Contrary to popular opinion, the internet is not really about technology. It’s about people, specifically how people communicate.
Despite the best efforts of evolution and civilization, human beings still have a lot of rough edges individually and collectively. We annoy, denigrate, and dismiss each other all the time. Sometimes this is intentional, often it is not.
The plain text which comprises most online communication makes our rough edges hard to miss. It strips away many of the subtle buffers and safeguards we’ve created to minimize the inherent emotional and psychological risks of communication. Also, online media presents a deeply weird juxtaposition of isolation and connectedness, anonymity and identity, parts and whole. In this baffling environment people can be unbelievably brash and vulnerable at the same time.
In this realm, the vermin of communication thrive. Recognizing them, and choosing to react appropriately, is the key to avoiding their damage…
In my time on the internet, I’ve encountered just about every kind of online vermin. At times, I admit, I’ve even participated in the pestilence. Over the years I’ve learned some useful strategies for handling conflicts with each of the major online pests. In this series, I’ll share these tips.
MAJOR TYPES OF ONLINE VERMIN:
- Porcupines: People who seem unable to write a sentence that lacks a barb. There’s a rude, condescending, dismissive, or insulting edge to nearly everything they say. Often these barbs are thinly disguised as humor, or as hyper-rationality. Believe it or not, most porcupines are not aware of how irritating or hurtful they can be. They believe it’s “just their personality,” or they transfer the problem to you. (“Can’t you take a joke?”) They believe they are concealing their vulnerabilities, when in fact barbs only make underlying insecurities more obvious. (How to handle an online porcupine…)
- Trolls: These vermin want to provoke a reaction. They bait in order to get you to snap back, thus granting them perceived license to attack even more fiercely. They will set out to stir up conflict and push people’s emotional buttons. They enjoy polarizing communities and disrupting discourse. Combative aggressive, polarized TV shows like Crossfire showcase and glorify trolling behavior even though they claim to offer debate. To a troll any attention is good, and the more intense the better. Negative attention tends to be especially intense online. They think they look insightful and strong when they tear others down, but the effect is more like watching a tantrum. (How to handle a troll…)
- Zealots: These people confuse their opinions and perspectives with “the ultimate truth.” They can’t function well without clearly marked boundaries. They calm their deep fear of uncertainty by sparring with people who disagree with them. To zealots, any disagreement with their chosen truth (even if totally impersonal and unrelated to them) feels like a deeply personal affront which they must avenge and crush. Zealots are more comfortable with crusades than conversation. (How to handle a zealot…)
- Skewers: These people routinely skew the words, actions, perspectives, or opinions of others. They believe that they know you better than you know yourself, so they’re better-equipped to explain who you are and what you’re doing. This misrepresentation usually indicates a lack of understanding. Sometimes that comes from a simple lack of information but other times it demonstrates a profound inability or unwillingness to listen or understand. Rarely is this motivated by animosity. However, being skewed by a skewer can be exceptionally frustrating kind of like identity theft. Skewers tend to get rigid, and find it almost impossible to admit they were wrong, even slightly. (How to handle a skewer…)
- Leeches: Online media promotes a culture of sharing. However, some people approach the internet with an exagerrated sense of entitlement. If you share your knowledge or resources by answering one question or helping solve one problem, leeches slither close and expect you to answer every question and help solve every problem. They assume, they wheedle, they nag. They may get angry or resentful when you don’t realign your priorities to match their desires. They drain your energy and offer little or nothing in return. (How to handle a leech…)
- Burns: These people take everything personally, in a negative way. Any contact is risky. Even the slightest touch of communication, the slightest possible hint of an insinuation, causes them to react with pain anger, shame, guilt, despair, regret, self-pity, etc. And you’ll hear about it loudly. (How to handle a burn…)
RESPONSIBILITY AND PERSPECTIVE
It’s easy to point fingers at other people who annoy, dismiss, or denigrate you online. However, in my experience nearly everyone has been guilty of these bad online communication practices at some point usually unintentionally. As you read through this series, assume that you have played the role of each of these vermin at some point. You may or may not be able to recall specific instances. But it’s a safe assumption.
“Vermin” labels apply to behaviors, not to people. It’s an important distinction. When you encounter online vermin, don’t assume that their vermin-like qualities represent who they are. When people act like online vermin, that’s merely how they’re behaving at that time, in that situation. Don’t exaggerate these unpleasant encounters by overpersonalizing them.
We all behave badly sometimes, so leave room for compassion and face-saving. Generally this means not reacting strongly or at all to online vermin.
That said, temper compassion with practicality. Maintain your boundaries, especially with strangers. You are not responsible for correcting or curing online vermin.
RESPOND WITHOUT COUNTERATTACKING
Some vermin take a very long time to improve their online communication style, or they may even prefer to behave badly online (and elsewhere). In these cases, more direct measures are required. The most important principle of responding to vermin is to never try to attack or trap them.
Simplistic countermeasures only attract more vermin, like a swarm of wasps stirred to frenzy by the scent of a swatted member of their hive. Successful countermeasures require pausing to look at the big picture, then choosing actions that negate or undermine the vermin’s impact. This deters vermin by removing the perceived rewards for bad online behavior, or by denying them access to your environment.
In the vast majority of cases, countermeasures are not needed at all. Most online vermin tend to undermine and negate themselves pretty immediately and thoroughly. Most of the time, the best approach is simply to recognize and ignore the vermin. If the vermin persists, a calm, positive, nonpersonal, respectful response which reframes the context of the interaction can quell the vermin. Only if the vermin persists beyond that are specific deterence strategies required.
In the rest of this series, I’ll discuss how this applies to each major type of online vermin, in a variety of online interaction environments…
UPDATE, Jan. 31: This series was mentioned in the popular weblog Metafilter. Read this extensive and interesting page of comments by Metafilter readers.