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Why Are There So Many Internet Jerks?

You’re full of crap. That didn’t work.

This was a comment on my Facebook fan page in response to a tip I’d posted. Apparently, the feature I was discussing either hadn’t yet been made available in the commenter’s account, or they couldn’t find it.

Apparently, I was at fault for trying to be helpful.

Now, I get this kind of thing from time to time; more often than you see on my website, abusive questions are ignored and inappropriate comments deleted. In fact, the poster of this comment apparently thought twice about leaving it up. Shortly after I replied, “A personal attack? Wow,” his comment disappeared.

But it got me thinking. Is the internet turning people into jerks?

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TL;DR:

The internet and social media aren’t necessarily creating more jerks, but they’re definitely giving existing jerks a bigger audience with more visibility. It seems like there are more than ever, but they’ve probably been there all along.  With all that visibility, it’s easy to overlook everyone else: the grateful, respectful people helping one another. Since they’re less noisy, it may seem otherwise, but they overwhelmingly outnumber the jerks.

The internet is a playground

What a Jerk! I’m using the term “jerk” as a catch-all for many descriptive and colorful words. I’m sure you can think of a few … I know I did. Feel free to replace “jerk” with whatever term comes to mind. Smile

In my opinion, the internet hasn’t created as many jerks as it’s simply uncovered them, especially in recent years.

There have always been jerks, certainly before the internet and probably before civilization itself. There was probably some caveman who pointed a finger and yelled, “Zug zug!”1 when his hunting buddy tripped over a rock and impaled himself on his spear.

That caveman lives on today in social media and email “discussions” and webpage comments.

It’s not new. It’s nothing special. It’s just that these days, jerks have a much larger playground on which to show themselves.

More people see ’em

If it seems like there are more jerks around, one reason is that we’re exposed to more of them than ever before.

The playground that is the internet not only gives jerks a place to be jerks, but it gives them something else: an audience. A huge audience. And many jerks thrive on that. It encourages their behavior.

As that audience, we simply see more people being jerks than ever before. Not because there are more of them, but because we now see more of them.

For example, in the past, jerks might have been filtered out by newspaper or magazine editors, or they just didn’t have the opportunity to express their jerkiness to the world. Today, everyone’s a publisher, everyone’s a critic, and anyone can post whatever they like without negative consequences, and often anonymously.

There aren’t that many more jerks. We just see more of the ones that have always been around.

Jerks of a feather

There’s something else that could be happening. With more jerks visible, it’s possible the internet is giving more permission by making “jerkiness” more socially acceptable.

People see other people being jerks and getting away with it, so they start acting like jerks themselves.

I think rather than having created a jerk, the internet has instead exposed or magnified one that was there all along. Perhaps seeing other people acting like jerks allows one’s pre-existing inner jerk to come out.

Perhaps it’s some of both.

Don’t let the jerks get you down

I know reading comments on YouTube or on any contentious topic can make you start to wonder about humanity in general and whether we even deserve to live on this planet. Regardless of where they come from or how long they’ve been around, there are most assuredly jerks out there.

But you know what? There are awesome people, too. In fact, there are way more awesome people than there are jerks.

What I see much more often than jerks are grateful people, respectful people, people who are helping one another,  and people who can disagree without resorting to acting like schoolyard bullies or my example caveman. I see them in my inbox, in my comments, on Facebook, and everywhere else.

Like what I call “the bad news problem”,2 jerks get the headlines. But in reality, however many there are, they’re in the minority.

They’re just louder.

Don’t feed the jerks

I probably don’t have to tell you not to be a jerk and to treat everyone with respect.

You already know that behind every comment, post, and question is a real live human being with problems, struggles, and issues, just like you and me.

They deserve our respect.

I think it is important to mention what not to do when you encounter a jerk.

Don’t be a jerk in response. That’ll only encourage ’em.

Don’t feed the jerk.

I go either of two ways (and I recommend you do the same).

