am but an editor who has gathered
the works of others into one document.

You swine. You vulgar little maggot. You worthless bag of filth. As we
say in Texas, you couldn't pour water out of a boot with instructions
printed on the heel. You are a canker, an open wound. I would rather
kiss a lawyer than be seen with you. You took your last vacation in
the Islets of Langerhans.

You're a putrescent mass, a walking vomit. You are a spineless little
worm deserving nothing but the profoundest contempt. You are a jerk,
a cad, a weasel. Your life is a monument to stupidity. You are a
stench, a revulsion, a big suck on a sour lemon.

You are a bleating foal, a curdled staggering mutant dwarf smeared
richly with the effluvia and offal accompanying your alleged birth
into a hostile world. You are an insensate, blinking calf,
meaningful to nobody, abandoned by the puke-drooling, giggling
beasts who sired you and then died of shame in recognition of what
they had done. They were a bit late.

I will never get over the embarrassment of belonging to the same
species as you. You are a monster, an ogre, a malformity. I barf
at the very thought of you. You have all the appeal of a paper cut.
Lepers avoid you. You are vile, worthless, less than nothing. You
are a weed, a fungus, the dregs of this earth. And did I mention
that you smell?

Try to edit your responses of unnecessary material before attempting
to impress us with your insight. The evidence that you are a
nincompoop will still be available to readers, but they will be
able to access it ever so much more rapidly.

You snail-skulled little rabbit. Would that a hawk pick you up,
drive its beak into your brain, and upon finding it rancid set
you loose to fly briefly before spattering the ocean rocks with the
frothy pink shame of your ignoble blood. May you choke on the
queasy, convulsing nausea of your own trite, foolish beliefs.

You are weary, stale, flat and unprofitable. You are grimy, squalid,
nasty and profane. You are foul and disgusting. You're a fool, an
ignoramus. Monkeys look down on you. Even sheep won't have sex with
you. You are unreservedly pathetic, starved for attention, and lost
in a land that reality forgot. You are not ANSI compliant. You
have a couple of address lines shorted together. You should be
promoted to Engineering Manager.

And what meaning do you expect your delusionally self-important
statements of unknowing, inexperienced opinion to have with us?
What fantasy do you hold that you would believe that your
tiny-fisted tantrums would have more weight than that of a leprous
desert rat, spinning rabidly in a circle, waiting for the bite of
the snake?

You are a waste of flesh. You have no rhythm. You are ridiculous and
obnoxious. You are the moral equivalent of a leech. You are a living
emptiness, a meaningless void. You are sour and senile. You are a
loathsome disease, a puerile slack-jawed drooling meatslapper. You
make Quakers shout and strike Pentecostals silent. You are the kind
of person who would remove this reference to Version 5.40 and to so people will think that
you wrote this. Your mother had to tie a pork chop around your neck
just to get your dog to play with you. You think P.D.Q. Bach is
the greatest composer who ever lived. You prefer L. Ron Hubbard to
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Hee-Haw is too deep for you. You
would watch test patterns all day if the other inmates would let you.

On a good day you're a half-wit. You remind me of drool. You are
deficient in all that lends character. You have the personality
of wallpaper. You are dank and filthy. You are asinine and benighted.
You are the source of all unpleasantness. You spread misery and
sorrow wherever you go.

You smarmy lagerlout git. You bloody woofter sod. Bugger off,
pillock. You grotty wanking oik artless base-court apple-john.
You clouted boggish foot-licking half-twit. You dankish clack-dish
plonker. You gormless crook-pated tosser. You bloody churlish
boil-brained clotpole ponce. You craven dewberry pisshead cockup
pratting naff. You cockered bum-bailey poofter. You gob-kissing
gleeking flap-mouthed coxcomb. You dread-bolted fobbing beef-witted
clapper-clawed flirt-gill.

You are so clueless that if we stripped you naked, soaked you in
clue musk, and dropped you into a field full of horny clues, You
still would not have a clue.

