Why People Act Stupid On The Internet
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"It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into."
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.
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.