Page top

Why People Act Stupid On The Internet

Created: / Modified:

Always use secure-HTTP / Secure HTTP / Permanent Link

"It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into."

—Jonathan Swift

It may have come to your attention that some people act like really huge idiots when you give them access to the internet. Penny Arcade refers to this, in a characteristically colorful manner, as Johnathan Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. This article will attempt to explain this phenomenon and the reasons behind it.

This ponderance was brought on by an incident in which I was the idiot in question. I freely admit this; what happened was, somebody wrote Touhou fanfiction with a tone that I didn't like. We're not talking about badly-written drivel with as much of a coherent plot as the instructions to your tax returns here, we're talking about how I became enraged due to something which I personally didn't like.

I have a habit of trying to come up with Why People Do Things, and this will be one of those times. It may also help prevent further idiocy on my part in the future (yeah, right). Note, however, that this is based primarily on anecdotal evidence and my own assumptions of how people work,1 which means that this isn't going to be scientifically rigorous or academically sound by any means. I might mention known concepts, but that'll be it. It will be interesting to see if there might be any studies to show similar results.

The Reason

Let's get the bloody obvious out of the way: one of the defining features of the Internet is total anonymity. Even if I were trying to be academically rigorous here, I'd hardly need to cite a source for that. "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Anonymity how the internet freaking works. Nobody in a given chatroom or message board knows who anyone else is, nobody can see anyone else's face, nobody is seeing anyone else's reactions in real-time as they type a message, nobody is meeting anyone else in person, and likely no one ever will (BOCTAOE).

This results in deindividuation — that is, you cease to see yourself as an individual, but instead part of a group (i.e. the entire internet). In general, but particularly when someone sees something they simply don't like (as opposed to a direct insult — this skews the results a bit), there seem to be two major effects of this anonymity, which quite easily explain stupidity over the internet.2

The first is the lack of consequences. You don't have to look any of these people in the eye, before or since. Of course you're going to behave differently than you would at your eight-year-old cousin's birthday, with your uncle and aunt and parents and siblings and other cousins there, a fair number of whom you meet and greet and speak to every day. You don't have a job or something riding on it (BOCTAOE again). Sure, you might get banned from a forum for breaking the local rules there, but it's not like you'll lose money or go to jail or anything.3 And, precisely because you have nothing riding on it except your emotions, you will defend them to the death in ways you might not otherwise. If that seems counterintuitive, think of it this way: it's something you want to do instead of what you need to do.

The second effect is that you take things more personally. When you make a post on a messageboard, or talk in a chatroom, you are the only live human being with whom you are directly interacting. Well, yes, there are other people out there who are eventually going to see what you typed, but every single one of them is separated from you by at least two computers and possibly the entire width of the planet. This means that, on some level, the only human you are thinking about is yourself. You are therefore less-inclined to think about why some other living breathing human being said or did something, and instead focus on your own emotional reaction. Your ego expands to fill the space normally occupied by others.

I know, I know — the second effect seems to contradict the original cause: if you know you're anonymous, why should you take things more personally? You have to remember, though, that none of this is happening consciously. It's all a subconscious, emotional reaction. Of course your emotions are going to be irrational contradictory. That's what emotions are. If we could get our emotions to behave entirely logically, you can bet we'd be having a lot fewer flame wars (or any other kind, for that matter).

So instead, these two effects feed off each other. The bottom line is that when someone sees something they don't like, (a) they feel very angry without thinking too hard about it, and (b) they have nothing to lose. An ordinary person becomes an idiot.

How to deal with it

The best way for an online community to get rid of the problem is to get rid of the anonymity. This won't happen, though, so the owner's best bet is to set Community Standards. To do that, you'll want to start small and expand slowly, at least at first. If anyone acts idiotic, you come down on them like a half-ton of rectangular building thingies. As more people join up, they'll see the standards you've set and, most of the time, they'll try to conform (since people are also conformists by nature). You'll also want to appoint dedicated moderators once your online community becomes larger, since you obviously can't be there 24/7; they must have the authority, and the tools, to come down on wrongdoers like a half ton of rectangular building thingies. If you want to avoid idiots in situations where this kind of moderation wouldn't be entirely feasible (i.e. decentralized online multiplayer games with a matchmaking system consisting of "oh, hey, this server is kinda near yours"), I recommend making friends in more controlled environments, and then playing these games with them.

