// Internet Duct Tape

Online Survival Guide: 9 Tips for Dealing with Idiots on the Internet

Social Software and You

My first experience with online communication was bulletin board systems in the early 90s. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The experience of running a blog is almost exactly the same as it was running a BBS 15 years ago. The only difference is the sheer number of channels available for communication.

Where there was once up to 100 to 200 local BBSes there are now so many online forums for communication that it might as well be infinite., New forums for communication are being created all the time. Mainstream sites like the New York Times let you comment on articles, and each person has their own discussion forum thanks to sites like Facebook and MySpace.

“When I was involved in the BBS/IRC scene as a teenager I was surrounded by flame wars; one-upmanship was part of the attraction. I thought it was because of the immaturity of the participants, but now I think it is a natural offshoot of digital communication. We lose all the visual and auditory cues that are a normal part of human dialog and instead focus on words that can be easy to misinterpret (especially if looking for a reason to fight).” quoting myself

Winter is one of the worst for flame wars because environmental conditions make people more irritable and more likely to spend more time online. Here are some tips for navigating online discussions from someone who has been participating and managing public forums for over 15 years.

Tips for Administrators

Tip #1: Disemvowel

From Wikipedia: “In the fields of Internet discussion and forum moderation, disemvoweling is the removal of vowels from text either as a method of self-censorship, or as a technique by forum moderators to censor Internet trolling and other unwanted posting. When used by a forum moderator, the net effect of disemvowelling text is to render it illegible or legible only through significant cognitive effort.

Xeni Jardin, co-editor of Boing Boing says of the practice, “the dialogue stays, but the misanthrope looks ridiculous, and the emotional sting is neutralized.”

This original sentence:

In the fields of Internet discussion and forum moderation, disemvoweling (also spelled disemvowelling) is the removal of vowels from text.

would be disemvowelled to look like this:

n th flds f ntrnt dscssn nd frm mdrtn, Dsmvwlng (ls splld dsmvwllng) s th rmvl f vwls frm txt.”

You can disemvowel any text using this tool. There is also a Firefox extension that lets you disemvowel comments if you’re a WordPress administrator. The same guy has a Firefox extension for handling religious trolls.

Tip #2: Temporarily disable comments for that post

This works well if you’ve been linked to from another site and it’s bringing a lot of tolls (IE: Digg, Slashdot). You can turn the comments on after a day or two without having to wade through the 100+ comments telling you how much of an idiot you are because they don’t agree with some minor minutiae of your argument.

Tip #3: Take the discussion to email

Nothing kills a flame war like removing the audience.

Quoting myself: “There is a different between scrawling messages on a public site and having a one on one conversation. The flame wars that are routine on some sites rarely exist in personal email. People stop being disembodied words and ideas and you remember that there is a person behind all of that typing.”

Comment Ninja is a handy Firefox extension for WordPress blog administrators that makes it easy to respond to commenters on your blog by email.

Tip #4: Never post personal information

Because you are an administrator, you have access to a commenters email address and their IP address. This information is usually enough to find out anything else you want to about who they are. (IE: put their email address into Facebook to find their real name, use their IP address to find out where they work)

It can be tempting to deal with a troll by removing their anonymity, but making it personal can change a one time nuisance into someone with a grudge that won’t go away.

Tips for Anyone

Tip #5: Let it stew

If something really gets your goat, then sit on it. Come back and re-read what bothered you later on and you may find that you were reading between the lines and interpreting an emotional undertone that isn’t there. The human mind is great at adding missing context, but it can also trick you into reading what you want to believe.

Revisiting something that filled you with rage days latter can leave you scratching your head trying to find what it was that pulled your chain.

Tip #6: Leave it where you found it

As I said earlier, it is ridiculously easy to collect personal identifying information about someone and find other parts of their online identity. Other than bringing a public argument to a private means of communication, you should leave the argument where you found it. Letting it spill over to other websites, or worse, following the person on to other aspects of their online identity makes you look like a stalker or a crazy person.

It doesn’t matter how justified you feel your actions are, the simple act of not being able to let go of things hurts your credibility.

Tip #7: Social proof is important

No matter how well reasoned your argument is, trying to convince someone of something they vehemently disbelieve in is next to impossible when they don’t know you from a hole in the wall.

From Wikipedia: “Social proof, also known as informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in ambiguous social situations when people are unable to determine the appropriate mode of behavior. Making the assumption that surrounding people possess more knowledge about the situation, they will deem the behavior of others as appropriate or better informed.”

Every online forum is an ambiguous social situation because you don’t know who you are communicating with. The social proof of who you are in that community will play a bigger role than your actual argument.

Tip #8: Always let a fool have the last word

Slant Six Creative covers this in depth: “Healthy argument and debate only work when everyone’s a willing participant, and no amount of reason or good sense is going to convince someone whose only goal is to throw a monkey wrench. At the same time, trying to dismiss that person or shut him up will usually just make him go that much harder. That and it makes you look like a dictator, which you never want to be.

So, give him the last word on the point and move on. Doing so might mean a short-term hit to your pride, but in the long run it helps you build credibility with the people you’re really trying to talk to.”

Tip #9: Walk away

Communicating online has some clear benefits because you can take as much time as you want to develop your arguments and it is easy to re-read past points without falling into a rehashing of who said what. But it can also be time consuming and pointless when there is no resolution in sight. There’s a big difference between debating a subject and a flame war in the emotional response you feel and the benefit you get from the discussion. The only way you can win a flame war is by turning off the computer and getting on with your life.

Online discussion is easily archived and searchable, so who knows if this discussion will be dredged up years later. Is it really worth it?

19 Responses

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  1. mpb said, on January 09, 2008 at 12:54 pm

    Nicely put.

