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Why Does the Internet Make People Jerks?

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

This was a comment on my Facebook fan page. “That” referred to a tip I’d recently posted. Apparently, the feature I was discussing (an option to disable auto-play video) either hadn’t yet been made available in the commenter’s account or they couldn’t find it.

And 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. Abusive questions are ignored and inappropriate comments are 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 to thinking … is the internet turning more people into jerks?

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The internet is a playground for jerks

Of course, I’m using the term “jerk” as a semi-family-friendly catch-all for any number of descriptive and sometimes colorful descriptive words. I’m sure that you can think of a few … I know I did. Feel free to replace “jerk” with whatever term comes to mind. 🙂

In my opinion, the internet hasn’t created as many jerks as it’s simply unleashed or uncovered.

There have always been jerks, certainly well before the internet and probably well before civilization. I’m certain there have always been plenty of people with a serious lack of respect for others. Heck, 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 internet forums, Facebook, email discussions, and web page comments.

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

More people see ’em

And yet, it seems like there’s more.

What a Jerk!One of the reasons is that we’re exposed to more of them than ever before.

That 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.

And we, as that audience, simply see more people being jerks than ever before. Not because there are more of them, but because we now have the opportunity to see more of them.

In the past, for example, 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 pretty must post whatever they like almost wherever they like without negative consequences and often quite anonymously.

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

Jerks of a feather

Now, I can’t absolutely say that the internet isn’t actually creating more jerks. I want to believe that it isn’t, but there’s something else that could be happening as well.

People see other people being jerks on the internet and getting away with it. So they start acting like jerks themselves.

It’s tempting to say, “…and thus, another jerk is born.” While that’s certainly possible, I think things go deeper than that. I think rather than having created a jerk, the internet has instead exposed or magnified one that was kind of there all along. Perhaps seeing other people acting like jerks allows someone’s pre-existing inner jerk come out.

I don’t know. Perhaps it’s some of both.

Don’t let the jerks get you down

Because we’re being exposed to so much more jerky behavior, it would be easy to lose faith.

I know reading comments on YouTube or on any political, religious, or otherwise contentious topic can really 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 people who are grateful, people who are respectful, people who are helping one another,  and people who can disagree on topics without resorting to acting like my example caveman. And 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.

Don’t be a jerk, don’t feed the jerks

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

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

They deserve our respect.

What I do think is important to mention is 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): 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.

Sometimes, as with our Facebook friend above, I’ll call ’em on it. Not in an abusive way (however tempted I might be), but in a way that perhaps reminds them that 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 that while there may be jerks out there, there’s way more awesomeness if you just keep your eyes open and watch for it.

Footnotes & references

1: Theoretical caveman lingo for “Ha ha!”

2: People believe that the world is much worse than it really is because all that they see are headlines and news reports. By definition, in order to be a headline or to be 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.

22 comments on “Why Does the Internet Make People 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
  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. 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
  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
  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
      • Yea, like, you’d think the older a person is the more ability they have to change. They’ve had more years to practice it! Just like with computers too. Older people have had 30 years to learn how it works.

        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

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