  • I ignore the vast majority. As I own a platform on which they sometimes appear, I make them go away (deleting comments and whatnot) and do so with very little regret.
  • Sometimes, as with our Facebook friend above, I’ll call them on it. Not in an abusive way (however tempted I might be), but in a way that may remind them there’s a real live human being to whom they’re “speaking.”

Sometimes a reminder is all they need.

And sometimes, it’s we who need the reminder: while there may be jerks out there, there’s way more awesomeness. Just keep your eyes open and watch for it.

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Footnotes & References

1: Theoretical caveman lingo for “Haha!”

2: People believe the world is much worse than it really is because all that they see are headlines and news reports. By definition, to be a headline or newsworthy, something must be exceptional or out of the ordinary. That means that all of the good, ordinary, day-to-day things that make our world wonderful … aren’t newsworthy.

41 comments on “Why Are There So Many Internet Jerks?”

  1. Excellent article! I mostly have stopped commenting because of the “jerks”. Unfortunately, it isn’t only on “… YouTube or on any political, religious, or otherwise contentious topic…” anymore. They seem to need to get their views out there and don’t care whether the article subject matter is relevant to their comment or not. The level of bitterness and anger continues to make me shake my head. I read an opinion piece on CNN.com by David Bianculli on the Internet’s role in David Letterman’s upcoming retirement. Sure enough, not too many comments down, first came liberal-bashing and then all out Obama-bashing. I’m shaking my head as I’m typing this! LOL!

    Thank you, Leo, again for this article and all you do to help us resolve our computer issues.

    Reply
    • They may be paid to do so. That also is a thing contributing to all the nastiness and misinformation out there on the internet these days.

      Reply
  2. It’s encouraging that there’s so little flaming in the comments section of Ask Leo! It’s so rare that I have to remove a flame, probably less than once a month. (Should I say knock on wood?) And none of the comments are pre-screened, except for spam. That’s pretty remarkable.

    Reply
  3. Interesting comments on “internet jerks”, also sometimes referred to as trolls. Another reason that people feel free to be “jerks” online is feel safe from the repercussions of their comments. When I was a kid in school, the bully always picked on someone weaker, smaller or in another way more vulnerable than the bully. The bully feared no harm from his victim. Online many feel free to attack someone else, sometimes just for the sake of doing it. What could happen? At school if the bully picked on the wrong guy, he could end up with a broken nose. But how do you retaliate, other than with more words, if you are attacked in a comment? I think you stated it well:
    “I go either of two ways (and I recommend you do the same): the vast majority I simply ignore. As I own a platform on which they sometimes appear, I make them go away (deleting comments and whatnot) and do so with very little regret.”
    Nothing will frustrate an agitator more than to be ignored. I feel sorry for people who see no better way to use their time than to aggravate others.

    Reply
  4. Whilst I agree that there are a lot of obnoxious idiots on the net I also think we need to be aware that the written word is much more open to misinterpretation than the spoken . There is no body language or voice inflection to help us to convey our meaning and so things can unwittingly appear a little harsh and unfriendly. Also because contact is at a distance questions are not always easily asked or answered. I once referred to a poser on a forum as “The OP”. This caused considerable offence because the poster wasn’t aware that I simply meant Original Poster and assumed I was referring to them as an Old Person in a derogatory way.

    Reply
    • It’s something I absolutely take into account when reading submitted questions, comments, and heck … just email in general.

      On the other hand, “You’re full of crap” seemed pretty clear. 🙂

      Reply
      • Yes Leo,
        That particular statement left NO room for doubt and when you are obviously trying to help must have been a little hard to take.

        Reply
    • One other thing is missing. The receiver. Some people are way to sensitive and may misinterpret what was said. They fire back, not nicely at time, which starts the fire storm. Some jerks are obvious but other may be misinterpretation or locally accepted speak. This is the world wide wide and customs very widely.
      Al

      Reply
      • The other side of it too is that there are a lot of people around this world, that don’t speak the language as someone else would. The inflection, the eyes, the facial and hand gestures are all missing. Some people are in a hurry and type too quickly, sometimes it is an autocorrect that they missed. There are so many reasons that some one could be interpreted as a “jerk” online. Now, I agree with Leo that you can’t misinterpret the comment directed at him.

