Hey Loser! (Why Does Internet Anonymity Give Rise To Jerks?)


Did you finish grade school or are you just another illiterate ghetto punk?

No, I’m not talking to you. That first sentence is a comment from one reader to another on a local news site. It’s an example of “internet muscles.” You know what I’m talking about – the attitude and language of some people, when they speak to someone online in a manner quite different from how they’d act if they met that person face to face.

CNN recently ran a story from SI.com columnist Jeff Pearlman, who tracked down a couple of people who had tweeted profane comments to him and sent him pornographic image. After he contacted them, the rude tweeters were surprised, but so was Pearlman.

Quite frankly, I wanted to hate him. I wanted to bash him. I wanted to plaster his name, address and personal information atop a column on CNN.com, so that when someone Googled his name for future employment, they’d find the words “Sent me a link to pornographic material.”

Then we spoke. And I (dammit) liked him. Without invisibility or the support of his 54 Twitter followers or the superhuman powers supplied by a warm keyboard, Matt was meek and apologetic. “I was just trying to get a rise out of you,” he said. “You’re a known sports writer, and I thought it was cool. That’s all. I never meant for it to reach this point.”

What is it that spurs people to act this way? I see a few possibilities:

1) Cowardice. Are these people hiding behind anonymity? It sure is easy to be a jerk when you’re not accountable for your actions. This can even be the case when you’re not truly anonymous, such as when you use a name and photo online to identify yourself. There just seems to be different behavior that occurs when someone is behind a keyboard.

2) Thoughtlessness. Some people may say what they say because they have no filter. They just never think it through, to realize that a real person is actually reading what they say. It’s just words on a computer screen, after all.

3) They really are jerks. Sure, there are some people who are just jerks, who act that way all the time, but I like to think the vast majority of people are nice in person.

4) Caught up in the moment. This is similar to #2. As one of Pearlman’s subjects admitted, he had just gotten caught up in the heat of the moment. Is there something about the Internet that makes that more likely to happen? I would think it would be just the opposite. On the Internet, you can take your time, and measure your response.

Thankfully, we haven’t had this problem at 40Tech. We’ve got a great community, with readers who give back just as much information as they take from the site. But what is a site to do if matters take a turn for the worse? There are some options available:

1) Moderate comments. Some might view this as censorship. Where do you draw the line? It also requires some work for a site, too.

2) Ban users. This is an extensions of #1, and brings similar issues with it. Also, banning users is not foolproof, and requires a user to possess only a bit of tech know-how to get around it.

3) Turn off comments altogether. This really isn’t an option for some sites, such as here at 40Tech. We get valuable input and tips from readers on a regular basis, such that disabling comments would make the site less useful. Plus, I think turning off comments takes away some degree of accountability for the site – almost like Internet muscles in reverse. I can think of at least one site that doesn’t allow comments, and that site’s author isn’t shy about casting stones, mocking others for incorrect predictions, and worse. Would he be that bold if a public forum existed on his site, where his readers could call him on his statements? Perhaps, but maybe not.

What do you think the answers are? Why are some people jerks on the Internet, and how does a site or community combat it?

Image by Mike Goren.

Evan Kline

Hello, I'm Evan. I write about tech from my perspective – that of the average 40-something tech geek. You can also find me on Twitter and at my real-life job as a lawyer.    MORE ABOUT ME.


  1. Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.

    Robert E. Howard

  2. Moderation, but in moderation :)

    I draw the line at personal attacks and fighting words. Disagreement that furthers the discussion is one thing – but going after the PERSON is different.

    I delete about 1 in 300 non-spam comments on these grounds, so I clearly allow quite a bit, especially on political debates.

    You are not bound by the 1st amendment (which states that congress shall make no law …) – you’re well within your rights to censor as you please (although it’s prudent no to go overboard).

  3. Most likely the answer would be an uncontrollable ego.

    Why do people start yelling at each other in real life? Or besieging others with insults and petty remarks? I think it’s because some people just want to prove their superiority, but many of them just aren’t mature or skilled enough to handle differing shades of opinion. So what’s the most emotionally validating thing for them to do? Attacking others. Internet anonymity just gives them more cold and cunning ways to do so.

    Some people will just never get it. It’s not about being winning or being better: it’s about learning.

    I would never turn off a blog’s commenting feature. I think it’s way too important especially if a great community is thriving! Any hostile situation can be diffused with some tact and diplomacy. If not, just ban and carry on. The rest of the members would understand. :)

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  5. I think that this question has chosen somewhat inflammatory wording.

    Since the FBI is openly seeking to legalize the backdoors it must have (please let me know if we are still giving the creators of COINTELPRO the, ahem, benefit of the doubt ) , and outside of the middle east ,governments have suddenly gotten a lot more interested in who is who, we should take some time to think about the language we use to talk about these issues. For the author, and any public figure, loss of anonymity is a choice. Anonymous speech is quite important to our discovery mechanisms for information. Wikileaks, which was not surprising in the least, confirmed that we might want to keep a channel open for anonymous data. The way they treated that guy, and their actions made me switch to appreciating the Anon.

    Anyway, a study was done that showed most people could not detect irony, sarcasm or humor reliably in text messages such as email. Some people might just be poor at expressing themselves.

    Speaking as the only black teen in a southwestern ontario county in the 80’s I can assure you that if you don’t lose teeth, what they say can be dealt with. As a sometimes participant in the Vi /Emacs flamewars

    (I participated because I could not ignore the soulless evil of the emacs user. )

    Anyway, there is no other point besides the wording of the question, and the difficulty of determining sarcasm, humour, or emotion in an email/post etc. Just one guy’s opinion.

    • That’s a good point Kevin – perhaps some of these “jerks” aren’t really being jerks at all. We just misinterpret them because text doesn’t convey certain things very well.

  6. Consider another solution: instead of turning off comments or banning users, what if we just dropped anonymity? What if we *somehow* required that people used real names, real email addresses, and actual photos in their avatars? Do you think this would curtail the hate speech? I’ve often wondered about that?

    • That’s an interesting thought, Dennis. I remember reading how Blizzard tried that with the WOW forums, and there were howls of outrage and then Blizzard relented. People complained because they, for example, didn’t want their boss seeing that they’d been in the forum. So I guess it is a tough call, as anonymity does have its uses in some cases.

  7. I just read an interesting comment thread on TechCrunch — regarding their switch over to the Facebook commenting system — wherein most of the commenters just seem to want their potential for anonymity back, as opposed to attaching a name and a face to their comments. So far, it seems to have cut a swath through the trolls that often dominate the comments there, but many of the insightful — though still often powerfully opinionated — commenters are saying that they feel less inclined to comment now that their anonymity is compromised.

    There are other aspects to this as well, such as not wanting to leave an open door for the world to come to their Facebook profile after a comment. Comments are apparently searchable on Google, so exposure is not necessarily open to those who read the posts.

    Normally, I believe that people shouldn’t ever say anything that they wouldn’t be proud to attach their name to, but I can understand not wanting to leave direct and possibly controversy-motivated paths to one’s personal Facebook profile. There were also a few valid points regarding anonymity in the face of government (or employer) persecution.

    I don’t plan to change my stance for myself, as it is intrinsic with my view of being an upstanding person — but there is definitely some wiggle room there.


  8. In real life, actions have direct consequences. When you’re online, you’re hiding behind a screen, whatever you say you won’t get hit in the face by an angry guy. Unless he finds out where you live, but that almost never ever happens.
    I know people that are completely different when they’re online. You wouldn’t recognize them, really. That security gives confidence. Some choose to abuse it.

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