Why Are All You People Such Jerks Online?

A new study looks at the reasons why people are so belligerent in their online communications.

The problem of rude, insulting, and often downright demeaning conduct in online interaction is one that has existed since the days of USENET. Indeed, I remember watching people get into heated arguments over relatively trivial issues in the Science Fiction forums on Compuserve back in the day, to the point where people were insulting each other over something that, in the end, really didn’t matter. The advent of blogs and, especially blog comment sections, saw that activity find a new forum notwithstanding the efforts of all of us to do our best to bring such things under control. Any newspaper article on the web that has a comment thread attatched seemed to inevitable devolve into an insult session, especially if it’s about a heated political topic. Facebook and Twitter have both become a haven of rancor and attack that at times resembles a middle school playground. The odd thing I’ve discovered is that many of the people I’ve encountered online who are known for vociferous and confrontational argument are completely different when you meet them in person.

The Wall Street Journal cites a new study that explains why this may be the case:

Why are we so nasty to each other online? Whether on Facebook, Twitter, message boards or websites, we say things to each other that we would never say face to face. Shouldn’t we know better by now?

Anonymity is a powerful force. Hiding behind a fake screen name makes us feel invincible, as well as invisible. Never mind that, on many websites, we’re not as anonymous as we think—and we’re not anonymous at all on Facebook. Even when we reveal our real identities, we still misbehave.

According to soon-to-be-published research from professors at Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh, browsing Facebook lowers our self control. The effect is most pronounced with people whose Facebook networks were made up of close friends, the researchers say.

Most of us present an enhanced image of ourselves on Facebook. This positive image—and the encouragement we get, in the form of “likes”—boosts our self-esteem. And when we have an inflated sense of self, we tend to exhibit poor self-control.

“Think of it as a licensing effect: You feel good about yourself so you feel a sense of entitlement,” says Keith Wilcox, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School and co-author of the study. “And you want to protect that enhanced view, which might be why people are lashing out so strongly at others who don’t share their opinions.” These types of behavior—poor self control, inflated sense of self—“are often displayed by people impaired by alcohol,” he adds.

(…)

We’re less inhibited online because we don’t have to see the reaction of the person we’re addressing, says Sherry Turkle, psychologist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of the social studies of science and technology. Because it’s harder to see and focus on what we have in common, we tend to dehumanize each other, she says.

Astoundingly, Dr. Turkle says, many people still forget that they’re speaking out loud when they communicate online. Especially when posting from a smartphone, “you are publishing but you don’t feel like you are,” she says. “So what if you say ‘I hate you’ on this tiny little thing? It’s like a toy. It doesn’t feel consequential.”

And for Facebook, its very name is part of the problem. “It promises us a face and a place where we are going to have friends,” says Dr. Turkle, author of the book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” “If you get something hurtful there, you’re not prepared. You feel doubly affronted, so you strike back.”

Much of this is not new, of course. The idea that the anonymity of the Internet makes it easier to act in a manner that one would not do in public is one that any of who have been online has seen far more times than can be counted.  Someone having a political discussion over the back fence with a neighbor isn’t likely to start cursing them out and calling them an idiot (although I have some doubts about that in our hyperpartisan world), but put them in front of a computer and those social restraints are gone.

One of the sadder examples I ready about recently came from a random post I happened to stumble upon over on WordPress.com from a guy whose brother happens to be gay and happens to have recently gotten married:

They married in May. It was a wonderful ceremony in which I was honored to stand by my brother, supporting him in his vows. My eyes teared up like they always do at weddings. I had the joy of watching two people commit to a lifetime together. It filled my heart.

Folks started posting photos from the wedding on Facebook, and I proudly reposted photos of the ceremony (with me looking awesome in my new suit, of course). Shortly after that, I received this message from a FB friend:

“Hey David, I am removing you from my friends list…sorry man, that latest post is way over the top! Homosexuals joining in “Holy” matrimony…I don’t think so??? The Holy Bible speaks out against homosexuality and speaks highly of Holy matrimony between a man and a woman. It’s nothing more than a slap in the face to those who choose God’s Word, for homosexuals to join in a Holy marriage. I’m only defriending you so I don’t have to look at your anti-God stuff anymore…nothing personal!”