        I used to take offense and feed the “jerks”. But not any more. I politely respond that they are attacking me instead of the message. Refute it, post something that defends your point of view. Usually I am the target instead of my message, like Leo. Often times, I am referred to as the “jerk” cause I may interject with a different opinion. And we live in a time where a different opinion hurts the “feels” and the person needs to be attacked.

        Reply
  5. I find it particularly disturbing when news sites post news (can you imagine?) and people begin attacking the reporter for posting news. I just don’t get it! Or worse, the news posted includes a picture of a suspect in case someone can identify the person (you know, like those pics from security cameras) and people for some reason decide it is free-for-all time on how the person looks or is dressed or how terrible the security camera footage is. All I can think is, “Geesh, people, if you don’t like it, don’t look at it!”

    Reply
  6. Great article, Leo.
    The comments, also.
    Brings to mind the Old adage; “Believe nothing you read and only half of what you see.” Or words to that effect.

    Reply
      • The most famous use of this expression comes from the song “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”….”People say believe half of what ya see, and na-na-none of what ya hear…” The grapevine is a good fit here. (“But I can’t help but bein’ confused, if it’s true, please tell me Dear.”

        Reply
          • Simon & Garfunkle performed absolutely gorgeous music, very much unlike anything else out there.

            “The Boxer” is a song I love, in no small part because it features THREE highly poetic lyrics in a short space of time!

            1. “I have squandered my resistance / For a pocketful of mumbles, such are promises.”;

            2. “All lies in jest / Still, a man hears what he wants to hear / And disregards the rest.”;

            3. “Laying low, seeking out the poor, the quarters where the ragged people go / Looking for the places only they would know.”

            How could ANYONE possibly beat such poetry?!

        • I love “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” — especially the version sung by tge California Raisins (remember them?). 🙂

          Reply
  7. The other thing about the jerks online is that we allow the internet to be anonymous. Anyone can create an anonymous account and they think they can say whatever they want without repercussions.

    No only do the newspapers filter out the “junk” letters to the editor, but it would also be rare for them to print an anonymous letter. They want to be able tie that letter back to a real person before printing it. That doesn’t happen on the internet.

    Reply
    • On the other hand, I prefer to be somewhat anonymous even though I refrain from saying anything I would not want a prospective employer or spouse to hear/read.

      Reply
      • While anonymity is a contributing factor, it’s also an incredibly important thing. There’s a tremendous amount of value brought to the world by the internet’s ability to allow anonymity – just think of whistle-blowers in oppressed regimes and companies. Unfortunately like any ability it is a double edged sword and prone to abuse.

        Reply
  8. Great article. At first, this crude behavior was quite upsetting to me. As you say, they have been out there all along, but newspaper and magazine editors filtered them out. Now it is the “raw story.” However, joining a political discussion site has at least taken away the “surprise” element and the feeling of being attacked personally. Also, having deletion power over those offensive comments helps a lot. You are correct, Leo, ignoring is the best option, when you cannot remove them.

    Reply
  9. I find that forums which tolerate anonymity are the ones which have the greatest level of rudeness. I think that “remote rudeness” began in the telephone era with crank phone calls. The first great demonstration of public rudeness came during the era of CB radio, when the numbers so overwhelmed the FCC that they abandoned most all regulatory control and turned the CB band into an anonymous playground. Later, public bulletin boards learned this same lesson. And now, internet forums are seeing the same. If you encounter a forum participant whose identity is something like “Wargod666” and whose avatar is a cartoon figure, you can reasonably predict that you are in for a session of non-linear thought. On forums that I have run, my two hard rules have always been no ad hominem and real identities, and if you didn’t like that, you could find a different playground.

    Reply
  10. Howdy Leo!

    Just wanted to add in a tidbit you might enjoy – your comment of “Zug Zug!” was a term used a few times in the 1981 movie Caveman, starring Ringo Starr. However, it wasn’t quite the “impaled” that you are writing of, but of another type between a caveman and a cavewoman. I know because I like that movie and watch it on (infrequent) occasion.

