In my first post in this series, I explained why I was taking a stand for civil online discourse. I also promised to discuss, in this the next post, the “5 faces on online crazy”, and how they poison the discussion. I also promised to point out how you can recognize these behaviors/attitudes, and provide some tips on how you can prevent them from usurping, and disrupting, your online discussions. In thinking about this some more, I decided to change the focus to the types of behavior and attitudes that manifest themselves in uncivil discourse, rather than the types of people who behave that way. I also decided to add another face. Hence, the new title – The
Five Six Faces of Online Crazy(ness).
The “Five Faces”, as we learned at the December meeting of the Houston Social Media Breakfast, are: stakeholder dissatisfaction, mob (tar & feathers), determined detractor, disturbing stalker, and troll. The sixth face that I am contributing to the discussion is spam (not to be confused with the tasty pink tinned luncheon meat from Hormel.)
Because it is really different in nature from the others, I will address spam first. Originally a term for Unsolicited Commercial Email (UCE) from back in the days when the Internet was the playground of universities and researchers, spam is now used to refer to pretty much any type of unwanted advertisement online (this doesn’t count banner and other ads on websites, which are placed there at the request of the website operator.) It is a serious enough problem (estimates are that up to 80% of all email sent is spam) that there are companies that make a pretty good living providing products to combat it. Much of the spam either shills iffy products (I call them the “3 Ps”, for “pillz, pr0n, and penny stocks”), or outright scams (such as the “someone you never knew in Nigeria died and left you a gazillion dollars”), and a disturbing trend is emerging in that many of the links in spammed email, if clicked, will take you to a site where your PC may become infected with malware.
Because it is so fundamentally different, I will provide guidelines for preventing spam from poisoning the discussion here. First off, never, ever reply to any type of unsolicited commercial communications. Don’t fire off a scathing response, don’t click on the “unsubscribe” links. Even better, don’t even open the communication. Doing any of these will simply confirm to the sender that your identity (normally your email address) is “live”, and will result in more spam. If you click on the spammed links on sites like Facebook, you may in fact become part of the problem: a favorite trick of the spammers there is to create a “survey spam” scam app, using misleading titles to entice you to click on them. (If you click, you will be asked to “authorize” an app, which will then proceed to make posts enticing others to click the same link, and will also take you to a “survey” which earns the originator of this scam a commission.) If you have a blog or website that is being besieged by spammed comments, delete them as they appear, or better yet install software that will catch them and quarantine them. Akismet makes such a product (I happen to use the free version on my personal blog), and B2evolution has a good crowd-sourced anti-spam component.
Now, for the other Five Faces of Online Crazy(ness).
Stakeholder dissatisfaction occurs when someone with a vested interest (either perceived or real) in a discussion feels that things aren’t going their way. In real life (IRL) this can be seen in “shareholder protests”, where those opposed to a company’s practices or policies purchase a quantity of company stock, then show up at the annual stockholders’ meeting to present a petition or argue for a “stockholder initiative”. Online, this may be manifested by members of community groups setting up websites or fan pages opposing the organization, oftentimes with names similar to that of the organization they are opposed to. These efforts tend to draw an over-reaction from those in favor of the organization involved, and the arguments that develop between these two camps becomes the “uncivil discourse”.
The determined detractor is one who for some reason has taken it upon him/herself the mission of being a crusader – many times taking a point in opposition to that of the discussion (or organization/activity that is the subject of the discussion.) Ralph Nader is a good example of the determined detractor, as is the person who parks outside of an auto dealership with a sign on their car saying “this dealer sold me a lemon.” Online, you may see the determined detractor as one who “likes”, “friends”, or “follows” a person or organization in order to establish the line of communications, then will repetitively post their “manifesto” everywhere they can (whether it is relevant to the specific topic under discussion or not.) Someone may also become a determined detractor when they feel they have somehow been wronged, and express their displeasure, over and over and over ad nauseum, in every forum they find the “aggrieving” party. Determined detractors are also showing up online where user-written reviews are posted (note that this is also a place where competitors may show up, to write disparaging reviews in the hope of driving business away from the competition and to their business.) Seeing the same critical line, over and over again, especially when it is off-topic, is a good indication that you are looking at a determined detractor. The intent of the determined detractor is often to disrupt the discussion, so responding to them simply plays into their hands.