Wow.

This came from a man I used to work with. A man I respect in his dedication to his family, and in his desire to live a moral and ethical life. A man with whom I have had some very interesting religious debates. He has become a Baptist preacher since we last spoke in person, and I suppose that makes this message unsurprising.

But, I was still surprised. I was taken aback. I needed a moment. I was hurt.

What kind of  a person sends a note like that just because someone posted a picture of his brothers wedding? I’m pretty sure I know the type, because I run into many of them online myself. They like to use their online persona to push an agenda and react vociferously anytime they see anything that opposes it, although I guess I cannot really see why a picture of happy people at a wedding opposes anyone’s agenda. I might be wrong about this, but if these two men had encountered each other face-to-face, I have to doubt that there would have been the same kind of reaction, and I doubt that post author would’ve been bothered by the incident if it hadn’t been someone he knew personally. I’ve gotten similar messages from people on Facebook or Twitter, but since they’ve invariably been people I don’t know personally, I’ve basically just ignored it.

I don’t think there’s really any solution to the problem of how people behave online. In some ways, you could argue that they are revealing their true personalities when they do so, and perhaps that’s just another piece of information we can take into account when evaluating a person’s character. On the whole, though, though it’d be great if all of you just stopped acting like jerks. (Just kidding)

FILED UNDER: General
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mantis says:

    Hmm, I’m a jerk offline too (to some people). Here I’m just a jerk with a backspace key.

    C’est la vie.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    Anonimity has been the standard explanation of boorish driving for a long time.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    Hey, fwck you, mantis! You, too, gVOR08 — like that’s your real name.

  4. Vast Variety says:

    Being a jerk makes us feel good becuase it’s us telling oursleves we are better than the person who has become our target of the day. Of course the reality of it is that we aren’t any better but we like to have our fantasies.

  5. Dustin says:

    Your link to the wedding story is wrong, FYI.

  6. Mikey says:

    Well, I think anyone who’s been on the ‘net more than about two minutes understands “nice, normal person + Internet anonymity = raging jerk.”

    The overall effect ties into a topic that was posted about and discussed here on OTB over the past couple days–the increasing tendency of the right to “poll denial” and other Internet-reinforced thought processes. The more forceful pushing of a position that results from Internet anonymity and disinhibition leads to the reinforcement of feelings rather than facts, and the consequent refusal of a lot of people to accept things even in the face of overwhelming evidence.

    Today, for example, I was corresponding with an e-mail friend I’ve known for about 15 years. He had put out the line that “Carter led Reagan by 8 before the debate.” I replied that wasn’t the case, actually Reagan had led in the polls (in the aggregate) for several months and the debate only expanded his lead. I linked to the item on The Monkey Cage blog that was referenced here on OTB a few days ago–the one with the graph that clearly shows Reagan’s sustained lead. My friend’s response? “Well, I disagree.” And I’m thinking, disagree with what? I’ve just given you the numbers and their sources, they clearly show you are incorrect, there isn’t even any room for debate, so how do you disagree?

    Then he proceeded to talk about how today’s polls are being manipulated and the liberals would be surprised when Romney stomped Obama on Election Day, etc. etc. I just closed the e-mail without responding. What else could I say? Obviously even the actual facts of the matter wouldn’t change his mind.

  7. Al says:

    Didn’t they figure this out all the way back in 2004?

  8. Much of this is not new, of course. The idea that the anonymity of the Internet makes it easier to act in a manner that one would not do in public is one that any of who have been online has seen far more times than can be counted.

    Did you actually look at the summary of the study? It turns out anonymity wasn’t the driving factor, and in fact noted tha being less anonymity actually made people MORE assholish. This actually is pretty big news. If this study is correct, the standard theory is wrong.

