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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.