Online Porcupines: Pricky Business (Online Vermin, Part 1)

(NOTE: This is an installment in my “Handling Online Vermin” series about addressing people with poor online communication habits. Series intro and index.)

Online 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,â€? 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.

The online porcupine has much in common with its rodent cousins. Both sport a coat of sharp quills which cover it entirely save for the face and soft underbelly. In the rodent version, these quills are modified hairs. In the online version, these quills are linguistic…

Both types of porcupines do not actively attack unless cornered. A swat of the tail is generally the extent of their active defense capability. Their quills are a simple, passive defense. You only get hurt if you brush up against them – or if they brush up against you.

While the rodent porcupine is shy and reclusive, online porcupines often are gregarious. They tend to post liberally to discussion forums, chat rooms, weblog comment threads, and on their own weblogs and sites. Some also are podcasters. This means that vast swaths of the online population encounter porcupine quills on a regular basis, especially in discussion areas.

In a word, this sucks.

It especially sucks because porcupines are likely to make an internet newcomer’s initial interactions rather unpleasant. I’ve spoken with many people who decided they “don’t like the internet” because they ran into “a bunch of rude jerks” right off the bat. On further discussion, these “rude jerks” generally turned out to be porcupines. Porcupines create a hostile environment for online newcomers, which negatively impacts online biodiversity.


Online porcupine “quills” are composed of words configured in ways that irritate, abrade, and ultimately penetrate one’s social “skin.” They are simultaneously blunt and sharp. Generally these statements are loaded with assumptions, overtones, or insinuations that overpower the literal meaning of the words. Whatever they mean to say comes across as a put-down.

Example: Here’s a recent exchange from a Usenet science fiction discussion forum:

Initial statement: “In order to do this, we need to hypothesize how we can recognize sentience, then test out this hypothesis with humans (and others which we accept as sentient).”

Porcupine response: “You’ve got the cart before the horse. You might as well say we are trying to determine how to recognize pain in computers. It doesn’t help to redefine pain to be something that might be operationally observable outside biological systems, because at that point you aren’t talking about “pain” any more. Or, rather, you can’t be sure you are.”

Now, this particular porcupine was probably only trying to voice disagreement with the premise of the original statement, and maybe even show a sense of humor. Unfortunately, the result was condescending. The underlying but overpowering message was, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re stupid.”


In rodent porcupines, quills are “sharp-pointed, fitted with microscopic barbs, and expand on contact with warm flesh. Muscle contractions in a quill victim work the quill deeper, as much as an inch per day unless quills are removed promptly.”

Online porcupine quills also cause a severe swelling reaction when they penetrate someone’s social skin. When the unfortunate recipient of an online quill responds quickly, venting anger or pain, the quill is not expelled but instead digs in deeper. It becomes the focus of the conversation, and thus destroys the conversation.

Once you’ve been pricked by an online quill, keep still and it will probably fall away.


It’s important to recognize that most online porcupines are not malicious. Generally, they are merely thoughtless or inept communicators. Usually this results from severe conversational myopia – most online quills result when the porcupine overfocuses on one aspect of something someone said, and loses sight of the broader context (including the consequences of being rude).

This insight holds the key to managing encounters with online porcupines: Never assume that any online statement (especially in a discussion) which sounds like an attack or insult was intentionally hostile. If you find yourself feeling insulted, dismissed, condescended to, or otherwise attacked by an online statement, PAUSE! Do not respond immediately! Consciously recognize that you may be dealing with a porcupine, and then decide whether the situation should be addressed or dropped.

In most encounters with online porcupines, your best response is to not respond at all. That is, to ignore the remark and exit the conversation. No explanation is necessary. This choice is especially wise if you do not know the porcupine personally and have no need to forge or maintain a relationship of any kind with that person.

Unfortunately, although most online porcupines are not malicious, they commonly evoke angry or hurt responses as if they’d initiated an attack. This prompts the porcupine to respond in turn with more verbal quills, and perhaps genuine vitriol (an escalating weapon not available to the rodential species). The overall result is usually a flame war, one of the great online environmental hazards.

When porcupines find themselves consistently ignored in online exchanges, they either recognize that their communication style needs polishing or they go elsewhere for interaction. They generally do not desire and do not enjoy hostility.


Occasionally, there is a good reason for continuing a conversation with an online porcupine. This is the case if a desired or necessary relationship is at stake which requires you to deal with this person repeatedly. For instance, the porcupine might be a friend, colleague, or coworker whom you do not wish to alienate.

In these cases, the best response is to PAUSE, evaluate the situation, and don’t assume hostility. Next go private – continue the conversation via private e-mail or even a phone conversation.

In private discussion, get right to the issue. Start with, “Regarding X, I realize you did not mean to be (rude, condescending, insensitive). However, I found myself reacting strongly to your statement – so I thought I’d discuss this privately with you to make sure we’re really understanding each other. I know we both want this discussion to be constructive.”

Don’t expect an immediately positive and constructive reaction. No one likes to be told that they have been rude or thoughtless. Porcupines are exceedingly defensive creatures, so expect defensiveness &#150 and ignore it. After you’ve broached the topic of perceived rudeness, move on to attempt to discuss the matter at hand calmly and impersonally.

Your goal in this private conversation is not to correct the porcupine or get him to admit his rudeness or repent. Your goal is simply to directly notify the porcupine that he has been tossing quills around.