  9. @Stormy Dragon:

    Looking more it appears the study is arguing that it’s not the anonymity of the author that determines how jerky someone is, but the anonymity of the audience. That is, people are jerks because they can’t see the reactions of the people they’re being jerks to.

    (Anecdotally, I’d note most of this site’s big trolls left after the thumbs up/thumbs down started).

  10. Rob in CT says:

    1. The written word vs. speaking in person.
    2. Anonymity
    3. We’ve kind of come looking for an argument.
    4. Abuse is just down the hall…

  11. Dazedandconfused says:

    Anonymity + megaphone = Raging douche bag.

    I’m not surprised in the least this had to be spelled out for you people.

  12. Commonist says:

    Because the internet is full of rude c***s that need to be put in their f***ing place, you moronic muhfuh!

  13. Drew says:

    I’d like to go on record that I think all the commenters and essayists on this site are the most intelligent, magnificent , most interesting, insightful and all round good joes I’ve ever run into………..or maybe not……

  14. PogueMahone says:

    The internet allows one to venture into places that would normally cause one to display contra-social behavior without the consequences.
    It has little to do with anonymity, but the lack of consequences as well as the ability to retract oneself into one’s shell.

    For example, I live at least 40 miles from the nearest pub that has the kind of patrons that would agree with me on most social issues. I’m surrounded by honky-tonks populated with inbred mouth-breathers. Now if I were to venture into one of these establishments and start spouting marriage equality or right to choose or Dream Act or anything of the sort, I would be dangerously outnumbered and lucky to make it back to the car with my ass intact.
    The internet allows me to venture into virtual honky-tonks populated with mouth-breathers and spout my social beliefs with relative safety. Anonymity plays nothing to it.

    However, although I have the ability to venture into virtual honky-tonks, I seldom do because as in reality, I prefer the company of civilized individuals.

    The only reason I use a nom de plume is because I can, not because I need to. The potential risks of using my real identity outweigh any potential benefit – I’m not a professional writer or other professional that relies on identity, therefore, why should I bother with my real name.
    If ever one of you want to meet up for a drink sometime, I’d be happy to. Once we decide on a venue, I’m easy to spot – I’m the stocky, bearded guy with my face in a pint of Guinness. You can’t miss me.
    And that includes people like Bithead et al. Hell, I’d love to have a beer with Bithead – it would be a laugh riot.

    Cheers.

  15. @PogueMahone:

    Roughly whereabouts do you live?

  16. Moosebreath says:

    @michael reynolds:

    “Hey, fwck you, mantis! You, too, gVOR08 — like that’s your real name.”

    Because mantis is his real name, eh dipwad?

  17. An Interested Party says:

    (Anecdotally, I’d note most of this site’s big trolls left after the thumbs up/thumbs down started).

    Or changed pseudonyms…

  18. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Drew:

    I’d like to go on record that I think all the commenters and essayists on this site are the most intelligent, magnificent , most interesting, insightful and all round good joes I’ve ever run into

    It takes one to know one, pal!

  19. john personna says:

    Anonymity arguments make me think someone discovered the Internet last week. No awareness of feedback loops or long term communities. Very shallow analysis. Not to mention very 1990.

  20. Modulo Myself says:

    This came from a man I used to work with. A man I respect in his dedication to his family, and in his desire to live a moral and ethical life. A man with whom I have had some very interesting religious debates.

    The only funny thing is that the guy who trolled the picture is probably blogging about how horrible the rigid lefties are who didn’t want to hear a contrary opinion.

    I’m very suspicious of narratives that rely on weird hidden natures. Most people’s personalities are there for the taking. Or at least, we should behave that awareness reveals things. This idea, the idea that there are normal people out there just talking about the family and the job and the future, and then, in front of a screen, all on their own, they become unrecognizable–this is a fantasy. If you listen and remember the silences and omissions and awful propriety of human beings, the world is a very different place.

