Why online discussions tend towards anger or aggrievement

Adam Kotso speculates on the widely observed tendency for internet discussions to become embittered. Of course anonymity and pseudo anonymity are one factor, but the rise of Facebook suggests that it’s not the only one. So Kotso looks for another explanation: 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. …

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. Kotso argues that while we can’t completely control our gut reactions, we can become aware of them. His suggestion: 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. So give me 10 soldier! Now! :smiley:

h/t Brad DeLong

Drop dead, you little worm! :mad:

Oh, uh, I mean that’s very interesting.

It’s hard to see people posting on a message board as ‘real’. I think that’s the heart of it (no idea about this personal space thingy…that seems a bit wonky to me, personally). It took me a long time to see many 'dopers, especially those who I have fundamental disagreements with, as real flesh and blood people who just think differently than I do. And to see the value of a difference of opinion and a different view point and perspective. I think most people who get banned here (leaving aside the trolls, socks, bots and such :p) do so because they simply weren’t able to ever make the connection between words on the screen and real flesh and blood people on the other end who just disagree with them. I know it was a close thing with me, and I’m sure I have been on thin ice several times.

That’s my two cents worth of pop analysis anyway…and it’s cheap at double the price!!


Yeah, it’s impersonal but very personal space.

People are posting from their homes, from their offices … spaces that they own. And they’re interacting with people in a very intimate way.

So even though it’s all actually a step removed, the experience* feels* very personal and thus, has more meaning. This is what causes that “hothouse” environment that makes online life so weird.

A friend of mine compares online communication to jailhouse romances, he may be on to something.

It’s hard to empathize with a bunch of words on a screen, and in the end, that is what you all are to me. If I stop to think about it, I know there is a person behind the words, but at the gut level, the internet is a collection of words, not a collection of people.

It would be interesting to compare blog/message board responses vs. letters mailed to newspapers 30 years ago. My guess is that the biggest difference is that letters to newspapers took thought and effort. You had to sit down and write the letter, address the envelope, apply a stamp and put it in the mailbox. Internet replies take 2 minutes of typing on a machine I’m already working on.

Well, I’ve got the pruno… who’s with me? =)

The vast majority of letters to the editor do not get printed. I am sure many abusive letters get sent, but they are rejected.

I doubt such a comparison would be valid. Thirty years ago, more people could spell (at its most obvious, most knew the difference between lose and loose and where apostrophes should go, for example).

But even if a semi-literate wrote a letter in crayon to the editor, it would be cleaned up before being published (as letters still are in responsible print newspapers), and many, if not most, papers require real names and addresses, even if that information isn’t published. So lacking anonymity, writers of shoot-from-the-hip rants, especially when loaded with expletives, were rare or nonexistent. Or if they were published, it would be only after being edited, not only for content but for length. More likely, they would be tossed.

I doubt that literacy has declined since the widespread use of the internet. In the past very little writing was reproduced for a large audience. Most of what we read in print was written by professional writers. Now anyone can post a comment that may be read by hundreds, even thousands of people.

It’s much more simple than that.

When you participate in an online discussion, you will most likely be ignored. If you are ignored long enough (over multiple discussions) most people just stop participating. They may still lurk and read but they don’t get any ‘feedback’ for the effort they put in.

Some people do not wish to stop participating and they realize that when they post something inflammatory they DO get feedback. Negative feedback…but hey…that’s better than being ignored. It then grows from there.

why letters from 30 years ago ? People still write to newspapers, and some newspapers post them in their websites as daily blogs.

I think the spellchecker in Word has taught millions how to spell. :rolleyes:

I have never read a scholarly essay about forums (fora) aka message boards, from the point of view of a sociologist or an anthropologist (urban ?). I have read, though, an article or two about them in the media. They said that people reveal their true selves when hidden in the anonymity of the Web (“in the Net nobody knows if you are a dog”) and also bullies dominate forums, unless they are reined in by the forum moderator.

I have participated in many forums, and I think the above assessment to be correct. In most forums of the political kind such as the old forum in English of Deutsche Welle and Der Spiegel, arch and neo-cons dominated and hounded out those who dared to question the policies of for instance King Dubya. The Net provides not only anonymity but also physical protection, otherwise I would have been killed many times over.

I think forums went downhill when Facebook and Twitter appeared. Before Facebook some people used forums as a substitute for social networks. Some were de facto social networks. I made some friends whom later I met in person and we are still friends.

I think many stop posting for they find nothing of interest in the topics or the opinions found in the threads; also, most of us eventually become repetitive and therefore boring and some such as myself are immediately detected as a pompous bore.

I have come across many extinct forum and some in their in their death throes, weak pulse, no brain activity such as 4forums, where I used to post as “Winston Smith”.

I found once a forum that was totally empty, just the ‘frame’ and had been like it for years, an empty ship drifting in cyberspace, the dinner served, although cold, and nobody on board. I thought it could be a trap, a lure, but curiosity got the best of me. I joined and posted its first post. I checked it from time to time but no other posters appeared and I never received any communication from the administrators. Eventually I forgot its location.

Because, as quoted in my previous post,

But yeah, the letters-to-the-editor reasoning still holds true.

Another comparison might be between email and snail mail letters in the days before the telephone. I understand that Victorians would make a habit of composing a letter on one day and reviewing it the next with fresh eyes. It’s so easy to have your words come out the wrong way. I once thought their language to be flowery and artificial. Now I realize that laying it thick with the diplomacy has its advantages.

Embarrassingly accurate. Punchier language is more likely to get noticed. It also helps to quote somebody. That said, there is a sweet spot where you can feed your raging ego without embroiling yourself in a flame-fest.


Simple answer to OP.

I am smarter than thou.


I like what BlinkingDuck said. I also think that for posters there’s little down-side to disagreeing bombastically. In face-to-face discussions there are ramifications to outrageous behavior (even as simple as an argument breaking out into a fist-fight). On the internet there’s little reason not to shout.

I think it’s because internet posts don’t convey tone very well. What a poster may intend as wryly humorous, ironic, or good-natured joshing often gets mistaken for serious insult. Smileys would be the solution, I guess, but people are loath to use them for fear of seeming frivolous.

There is a world of distance between how it sounds in your head, and how it reads to the viewer.

Therein lies the rub.

(Try picturing them all as elderly neighbours to your Gran. You may still oppose their world view, but unlikely to resort to calling them assholes and hacks.)