It is a well-known fact that online forums tend to produce bitter fights more often than in-person discussions do. Someone who would never dream of yelling and name-calling in person may easily become very combative online — and interestingly, this often happens in response to perceived offence from others, giving the combatant a feeling of aggrieved self-righteousness that renders all their invective totally justified.
Why is this so common in online forums? I’d contend that this problem is a direct result of the immediate experience of the internet. We all tend to experience the online space as an intimate and personal one. Everything there is somehow “for us” — and if it’s unwelcome, it’s an intrusion on us. (This is, by the way, why online advertising can never be as effective as traditional formats where ads were passively accepted as part of a pre-given package. That basic receptivity is lost on the internet, where every aspect of our experience is, at least ideally, freely chosen.)
Meanwhile, even as we are experiencing everything as taking place within our most intimate personal space, the personhood of the other is stripped down to bare text. What is important here is not simply that the face-to-face encounter that would constrain aggressive behavior is absent, but also that this text is an invasion of our personal space. If it’s too long, it’s an imposition. If it isn’t responding to our messages in a way we feel is appropriate, it’s aggressive or offensive.
When people have this gut reaction, it’s not necessarily because they’re bad people or impatient or overly touchy — it’s the inalienable structure of the internet experience as such. I don’t think people can control their gut reactions, or at least it takes a long time to change them. What they can do, however, is to become aware of those gut reactions and introduce some kind of lag time so that they are not responding out of those gut reactions. For some of us, that will mean working off aggression, while for others, some kind of self-esteem boost will be needed.
Hence I propose that if we feel angry or aggrieved by a blog post or comment, we should take a break and do some push-ups before responding. This is particularly elegant as it both works off pent-up energy and produces a sense of accomplishment — helping both classes of the wounded online narcissists we all unavoidably are. If we all resolve to do more push-ups and write fewer snap responses, I bet we’ll all add years to our life (or at least stop subtracting them) and we might occasionally be able to wring something good out of the crappy format we’re more or less stuck with here.