You are a fiend and a coward, and you have bad breath. You are
degenerate, noxious and depraved. I feel debased just for knowing
you exist. I despise everything about you, and I wish you would go

I cannot believe how incredibly stupid you are. I mean rock-hard
stupid. Dehydrated-rock-hard stupid. Stupid so stupid that it
goes way beyond the stupid we know into a whole different dimension
of stupid. You are trans-stupid stupid. Meta-stupid. Stupid
collapsed on itself so far that even the neutrons have collapsed.
Stupid gotten so dense that no intellect can escape. Singularity
stupid. Blazing hot mid-day sun on Mercury stupid. You emit more
stupid in one second than our entire galaxy emits in a year.
Quasar stupid. Your writing has to be a troll. Nothing in our
universe can really be this stupid. Perhaps this is some primordial
fragment from the original big bang of stupid. Some pure essence
of a stupid so uncontaminated by anything else as to be beyond the
laws of physics that we know. I'm sorry. I can't go on. This is an
epiphany of stupid for me. After this, you may not hear from me
again for a while. I don't have enough strength left to deride
your ignorant questions and half baked comments about unimportant
trivia, or any of the rest of this drivel. Duh.

The only thing worse than your logic is your manners. I have
snipped away most of your of what you wrote, because, well…
it didn't really say anything. Your attempt at constructing a
creative flame was pitiful. I mean, really, stringing together
a bunch of insults among a load of babbling was hardly effective…
Maybe later in life, after you have learned to read, write, spell,
and count, you will have more success. True, these are rudimentary
skills that many of us "normal" people take for granted that
everyone has an easy time of mastering. But we sometimes forget
that there are "challenged" persons in this world who find these
things more difficult. If I had known, that this was your case then
I would have never read your post. It just wouldn't have been
"right". Sort of like parking in a handicap space. I wish you the
best of luck in the emotional, and social struggles that seem to be
placing such a demand on you.

You are hypocritical, greedy, violent, malevolent, vengeful,
cowardly, deadly, mendacious, meretricious, loathsome, despicable,
belligerent, opportunistic, barratrous, contemptible, criminal,
fascistic, bigoted, racist, sexist, avaricious, tasteless, idiotic,
brain-damaged, imbecilic, insane, arrogant, deceitful, demented,
lame, self-righteous, byzantine, conspiratorial, satanic,
fraudulent, libelous, bilious, splenetic, spastic, ignorant,
clueless, illegitimate, harmful, destructive, dumb evasive,
double-talking, devious, revisionist, narrow, manipulative,
paternalistic, fundamentalist, dogmatic, idolatrous, unethical,
cultic, diseased, suppressive, controlling, restrictive, malignant,
deceptive, dim, crazy, weird, dystopic, stifling, uncaring,
plantigrade, grim, unsympathetic, jargon-spouting, censorious,
secretive, aggressive, mind-numbing, arassive, poisonous, flagrant,
self-destructive, abusive, socially-retarded, puerile, and
Generally Not Good.

I hope this helps…"

I liked this better after the /b/ board could use pictures.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

Comment boxes that only accept text with a Flesch-Kincaid or Gunning Fog score over 8th grade might solve a lot of these problems. Maybe not on Salon though.

Posts like this — and the comments that result — are why I want TheAwl to fuck itself into oblivion.

missdelite (#625)

In a good way, right?

Jim the Dead Guy (#4,562)

There is No New Thing Under the Sun. Mark Twain talked about Journalism in Tennessee in 1871: "The editor of the Memphis Avalanche swoops thus mildly down upon a correspondent who posted him as a Radical:–'While he was writing the first word, the middle, dotting his i's, crossing his t's, and punching his period, he knew he was concocting a sentence that was saturated with infamy and reeking with falsehood.'–Exchange."

It gets better from there:

belltolls (#184)

I see your point and agree with your analysis Maura. Might I just add one other item which may be a contributing factor to the "meanness" so many bloggers have been writing about.

I get paid for well-reasoned argument and sometimes a little math (thank god for that little calculator in Windows!) but I get nothing for a comment. If media giants and big blogs paid me, everything would come out as a well-reasoned argument. The free stuff is what it is and you get what you pay for.

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