When a group of people decide to take up arms (metaphorically speaking) on behalf of stakeholder dissatisfaction or a determined detractor (oftentimes without taking time or effort to understand the issues involved), a mob mentality develops. This can turn very ugly, very quickly, as the voice of the lone detractor is amplified until it drowns out any attempt at civic discourse. Mob mentality can also lead to legally iffy actions, such as the DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks recently perpetrated against Paypal, Visa, Mastercard, and other sites by members of “anonymous” in support of Julian Assange. Taken to this extreme, the mob can have an adverse impact on commerce, hurting lots of innocent bystanders (the attack against Mastercard resulted in some online transactions being declined): even when confined to cyber-verbal abuse, the mob is impossible to control, and the level of rhetoric will escalate to the point where further discussion is both unpleasant and unfruitful. Unfortunately, when a well-known person online becomes a determined detractor, the legions of his/her followers/”friends” are a ready-made mob, ready, willing, and all-too able to go on the offensive.
Disturbing stalker takes uncivil behavior online and kicks it up a bunch of scary notches. This is often a person who feels slighted by another, and who dwells on the “wrong” done to them (whether real or perceived) until it becomes an obsession. A disturbing stalker is fairly easy to recognize: first of all, the things they say take on an increasingly disturbing tone. They may start talking about how they know all sorts of “secret information” about their victim, and in fact they may start posting “candid photos” or other personal details. They also “cyber-stalk” their victim, following them from forum to forum. Unchecked, this cyber-stalking can turn into real-life stalking, with potentially tragic consequences.
The troll is a special type of cyber-misbehavior. Simply put, the troll is an online ****-stirrer, posting inflammatory commentary in forums just to get others riled up. Trolling is an attempt to gain attention, without any intention of adding to the discussion in any way, shape, or form. For examples (many, many examples) of trolls, simply peruse the comments section at the end of articles and blog posts on major online news sites – like this one, for example.
So, now that you know what these behaviors/attitudes are, and how to recognize them, what can you do to keep them from taking over your fave online hangouts, and ruining any attempt at rational, civil discourse?
First, and maybe most fundamentally: Do Not Feed The Trolls. While you can’t always control what others think, say, or do, what you can control is your own response. If you don’t enjoy uncivil discourse, then don’t participate in it. This is particularly effective against the troll, as trolls thrive on the response (which means folks are paying attention to them.) This simple rule can be applied to all of the faces of crazy(ness) with a little change, to Do Not Become That Which You Abhor.
A second guiding principle is to Practice Moderation. On a personal level, this means “give a measured, appropriate, relevant response.” For site owners/managers, this means (1) have a written policy on what constitutes acceptable behavior, and (2) enforce that policy. It will take a bit of effort, but seriously, without rules that are enforced, where would society itself be?
Third up: Practice Critical Thinking. ”I saw it on the Internet, so it must be true” is a common misconception. It is also intellectual laziness. You must always evaluate the information you get, whether from the newspaper, the TV, your best friend, or a random stranger: why not do the same with information you see/hear online?
Fourth is: Do Not Tolerate Bullying. Bullies are basically cowards with a bit of bluster, and when you stand up to them, they tend to back down quickly. If you see someone else being bullied, stand up for them. This is one place where peer pressure can be a very effective counter to uncivil discourse.
Last, but not least: Protect Yourself. We all want to be liked, to be a part of a community. Social networking facilitates the creation of relationships, oftentimes making it too easy to become “friends.” While you don’t need to be paranoid, you should exercise reasonable precautions. Things like: don’t give details on your vacation plans in “out of office” emails auto-responses, don’t broadcast your exact location when you are about (use location-based services sparingly, and know who is allowed to read them), and don’t make all the details of your life available to anyone with an Internet-connected device and a browser (remember, they call it TMI for a reason.) And, if you find yourself the victim of a Disturbing Stalker, know your legal rights, and be prepared to exercise them (to include notifying law enforcement of issues involving the safety of yourself and/or others, and engaging the services of an attorney, where appropriate.)
Next in the series: how anonymity is an enabler to incivility online, and what we can do about it.
(cross-posted on eTee Too)