  21. jukeboxgrad says:

    There are many different ways of being a jerk (online and offline) but discussions like this tend to overlook what I think is one of the worst offenses: lying.

    Someone can post a falsehood wrapped in civility, but that civility is superficial. If I tell you a brazen, obvious lie, what I’m doing is insulting your intelligence, even if I’ve wrapped the lie in a supposedly civil tone. And of course there are many examples of people doing this. I just think we should keep this in mind when we discuss the problems of jerks.

    So here’s a good example of someone being a jerk: Ryan’s convention speech. This is an example of someone incivilly insulting our intelligence while being superficially civil.

  22. Jon says:

    This was figured out in 2004, sir.

  23. EMRVentures says:

    @gVOR08: Bing. I’ve always thought that the closest measure of the person you really are is the person you are behind the wheel of your car.

  24. Jon says:

    Dammit. Here’s the link I meant to post: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/

  25. PogueMahone says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I live just outside of Houston.

  26. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds: Very good.

  27. MarkedMan says:

    A couple of random thoughts on human interaction spurred on by being married and by having two teenage kids, and the mirror they are constantly, albeit unknowingly, holding up:

    – Some things are just cultural differences but they trigger real feelings anyway. When I say, “you didn’t take out the garbage yet, did you?” to my wife, to my ears it sounds like I’m acknowledging she’s not obligated to take it out but I’m just checking before I do so myself, while to her it sounds like I had an expectation she would take it out but fail in that duty. And again: if she is in earshot and I’m talking to a friend about the house I’ll say ‘my house’ because if I say “our house” it sounds to me like I mean ‘my friend’s and my house’ which doesn’t make sense, but to my wife it sounds like I am excluding her and minimizing her role. There isn’t a right or wrong here, just an obligation for me to constantly struggle to catch myself because I want to do the right thing by her.

    – Teennagers and, as I realize more and more, a fifty-two year old man, can often lead with the negative, unaware of just how off-putting this is.

  28. Al says:

    @Jon:

    I posted that link first, Douche Canoe!

  29. jukeboxgrad says:

    Great minds think alike.

  30. grumpy realist says:

    @PogueMahone: Add me to the brews-up group!

    I’m anonymous mainly because I basically believe that my commentary is a separate part of my life from the professional work I do. If I were posting exclusively on work-related topics I would be posting under my own name. But since I’m not….

    Also because I’ve seen the hassles that individuals have when posting online under an obviously feminine name. We’re pretty good at keeping out the obvious riffraff from OTB, but, well, it’s just a question of prudence. If you have someone’s actual name (and mine is pretty unusual so it would be easy to track me down), there’s the potential for a) identity fraud b)online or off-line harassment, etc. etc., and so forth.

    We’ve luckily been (mostly) free of the teenage trolls. May OTB always remain so!

  31. Let's Be Free says:

    Well, you know, the historical precedent for the thumbs up, thumbs down thing lies in the Roman Coliseum. We all know what happened there.

  32. Laurence Bachmann says:

    Why would anyone be disturbed that a homophobe doesn’t want to “friend” him. Good riddance AHole. And yes we do act like nasty adolescents online. The anonymity keeps it impersonal—a way to vent and say all the things it is socially unacceptable to voice. I think it is healthy—as Fran lebowitz says–what am I doing when I am talking? Not listening to you. Fun

  33. Moderate Mom says:

    What surprises me the most about the man doing the defriending on Facebook is that he told the guy that posted the pictures that not only was he doing it, but why. Not much of a Pastor, Baptist or not, to go out of his way to hurt someone’s feelings. Defriending someone doesn’t require an announcement, it just takes a simple click. The odds are that the wedding guy would have never even noticed that this particular person was no longer on his friends list.