    What can I say, I’m weird and too old to change!

    Reply
  11. I really like the idea that to be newsworthy something must be exceptional and therefore the bad things are the odd items and newsworthy and mostly things are good and not newsworthy. I do so hope you are correct.

    Reply
  12. Yeah, it typical behavior, but most have a limited vocabulary only. That’s a pity.
    Sometimes happens to me.
    I just admit that I’m a “.&%8” and a “*&^%$#@”. Makes them happy I suppose.
    Upon which I inform them what my observation of them.
    In general it may take 3 days for them before the dime drops.

    Reply
  13. Leo, the forums on Arcamax got so bad, that Arcamax dropped Disqus and now uses Facebook. The fact that now real names are used caused many to stop posting altogether. Exposure can work wonders, and in this case, the forums are almost abandoned.

    Reply
  14. Leo, you wrote:

    “Don’t feed the jerks.”

    On Usenet, from waaaay back in the late 70’s to early 80’s, the equivalent saying was, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Good as that advice was, it wasn’t always accepted, and many an entertaining flame war resulted (from which I often derived much laughter and bemused head-shaking).

    You also wrote (in reconstruction):

    “There was probably some caveman who pointed a finger and yelled, ‘Zug zug!’ (theoretical caveman lingo for ‘Ha ha!’) when his hunting buddy tripped over a rock and impaled himself on his spear.”

    Here, I fear, we must part company. The phenomenon you describe has a name. It’s called “schadenfreude,” which means “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others” (Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, electronic edition). It is not always an intentional or even desired response; it often arises in a form more like a reflex response than anything else — as I myself, in certain past instances, can very ruefully attest. In spite of which, in my sincere (and, I hope, despite inherent bias, both humble and accurate) judgement, I declare myself most decidedly not a jerk.

    Reply
  15. I’d like to chime in on the side of a good guy. I’ve gained a lot of useful and just plain interesting information from Leo. He helped me figure out a couple of very knotty problems as well. He also seems to be a genuinely nice fellow. Thanks Leo! Keep up the good work, and we’ll all keep reading.

    Reply
  16. Once again, a well-written article!

    While reading what you had to say, it reminded me of an incident a couple of months ago, when I asked a question on WordPress.com (with which I have a blog site) and, was researching information, as to what I could do to make my website even better). I noticed that whomever that wrote articles for WordPress.com, had drifted off the subject and, much to my surprise, they had switched from discussing a WordPress.com Website to a WordPress.org Website (which are two different websites…one with internal hosting while the other uses external hosting). I questioned this article on the WordPress Forum, as to why this occurred and, was there a way that it could be corrected, so as those of us the had a WordPress.com or were new to WordPress.com, could get all the information that we needed to successfully run our site. (NOTE: One of the areas in question, was “Plugins”, which can only be used with a WordPress.org Website and NOT a WordPress.com Website.) When I queried as to how this could be corrected, I was told by someone within WordPress that they couldn’t correct everything and what I was reading would remain…which to me means that no one really cares for those that decide to create their own WordPress.com Website, when they should have signed up for a WordPress.org Website.)

    So yes, to me there are some real jerks out on the internet.

    Reply
  17. I’m not at all surprised at the number of jerks/trolls. I saw the same thing when I was driving eighteen wheelers cross country with CB radios. There used to be a FCC requirement to obtain a license to use a CB. Then, sometime in the 80’s, that requirement was rescinded. When a license was required, it was mandatory to broadcast your call letters periodically, which identified who you were.
    After the change to not needing a license, using a CB radio for its intended purposes became nearly impossible as users would say whatever they wanted as they could be anonymous. Eventually, I stopped using a CB radio as it wasn’t worth maintaining the equipment.
    I view social media the same as I did CB. People will say just about anything, hiding in anonymity and numbers, making it nearly impossible to moderate.
    When I do make a post, I try to keep to the subject and I also make clear that I am who I say I am. I make the effort to keep personal attacks out of it, as I don’t personally know who is reading and the readers certainly don’t know who I am, unless I tell them.

    Reply

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