If you want to avoid being an idiot, the best thing to do is slow down. (Those of you who are thinking, "Well, I'm never an idiot!" should especially take note, because you're even more susceptible to this kind of thing.) Think before you act. Remember that the other person isn't trying to annoy you personally — or, if they are, throwing a temper-tantrum is exactly what they want to happen. It also helps to imagine someone describing the situation in an incredulous tone of voice, i.e. "You are getting mad because you saw a Mario fanfic which romantically paired Daisy and Waluigi" or "You were pissed off by someone expressing an opinion that differed from yours." When someone's an idiot to you, you don't want to be an idiot back at them. But really, any advice I could give boils down to 1. be more self-aware, and 2. take it easy.

Summary and Concluding Remarks Type Thingummy

So, obviously, idiocy on the internet is rampant, and there isn't a lot we can do about it, because it stems from a basic aspect of the Internet's existence: anonymity. People, when left alone (or alone with a computer, at any rate), become irrational, self-centered animals who fly off the handle at the slightest threat to their feelings, because it's not like they've got anything else at stake, and sometimes even when they do have more at stake.

Fortunately, it's not an insurmountable problem, and you're neither doomed to becoming an idiot yourself, nor destined never to meet anyone who isn't an idiot. There are a few bastions of decency out there, and for that matter, it's fairly easy to make one yourself. All it takes is a little bit of extra intelligence and self-awareness.

1As far as the quality of these assumptions go, I'd say they're actually generally pretty good.

2Whether or not it actually excuses this stupidity is an exercise left to the reader.

3Unless you openly threaten to kill the head of your nation. That's probably illegal everywhere.

6 Comments (auto-closed) (rss feed)


I guess you won't link us the fanfic, huh?

So the yukurri are right?

Kimiko Muffin

Nah, no link or names, I'd prefer to put all essential components of that behind me. And yes, the yukkuris are right in that respect. |3

(Also, ye gods, I started writing this in January ...)


You say that the Internet is defined by total anonymity, and that's true of 4chan and the imageboard culture, but that's really only a small part of the Internet. Most of the Internet works on pseudonymity, which means there are consequences to your actions, but they only exist in the context of that community. This gives rise to what I would consider a much more insidious problem: cults of personality, social pariahs, personal feuds, and people unable to speak their minds for fear of censure of anything else they say; in other words, all the bad parts of real life interaction.

Really, the problem is oversensitivity. It doesn't take too much effort to figure out whether you think an opinion is worth anything, so instead of building a bigger and better banhammer to weed out idiotic posts, why not just, y'know, ignore them?

Kimiko Muffin

Well, in context, the "pseudonymity" amounts to the same thing. Nobody knows you're a dog. You could craft an elaborate alternate personality specifically for the purpose of trolling a message board. But this is all about why people act stupid on the internet, not why they act nasty. ;)

And this isn't just about message boards, but also about online gaming and stuff, where there really isn't much you can do about some random idiot yelling at you.

As for ignoring it: if you (as a community-owner) don't do anything to stop people starting flamewars over minor quibbles? You are tacitly showing that this is acceptable behavior, which will result in more of the same, which is exactly what we don't want. Note that I'm talking about reacting to outright stupid people and behavior ("What!? You don't like TV Show X!? DIE IN A FIRE!"), not just "stuff you don't like" ("I like TV Show X").

Tewi Inonymous

Anyways, it has less to do with anonymity and more to do with a lack of faces.
1) No one can punch your face, without that implicit threat that goes along with normal interpersonal communications people are free to act like douches.
2) You don't see a face, so your not communicating with people but with empty words.

Estragon: Enforcing community standards is important even on the internet, if you don't enforce a communities standards then ultimately there are none and people will act like /b/tards.


Arghblargh circle post that didn't make sense, so I guess I'll just say that perhaps another main reason is in the availability of information - you see everything they say, you can refer back to what they say (you won't forget it), and they can't refute what they have said.

Put them together and you have an ideal recipe for an argument! (not idiocy but still)