    That said, I look at life as different strokes for different folks. My friends are varied, as are their viewpoints on a number of issues. If I disagree with them, I don’t announce it on their Facebook wall, or even to them in person. And I’m grateful that they treat me with the same consideration. Politics, and religion for that matter, are only a part of each of our interests and are not reflective of the person as a whole. I like having friends with differing viewpoints because it allows me to be more informed, learn some new things, and even sometimes change my mind about something. I would no more purposely hurt or insult someone online than I would to their face, but that’s just how I roll.

  34. JohnMcC says:

    Personally, I’ve found that a fairly rigid enforcement of the ‘No Keyboarding Under the Influence’ rule improved my online personality alot. And I enjoy thinking about policy, history and such wonkish stuff so — honestly — I’m having fun here. Then there’s my life with workshop and backpack and grandchildren and the beautiful Tampa Bay to play on.. So what’s to get mad about?

  35. ernieyeball says:

    @Drew: …all round good joes I’ve ever run into…

    Sexist!

  36. Mr. Replica says:
  37. @PogueMahone:

    Drat, that’s way out of my bar range.

  38. rodney dill says:

    Just this

  39. alanmt says:

    I dated this other bisexual guy ten years ago, when I was just coming out, and after dating a couple weeks we were heading into my house to catch a movie after a dinner date and he pulled me back out on the front porch and kissed me long and passionately, and told me he wanted to do that in front of all the neighbors so he could be sure that I wasn’t ashamed of who I was. We didn’t date long, but we stayed friends, and he invited me to his wedding a couple of year ago. Now he is a new father.

    Two months ago, he posted comments in support of chik-fil-a on facebook, and other friends of his posted very vicious homophobic comments. I posted a brief comment that the controversy wasn’t about the owner’s personal business belief but that corporate profits were donated to organizations which support criminalization of gay behavior in teh US and death to gay people abroad. One of his friends said that throwing gay people in jail and killing them was a good thing. I waited 24 hours for my friend to disavow that. He didn’t, although he made other posts.

    So I posted: “Hey [name], I like Chik-fil-a too; why didn’t we ever eat there when were dating?” It was the first time I have been defriended and blocked. But I just hate hypocrisy.

  40. OzarkHillbilly says:

    For example, I live at least 40 miles from the nearest pub that has the kind of patrons that would agree with me on most social issues. I’m surrounded by honky-tonks populated with inbred mouth-breathers. Now if I were to venture into one of these establishments and start spouting marriage equality or right to choose or Dream Act or anything of the sort, I would be dangerously outnumbered and lucky to make it back to the car with my ass intact.

    For what it is worth… I live within 5 miles of at least a half dozen Confederate flags and yet have never been harassed even tho both of my vehicles sport “Redneck for Obama” stickers. Of course, that just might be because I am even more of an a$$hole in person than I am online. That and the machete I keep behind the seat of my p/u.

  41. John D'Geek says:

    Caveat: While I do hold a graduate degree in Psychology, I cannot cite references at this time. This post is based on personal observations:

    … you could argue that they are revealing their true personalities when they do so …

    The concept of “a true personality” seems to be flawed at its core. I’ve noticed that people act differently based on social context; what happens when you take the social context out of the loop? Actually, you can’t.

    “Alone” is a social context.

    Personality is more like a gem — something with many facets — than a single “thing”. I would never expect a person to act the same toward their daughter as they would towards their Spouse — that would be … disturbing. Yet these are both “true” parts of the individual, facets if you will.

    There is no such thing as a “true personality”.

    Now this is not to say that the person does not have “programs” that are similar in various contexts, but that’s not the same thing as having a single “true” personality. Nor is having a “core essence”, or finding a person’s core set of principles the same thing.

    “Personality”, after all, is how we relate to people. Including ourselves.

  42. Wayne says:

    Granted there are many reasons. One that many don’t realize is that it is a reflection of them. I have often replied to someone using his or her own post. Sometimes reposting almost word for word and even doing it within the same thread. Their reaction I am sure is not how they thought others reacted to their original post.

    There are those like Michael who claim they are civil in their post. They probably even believe it. However, in the end they are not. Personally, I don’t make such claims. I tend to treat people like they treat me.