Burns: Touchy, Touchy! (Online Vermin, Part 7)

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

At last we arrive to the end of my seemingly interminable discussion of online vermin:

Burns: These people routinely overreact and take nearly everything personally, in a negative way. They are as socially or emotionally sensitive as burn victims: any contact is risky. Even the slightest touch of communication, the slightest possible hint of an insinuation, can cause them to react with pain: anger, shame, self-doubt, guilt, despair, regret, self-pity, etc. And you’ll hear about it – loudly.

I debated with myself long and hard before deciding to add burns to my vermin menagerie. Since everyone has his or her own unique set of sensitivities, can there truly be such a thing as “oversensitive?”

Well, yes, I think so…


The question of oversensitivity is not about whether anyone is too sensitive in an absolute sense, but rather in a relative sense. That is, a given person may be too sensitive to communicate well in one setting, yet too brash in another – even if he is exhibiting virtually identical behavior in both settings! (And online, since a person can be many “places” at the same time, one can be simultaneously oversensitive and callous. Welcome to Wonderland.)

It all comes down to awareness personal preferences and community cultures. Both are more subtle and changeable than you might imagine.

Every online community develops its own cultural norms regarding communication – how much joking and off-topic discussions are tolerable; whether flaming is considered lively, tiresome, or destructive; whether personal topics are appropriate; whether opinions should be supported by facts; which sorts of discussions get taken “offline;” etc. Those are some of the overt aspects of an online community’s culture.

However, more subtle nuances (such as tone, formality, attention to and discussion of personal matters or emotions, even pronoun use) almost always become an unacknowledged part of an online community’s interactions, too. They help shape the community’s rhythm and character. It’s like the fact that some families shout a lot, argue constantly, or display a lot of emotion, while others are constantly reserved or deferential.

The “normal” level of expected personal sensitivity is a cultural nuance that varies from one online community to the next. It also may vary within a community over time. Of course, personal sensitivity is even more a matter of personal preference or habit than group culture. In my experience, this is a major cause of chaos, arguments, and splintering in newly coalescing online communities.


A burn is someone whose level of personal sensitivity causes them emotional pain in a particular context, and they cannot or will not stop themselves from reacting immediately and strongly to express that pain.

Burns routinely complain that various contributions to a discussion are personally insulting to them. They complain that others are not responding adequately to their contributions or requests. They complain that they are misunderstood. In fact, you’ll know a burn is suppurating in your midst if almost any interaction involving that individual seems to elicit cries of woe.


As is true with any potential online vermin encounter, your first response should be to PAUSE and evaluate the situation. Don’t be too quick to respond or slap a label on someone.

Anyone (even you, definitely me) can have a bad day here or there. Anyone (even you, definitely me) can be pricked by a porcupine, baited by a troll, berated by a zealot, twisted by a skewer, or stung by a leech. Also, anyone can have a legitimate complaint – real insults, slights, and oversights do occur online all the time. Maintain your perspective and your compassion.

You can only definitively reveal a burn by observing his communication patterns over time – generally at least 10 interactions involving that person. My personal guideline is that if five or more out of 10 consecutive messages from that person contain a personal complaint regarding interactions in that community (or regarding you, if you’re talking about private conversations) – that person is probably a burn. That is, his level of personal sensitivity is probably too high for him to participate constructively in that community, or in private conversations with you. It’s just not a good fit.


Just because someone turns out to be a burn in a particular context does not mean she doesn’t deserve respect and consideration. It is never appropriate or useful to heckle, demean, or argue with a burn, since that person is expressing genuine pain. Just because you wouldn’t feel hurt in their situation does not mean their pain is “irrational” or “unjustified.” It’s just there, that’s all.

Most burns have no desire to make pain a way of life. If they cannot minimize their pain by adapting, they tend to voluntarily exit constantly painful situations after a while. Therefore, your best response to a burn is to avoid responding if at all possible. Minimize interactions with burns, and wait for them to go away. Usually, that’s exactly what will happen.