If the porcupine is too reactive, let the conversation drop – even if it seems important. Remember: Porcupines have no protective quills on their face, so saving face is crucial to their survival and taming. Often I’ve found that when I give a porcupine space and time to calm down, further conversations are far less quill-ridden.

: NEXT: Troublesome Trolls>

Index and intro to this series

9 thoughts on Online Porcupines: Pricky Business (Online Vermin, Part 1)

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  1. “Now, this particular porcupine was probably only trying to voice disagreement with the premise of the original statement, and maybe even show a sense of humor. Unfortunately, the result was condescending.”

    I couldn’t possibly disagree more. The response was direct, addressed the point with personal style, and didn’t condescend to the original poster by assuming she was incapable of adult discourse.

    In fact, at risk of being branded a porcupine myself, I’ve gotta tell ya… you’re spreading the disease here, not the cure. By giving hypersensitive folks a justification for their feelings of distress at the first sign of intellectual conflict, you’re enabling the kind of pointless exchanges that it appears you’d like to avoid.

    Roger’s First Law of Online Community:

    “Cyberspace encourages a strange sort of intimacy. Intimacy leads to a sense of contact. Contact causes several kinds of friction. These are the Physics of Communication, and you’ll be much happier in the long run if you accept them and expect them.”

    More significantly, I must ask:

    If the statement “you’ve got the cart before the horse” is somehow an implicit example of myopic, malformed social interaction, then what do we call a public dissection of that statement that explicitly brands the author as “online vermin”? Why is this post any less rude, or any less an example of poor communicative habits?

  2. A Few More Critters for Amy’s Menagerie (Courtesy of the Porcupine Anti-Defamation Scoiety)
    I am a card carrying porcupine. According to Amy Gahtan’s new series on “Handling Online Vermin”, the internet is swarming with undesirable, nasty “vermin” who apparently threaten the well being of innocent online souls: online media presents a de…

  3. I think that your definition of the Porcupine is spot on. It matches my experience on USENET, anyway.

    However, I’m not entirely sure your example is the best one (as someone else has already pointed out.) That being said, I often find myself rewriting my posts to make the language milder, just so nothing is taken too out of context. The example you give is just too mild for most people to get, I imagine.

    I’m not sure who this “Roger” is, but his “laws” seem a bit simplistic. While it may be useful to grow a thicker skin and not take things too seriously, many people have not learned how to communicate in a manner that minimizes these frictions of which he speaks. I would go so far as to suggest that a “Porcupine” would be someone who, despite all their best intentions, still keeps getting into pointless net arguments, pissing matches and flame-wars. Perhaps assuming that everyone should just suck it up and get used to it is not the appropriate position to take in this case. Debate and argument is a two-way street.

    This is what you seem to suggest in your text, I think. Any misunderstandings are my own.

    I think it’s important to note that, despite the notion of how much we’d like things to be contrary, interpersonal communication in any media can be contentious at times. Learning how to frame a rebuttal so it does not sound like a personal attack at all is a necessary skill if you want to avoid pointless arguments about arguments. This is true in Real Life just as it is in the virtual world.

    For example, one of the best ways to simply avoid argument and get your point across is to not use the word “you” so damn much. This is one of the hallmarks of rhetoric and debate that can make a huge difference. The judicious use of “I understand..” or “what I hear from you is…” or “one could take the position…” goes a long way to ensuring that arguments stay on topic and actually have some use to the rest of the humans listening in.

    By the way, this comment is written by a recovering Porcupine; not so much online (where I had patient old-timers to shape my behaviour [this was before the Neverending September]) but in my real personal life. Learning not to attack every “weak” position in the most trivial discussions is definitely the #1 thing Porcupines need to learn. #2 is to listen and respond appropriately, and take everything so damned personally.

  4. Loves and multiciplous kissery!

    The porqupines are but human’s souls trapped in a lighthouse that sometimes burns too bright. I would argue, berate and impose: They highlight themselves with as strong a stroke as they can.

    Now go on, form an opinion and see how bright that light shown. Introspection? or bright lights revealing something other than their source?

  5. It seems to me that people will often write on-line things they would never say to your face. Forums and emails lack two important sources of intepretation – tone of voice and body language, so it’s even more important to choose words carefully. You may be joking but if I can’t see the smile or hear the laughter, how am I supposed to know that?

  6. Well, it’s nice to know what one is, and I’ve learned I’m an online porcupine. Oh, how many people I’ve pissed of! I don’t regret it – in fact they were all dirtbags – but I see now how it could have been avoided. Thanks.

  7. Amy, it’s refreshing to hear someone on the web so forgiving of Porcupines. There ARE indeed those who fail to realize that their readers cannot see them, do not know their personalities (a dry sense of humour has gotten THIS writer in trouble more than once). However, just like road rage, some folks turn into different human beings when hiding behind the anonymity of the web. You can imagine the surprise on the face of a gentleman who’d quite seriously maligned me on a list-serv I use for both pleasure and business (it’s music; and I’m in the entertainment business) when I knocked on his door one evening. I almost didn’t; the squalor was pathetic. The poor soul was a phoney who could only derive a sense of power; a sense of self – by demeaning others on the web (and thereby making myself and a good portion of the other members of the list-serv miserable). I told him who I was, and that I thought that an apology was in order. And that was it. He had no choice. And I went away feeling guilty and sad that I’d bothered to put so much energy into reaping some sort of “revenge” from this character who was so devoid of self-esteem.