What Inspires Online Abuse?

What Inspires Online Abuse?
ScreamingBirdAs anyone who has ever written anything even slightly critical of an Apple product can attest, saying something other people disagree with is likely to inspire a volley of abuse. But just what inspires people to spend time screaming online at someone with different views?

Picture by mmoorr

The Lifehacker community is pretty well-mannered, but you don’t need to Google very far to find sites where the forums and posts are dripping with venom. In a recent blog post reflecting on the torrent of communication (electronic and otherwise) he’s received since exiting the Liberal leadership, Malcolm Turnbull argues that there’s a mixture of laziness and therapy involved in this kind of behaviour:

So why do people write really poisonous things to politicians in language so vicious and nasty they would never utter it to someone’s face or probably wouldn’t utter at all? . . . It is one thing to write a poisonous email filled with hate, but to handwrite sentiments like that on a Christmas card?? The only explanation I can find for this is that for some people writing vicious emails is a bit like letting off steam by standing under a railway bridge when a train is passing over and shouting out curses and profanities. (I haven’t done this, but apparently it is therapeutic and nobody can hear you because of the noise.)

The area where this analogy seems to fall apart for me is the “nobody hears you” bit — the person whose blog post you respond to quite likely does — but it’s an interesting thought. Got any theories on why online nastiness prevails? Share your wisdom in the comments.

Reflections on the season and modern communications


  • I think the main reason is the lack of transparency of some mouth-pieces to companies like Microsoft. Not saying Lifehacker is guilty, but there’s a definite trend from places like theage.com.au to flamebait Mac users with biased commentary probably funded by the FUD team in Redmond.

    • Dirk, this piece isn’t about Apple fans specifically. So in that respect, you argument holds no water on this piece.

      However, it is indicative of the general attitude towards Internet publishing. Many many posts, especially those that seem to attract the most vitriolic responses, at least in my experience, are about as well researched and written as an A Current Affair report. That is, one sided, Poorly researched and lacking in objectivity.

      This decreases the likelihood of reasoned responses, an the “anonymity” of the Internet heightens peoples ability to Get away with acting like a 5 year old.


      • I agree with you Dean. Those articles sparking the most volatile of discussions are usually either poorly researched or have been research only into one point of view or by the author who is most likely biased anyway. I personally loathe Apple products, but if an Apple product is proved superior through objective analysis, I’m willing to admit that (however begrudgingly) where a lot of authors aren’t simply because they are sticking to what they are familiar with. In a community where knowledge is power (quite literally on the internet), everyone is out to prove themselves, whether they are informed or not, and the problems start when someone from the other side of the tracks argues their case or someone more informed tries to put forward their view and usually ends in frustration. I found the maxim “violence begets violence” should be adapted for the internet to read “ignorance begets ignorance” – don’t argue with and idiot, they’ll just bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.

  • Here are some reasons I think:

    -Mood swings due to chemical imbalances in their brain. Could be because of medication or drugs or their diet.
    -Their up-bringing

  • Mac OS V’s Windows OS

    It’s Simple, people that choose use a Mac OS are optimists and People that choose Windows are pessimists.

    Everyone else choose the cheapest PC they can buy already set up and hence why laptops are so popular in this area… just need to know where the power plugs in.

  • My main reason for commenting is to correct stupidity and laziness. To illustrate, let me abuse our poor first commenter, @Dirk. See the article was about why people write abusive communications and comments. Taking that general premise and trying to shoe horn it into the very specific case of technology bias in tech journalism is, well, stupid and simply adds white noise to the argument rather than insight or clarity Under most scenarios so does my comment, but seeing as the subject is in fact abusive comments then there is a strange relativity here.

  • Katinka Simonse, an artist controversial for her works featuring animals, turned her hate mail into a book… including publishing full names, addresses, phone numbers and emails of the people the hate mail was from. Think you’re anonymous when you post online? She only used information available in the public domain.

    John Safran also used publicly available information to track down an online hate-mailer and an hilarious confrontation ensued.

    I sincerely hope that in the future more people take this route to reduce the torrents of abuse that seem to be accepted on the net.

  • Is it a coincidence that this topic seems to be being raised in several different locations? It seems to have come up at the same time that the ABC’s Drum section, comprising of articles written especially for the section, was put online.

    Myles Peterson from the Canberra Times wrote a piece on this in this Monday’s (14 December 2009) TV guide. In it he talks about ‘the volume of hostile reader “commentary” damning everything from the skills of the staff writers, to the bias of the moderators, to the political prejudices of the ABC itself.’ He goes on to say, ‘The rudeness, hostility and aggression pervade large sections of the “interwebs”. Whether it’s politics, religion or science […] the debates seem to always become personal and abusive.”

    He thinks, ‘Maybe it’s nothing more than the fact that rubbishing someone’s ideas face-to-face can invite physical or emotional retribution. Rubbishing them anonymously on the internet invites nothing more dangerous than a good counter argument.’

  • Cmon, we’ve surely all heard of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory? Thats all it is. And its been going on as long as the internet has been around. I remember some godawful flame wars on ancient old BBS’ and being highly amused by a month-long bitchfest between Marvel and DC fans in a MUD I used to play in the late 80s.

  • Many websites, esp travel sites, are filled with comments from people who’ve had negative experiences. Or they’ve had experiences with don’t fit with their life experience, and thus perceive them as negative. “The food was weird”. What does that mean? Or they’ll write something which they wouldn’t otherwise have the guts to actually engage with a real person about. Thus in a completely passive aggressive manner, they write something on a website rather than engage with a real person. It’s because they never have to deal with their argument being criticised or questioned. And often it’s done under a pseudonym so it’s doubly gutless, IMHO. James

  • Too many people need to vent. I’ve noticed over the years how many bods have become all knowledgeable, but that’s turned into hyper critical. So many think they need to have an opinion on something… something to say.

    I used to think it was a male trait but the amount of females who’ve turned all ‘alpha’, into the same bent.

    Now you get the above coupled with the ‘armchair warrior’ syndrome – turns people manic. So we end up with all these insecure types, who must ‘be right’! Tie all that in with easy internet access… I’d hate to be a famous person.

  • Everyone has their favorite way of using the internet. Many of us search to find what we want, click in to a specific website, read what’s available and click out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it’s efficient. We learn to tune out things we don’t need and go straight for what’s essential.

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