Friday, February 06, 2009

Online Communities Gone Wrong

If you've been involved with online communities long enough, you've seen them turn mean. If you're an outsider you can look at a lot of the drama and have no idea why people are so worked up. This seems to be a good description of the phenomenon:
Eventually, you see the effect of what I’ll call Harris’ Law: At some point, all humanity in an online community is lost, and the goal becomes to inflict as much psychological suffering as possible on another person.
The examples provided in that article,
Harris’ Law took effect last year when Abraham Biggs killed himself in front of a live webcam audience on life-streaming service JustinTV. The audience’s role? They encouraged him to do it.

Harris’ law took effect in October of 2006, when Lori Drew, a grown woman, created a fake alias on MySpace (”Josh Evans”) in order to psychologically torture 14-year-old Megan Meier. Drew started a online love affair with Megan as “Evans” before pulling the rug out and viciously turning on her victim. This “cyber-bullying,” as the press likes to call it, resulted in Megan killing herself.

Harris’ Law took effect in October of last year when Choi Jin-sil killed herself, reportedly over the fallout from Internet rumors. The bullying in Korea has become so intense that you’re now required to use your Social Security Number to sign up for a social network.
Yet anonymity isn't crucial to online bullying. In fact, sometimes it's the opposite - Lori Drew may have been anonymous, but the harm was inflicted through a profile that was believed to be real.

Unpleasantness in virtual communities is often at the hands of people whose real identities are known, or who have an established virtual identity that vests them with significant authority despite their nominal anonymity. Online cliques form and... well, when Heathers rule the world you don't want to be "Martha Dumptruck". But there's a twist: in some ways its easier to be a Heather in an online world, but also it's easier to refuse to leave a virtual world in response to the Heathers. If you're in a physical living room, and your host and her friends start acting obnoxious, odds are you're going to leave. If it's the online equivalent, you're more likely to dig your heels in and insist, "I have every bit as much right to be here as you do." So on it goes. In one of my forums, I have reminded people that they can put other members they don't like on their "ignore" lists, but it seems that most prefer to read the offending remarks, take great umbrage, and perpetuate the war.

Meanwhile, in the virtual world known as "4chan", the beat goes on. A twitchy teenager named "Boxxy" inspired astonishing acrimony:
What kind of a teenager so divides the fifth-largest Web community that the entire mechanism grinds to a halt? Probably not the kind you expect. She holds no strong opinions, does not deal in sex or violence, and wasn't even looking for fame when she sparked a civil war on a popular website called 4chan.
"Neither a presidential election nor troubles in the Middle East provoked people as much in the 4chan community" - The resulting civil war literally crashed 4chan's servers and, ultimately, Boxxy disappeared.


  1. I hate fighting and nasty comments. I would be one of the ones to hit "ignore", I guess. I also don't go on websites where I disagree with their ideas just to fight...I don't understand why people do that. Not saying it's wrong--I just don't understand it.

    Have you heard about the college websites where they post awful things about people? I'm kinda glad we didn't have this fancy pants internet thing when I was in college!

  2. I hate fighting and nasty comments.

    Yet for some reason you didn't end up in a career as a courtroom litigator.... I just don't get it. ;-)

  3. Probably the biggest issue is the *reason* why people join online communities. *Most* of them are unable to get along with others in real life. So it is not surprising when they act with all the maturity of eleven year old girls in their online affairs. I am not talking about the people who make a couple of posts per week at these places. I am talking about the people who spend five and six hours there every day.

  4. I think the lack of "real" contact (visual or physical) also plays a role.

    People don't see the pain they are inflicting. It's one thing to lace into somebody remotely. It is another thing all together to see/hear them crying.

    Ditto, the fact that they can "hide" behind their username while they say things that they would never say in "real" life. Whether they hold their toungues in the real world out of fear of being condemned for their behavior or fear of being pounded, I don't think I've ever been anywhere in the "real world" where things get as vitrolic as quickly as they do in the online one.

    Finally, I agree with Laura's comment but would add that although I have no data to support it, my hunch is that the people who are the most eager to rule the "virtual world" are the ones who are or see themselves to be the losers of the "real world." They may not be in a position to be able to lash out at anyone in the real world, but they can (and do) in the online one.


  5. How dare you come into my kingdom and say something like...

    Oh... Not sure what happened there. Never mind. ;-)

  6. I am sorely tempted to relate an anecdote of my own participation in an online community, where I could provide countless examples of not only my own bad behavior while I was there, but the horrific behavior that continues to this day by the "losers of the real world" who remain there...but if I did something like that, my email might get hacked :)

    The disconnect with the "real world" that comes from spending seven hours a day online is staggering. Start with the type of person who has six or seven hours per day available to spend online. Chances are they don't do much else, and they certainly don't have a job.

  7. "I want to start an online community."

    "How will it make money?"

    "No, a social community."

    "Enough kidding around. How will it make money?"


  8. I only know how to start online communities that lose money and attract state the painfully obvious!

  9. If only you could find a way to get the obsessive types who spend hours online typing to also spend some money . . . sort of a psychic friends line for cyber stalkers . . .


  10. Funny thing CWD, is that people who have money and jobs, and don't live in their parent's basements, generally DON'T also spend 7 hours a week with their "online friends." Strange thing, that.


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