Occasionally you may encounter people who seem to wallow in pain – it defines their identity. They appear to deliberately place themselves in situations where they will get hurt or offended. Their complaints never stop. They may even try to force you (or the community) to adapt to their personal sensitivities – which is futile, since such changes can never really be forced.

Such persistent burns may need to be addressed actively, not passively. This is a difficult matter because if you attempt to confront a person who is crying out in pain, you’re definitely going to appear callous and take some criticism for it. Prepare yourself for that.

The overall strategy is to encourage the burn to move on to a more suitable community or conversation partner. Encouraging is a postive strategy, very different from the negative approach: discouraging burns through criticism, ridicule, or kicking them out (if that’s even possible).

How to encourage a persistent burn to move on:

  1. Analyze the burn’s recent complaints and requests. What is causing the burn pain? What is that person asking for?
  2. Guess whether the burn basically wants relief from pain, or thrives on pain.
  3. Search for some alternate but related online communities with cultures which might suit the burn better. If you think the burn wants relief, find a couple of communities with milder discussions. (A brief scan of recent archives should tell you a lot about the community’s culture.) If you think the burn is seeking pain, find some even more fiesty or extreme communities.
  4. Signal the existance of these alternatives in a posting to the community which is inflicted by the burn. A good way to do this is to mention a relative thread in the alternate forum. Include the most direct link to that thread possible. If possible, relate your mention of alternative communities to something the burn said recently. That will always make a burn take notice.
  5. Nudge the burn to engage the alternative community. Say in public that you think the burn would make excellent contributions to a particular discussion. Also, send a private e-mail to the burn making the same recommendation. The overall message is “You’d be great over there,” NOT “We don’t want you around here anymore.”
  6. Change the topic. In your own community, start a couple of new threads on a topic that seems to disinterest the burn. Or revive earlier threads in which the burn did not participate. If anyone tries to extend a thread that has attracted the burn’s interest in the past, e-mail them privately to ask them to hold off on that for a bit. The goal is to make your community less appealing to the burn.
  7. Watch both communities. See if the burn takes the bait. if so, wait at least a few days or a week. The burn will probably leave.
  8. If the burn remains, ignore him, and encourage others to so the same. If possible, put that person on your “ignore” list so you literally don’t see his messages. Discourage others from responding to the burn’s complaints. Only in very extreme circumstances should you consider booting a burn from an online community, if that’s an option.

…This concludes my online vermin series. If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read the rest of the series and comment on it. Thanks for your attention, and I appreciate your perspective and questions.

PREVIOUSLY: Leeches: Just Say No

INDEX AND INTRO to this series.

2 thoughts on Burns: Touchy, Touchy! (Online Vermin, Part 7)

Comments are closed.

  1. Your series on “Online Vermin” was brought to my attention by someone on a discussion list to which I belong. She’s credible enough with me that I took the time to come read the series. It was well worth the trip and I’ve bookmarked your blog for a return visit. Your advice seems sound enough, especially the pervasive notion of pausing before responding. Still, as I said to the person who told me about your blog, there are times when I wish there was an online version of the Orkin man. But, since we all fit the vermin descriptions from time to time, I suppose the only thing an online Orkin man could do is exterminate the population and that is certainly a cure far worse than the disease.

    Thanks for some thoughtful reminders, chief among which is patience.

    Fred Nickols

  2. All I really know about are the web developer and interaction design type discussion list communities. Other types I found extremely childish, burnified, and superficial. I visited a chat room one morning. Never returned. I visited theological bulletin boards and blogs. They were hateful to anyone who did not agree with their static, anti-intellectual, hypocritical traditions.

    What I have encountered at web professional email discussion lists is that certain topics are taboo (e.g., how evil virus creators are), and at one list, you are crucified and silenced if you question why web designers hate Jakob Nielsen and usability guidelines.

    What I think I’ve encountered are those who are “burn victim” oversensitive to anyone treading on their design school arrogance. It’s back to narcisisstic web sites vs. altruistic web sites. Those who feel they can design “any random thing” just so they can feel good at an aesthetic “accomplishment”…they usually go berserk if you mention any user observation studies or usability principles, calling them “arbitrary” and “ugly”. They are nuts and naive.