  2. […] Online Survival Guide: 9 Tips for Dealing with Idiots on the Internet […]

  3. El Struthio said, on January 09, 2008 at 5:15 pm

    Re disemvowelling – could this be the origin of txt spk?

  4. rnopporn said, on January 10, 2008 at 4:13 am

    Good tips thank a lot

  5. engtech said, on January 10, 2008 at 10:53 am

    @ El Struthio:

    no, disemvowelling came much later

    txt speak was around 15 years ago, from teenagers trying to be cool on irc

  6. David Bradley said, on January 10, 2008 at 11:42 am

    I think the bottom line is: if it’s your blog/site/forum, then you’re in charge. Deal with idiots as any editor in conventional media would and employ the waste basket liberally.

    Occasionally, the ramblings of idiots can be turned into blog posts that are interesting in themselves. As a science journalist I get a lot of crank calls and emails explaining how Einstein etc were all wrong and that the crank can solve all the world’s energy, medical, climate problems with their new theory. I’ve written about one or two of these with quite a lot of success and have a special section called Cracked Conjectures on http://www.sciscoop.com where many of the more bizarre theorists end up. Saves leaning over to the waste basket every time.


  7. engtech said, on January 10, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    @ David Bradley:

    so true how the idiots can be inspirational

    using them as inspiration to build an essay/article is so much more incisive than trying to go toe-to-toe with them in an argument

  8. links for 2008-01-10 | Ed Tech Hacks said, on January 10, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    […] Online Survival Guide: 9 Tips for Dealing with Idiots on the Internet « // Internet Duct Tape (tags: community identity) […]

  9. Nathan Ketsdever said, on January 11, 2008 at 12:32 pm

    Commenting ninja tip for wordpress seems great! I’ll have to check that out.

    I’m not sure that turning comments off is the best policy. Althought, if you’re talking about a video on YouTube, the culture might justify turning comments off for individual video posts. Rohit at Influential Marketing blog mentioned the brand risk of posting at YouTube given the lack of moderation.

    Overall however, the backlash at Digg proves that shutting off a free speech valve only causes the problem to fester below the surface.

  10. A.J. Valliant said, on January 11, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    I would add: Use wit to satirze them to their face. Realtime Swiftian lambasting can be very satisfying.

  11. me said, on January 11, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    Disemvowelling seems to be a drastic solution to a simple problem, if people are leaving bad stuff on your site then ban comments for that article or whatever, if you enable disemvowelling then that’s just gonna annoy more people than you prevent bad stuff, including yourself when you want to read the comments.

  12. Carrie Blinn said, on January 13, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    Great Tips, Thanks!!

    I feel validated! LOL – I used to respond once or twice until I realized I didn’t need to! When you drop the flamer like a hot potato, they usually stop.

    I agree – let them have the last word.

    But – Don’t let them ‘chase’ you away when they are repetitively targeting you or annoying you, right? I finally used a bit of wit to let them have it!

  13. engtech said, on January 14, 2008 at 12:18 pm

    @ me:

    Disemvoweling is something I save as a last resort for the truly offensive comments (like the guy who tells you that you deserve to die because he doesn’t have the same taste in movies as you).

  14. engtech said, on January 14, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    @ Nathan Ketsdever:

    I don’t see temporarily turning off comments on a post as shutting off the free speech valve simply because there are so many ways of commenting on a post other than the post itself these days

    Digg/Slashdot/Fark are great examples, because if you turn off comments on the original post they still have the other site open for leaving comments

    Shutting off the valve is more for your own sanity :)

  15. Jon B said, on January 21, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Great tips man, I have had to deal with this situation before and I just pretty much ignore it. It takes a big man to start a fight and an even bigger man to walk away from it.

  16. carmen schmidlap said, on January 30, 2008 at 12:50 am

    trolls never bother me.most of the time their comments make more sense that the
    person that has the blog.the internet will never have a shortage of idiots.

  17. Travis Hancock said, on April 02, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Thank you for this. I am dealing with a bunch of fools for a Master’s degree capstone project. I’m an experienced project manager, have been programming for 35 years. The only reason I am taking this degree is that it fulfills the educational component for PMP re-certification. (I had to miss a few years of ongoing education) These kids are all half my age or less, no one is getting paid, and I am doing huge amounts of work to get the site online. I constantly get complaints for doing the work? Picking up the slack? All these children *think* they know something, and a few are good programmers (for their level of experience), but when I fix the broken code, I get flamed. It’s just plain weird. I have learned to NEVER engage in informal group management again, it’s an insoluble problem. I sometimes get flamed for not responding to flames? Ignore those as well. It’s insane!!! 4 more weeks, 4 more weeks, 4 more weeks :) Then I’ll take it over on contract and actually get a good product online….

  18. shelley Brasher said, on April 09, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Great post! Really love reading them, can’t wait for more.

  19. Travis Hancock said, on April 21, 2009 at 2:19 pm

    2 more weeks, 2 more weeks…….they are coming apart at the seams, about to grenade…..dealing with IE8 css issues ! I have to smile, because I tried to tell them….keep it simple, IE is a non-compliant pain, and Microsoft lies. Hehehehehe!

    This is a quote from one of the idoits:

    “Oh, If I can not find quick fixes to these issues 2 and 3, then HEMC is just going to have to live with it. Thanks. IE8 was not released yet when we were creating these forms. It was not on our browser list, so I would have to research these issues.”

    Live with it? Get a clue Erin, this is web design (a la acceptance testing)…..you made the forms all wonky :)

    (Now I go fix that css, yet again, and will get flamed for doing it….oh well.)

    Kids these days….what will the web come to!

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