Online behavior, lawn chairs, science fiction, and the Charter for Compassion

I’ve been thinking a lot about how people behave in Virtual Worlds and online forums. While my experience with virtual worlds goes back only 9 years, my experience with online forums goes back all the way to my days at The Well, which is of course one of the oldest online communities.

And of course, in between there I had a little experience with online communities at eBay.

I was actually a member of CompuServe and Genie too, but I won’t count those since I spent more time downloading software than interacting with others.

What I’ve constantly been amazed at is how badly people can treat each other in these online venues. Don’t get me wrong, 99% of the time people behave courteously towards each other, and things are quite civilized. People are basically good, as a smart person taught me once.

But that other 1% of the time, watch out. I’ve seen what I assume are perfectly reasonable people say things that their mothers would have washed their mouths out with soap for, and that would have been just a prelude to being taken out to the woodshed, and then grounded for a month.

In many cases, these outbursts escalate into full-on flame wars which more often than not turn out to be entertainment for everyone else. At The Well people signified this by saying posting “pulling up the lawn chairs”, or something along those lines. In There, people gather their avatars around the protagonists and either just listen, or in some cases, egg them on.

I’ve come to regard these as pretty normal in online communities.

What bugs me is when people are unkind to others for no apparent reason. Time and time again, I’ve seen people attacked for completely innocent actions, or, worse yet, just doing their job.

Here’s a great example: On lots of technical forums, an innocent question about “What’s wrong with this code?” is often met with responses like “You need to learn C++ before asking questions”, or “Obviously you don’t know what you’re doing, please come back when you get a clue”.

Another example is when a someone asks a company for something, and the employee, who’s just doing their job, can’t. Too, too, too many times, the response to this (by the customer) is that the employee is somehow personally persecuting them, and the response, which is even worse, is to personally attack the employee.

Hello! What’s up with that?

What, exactly, does it accomplish?

If I thought it somehow made the attacker feel better, I might understand, but unless their some sort of frustrated serial killer, that doesn’t really make any sense.

The most interesting part of this is that in person, or even just over the phone, these people wouldn’t be caught dead acting like this. In fact, if they saw someone else acting like this, they’d call them on it. I’m not even going to go into what would happen if they caught their kids acting like that.

One of my favorite books of all time is an old science fiction novel The Gameplayers of Zan ( the single book isn’t in print any more, but you can get the anthology The Book of The Ler instead).

The main characters in the book is a race of genetically engineered humans known as The Ler. They’re only mildly different from humans, but one of their cardinal rules is to never use a weapon which leaves the hand. This was such a strong taboo that violating it resulted in an immediate death sentence (presumably using weapons which never left the hand).

The reasoning behind this was that weapons which left the hand (guns, bows and arrows, etc) amplified a person all out of their ability to act responsibly. It only takes a little thought to realize this isn’t far-fetched at all, in fact, it makes a lot of sense.

I draw parallels between this and mis-behavior in on-line environments.

Your online persona is part of you which “leaves the hand”. No matter what you say, it’s not you, it’s an extension of you which is separate and distinct. And, by the way, basically invincible, and, for the most part, shielded from the repercussion of your online actions (unless you violate your site’s terms of service, and, even then, you can always say “Well, they started it.”. Hello. Regress to being 8 years old much?).

Unfortunately, unlike the Zan, this magical invincibility seemingly only works one way.

People who will willingly hurl thoughtless (or, worse yet, thoughtful) insults at others in online venues go bananas when the same thing happens to them. They’ll escalate with worse insults, or, worse yet, act like virtual gangs, or go shrieking to the “authorities” (or their online equivalent).

Look, I’m all for longevity and immortality, but acting like you’re 8 isn’t the solution.

(Let’s be clear gentle reader, I’m all for going to your site’s online assistance whenever you feel the need to do so. Especially if you feel threatened, are under 18, or are otherwise genuinely uncomfortable. As a proprietor, it’s my job and privilege to protect you in those situations. But if you’re throwing mud, and it comes back at you, not so much.)

Humbly, I submit three solutions to this:

First, read The Charter for Compassion. Go ahead, read it now. It’s only four paragraphs. Think about the words there. Personally, I try and think about them a lot. No, I don’t have them memorized, and no, I don’t have a “What would The Charter for Compassion do” bumper sticker, but there are lots of times when I’ve been tempted to act….let’s say uncompassionatly….thought about this, and didn’t.

Don’t take my word for it. Look at the list of 21,293 other people (as of this posting) who’ve also affirmed it. You don’t want to be last, do you?

Second, always remember this: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent ( I remember it as “No one can insult you without your permission” ). That’s from one of those very rare very smart women who were married to a very smart man : Eleanor Roosevelt (sorry Wikipedia).

Third, always, always, always remember this: Mean People Suck. Which, by the way, includes you, if you’re mean. Even a little.

See? I’ll bet you never thought I could get all of those things into one post, but I did. Now go out and don’t suck.

  1. #1 by Nigelblackthorne on 2010.01.09 - 10:58 am

    Michael…I had the opportunity to meet you and talk over cocktails a few years ago at the 2005 There RLG. I have been in There since 2003…was on the MAB, a builder and all that lot. As a student of human behavior I have seen it all and been involved in it all in virtual worlds. I have seen the good and the very bad…and have asked myself many times why do people act the way they do in here.

    As you pointed out…they do act differently. The main thing that brings about that behavior is the anonimity. As you pointed out, people would NEVER act that way in a normal setting…but take away the exposure of being in person…the anonimity of being behind an avatar that is not the real you and you get that behavior.

    Now, that in mind, take a person who at one time was humiliated by someone…give them the opportunity to be the humiliator and viola…you have avatars behaving badly.

    You know…I think I could write a book on the dynamics of the virtual world…I know you could too. I have found it so facinating that it just keeps me coming back. Sorry for the long reply…just a subject that I have thought about for many years.


  2. #2 by Bob Snodgrass on 2009.11.25 - 6:03 am

    As one with a penchant for being prone to aggressive reaction to invaders (telemarketers, surly customer service reps, etc).. Great reminder and food for thought!

  1. uberVU - social comments

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