ST. LOUIS — She has a strong personality, attached to strong opinions and an outspoken way of expressing herself. She expressed those strong opinions on a Web forum on STLtoday.com, using a pseudonym. Like many others online, she felt free to toss around insults from behind that cloak of anonymity. That was a problem: The forum isn’t intended as a shooting gallery.
The other problem was that her cloak had gaping holes. St. Louis is a small town, musically speaking, and not many people have her combination of knowledge, interests, personal style and personal biases. When I (the moderator) dropped a hint of recognition, she angrily signed off.
The moral of the story: Don’t put anything online that you wouldn’t want others — your spouse, your boss, your mother — to know you’d said.
Anonymity, real or imagined, can give us a false sense of security. That can lead to unconscionable rudeness, as people say things online that they’d be unlikely to say to someone’s face.
“This is a question of social control,” says Judith Martin, who writes the syndicated Miss Manners column on etiquette. People behave, she says, because they have a moral sense, or fear going to jail, or fear violence, or simply fear social disapproval. “Social disapproval is an extremely effective weapon,” she says. “If you light up a cigarette someplace, you will encounter social disapproval that will make your hair curl.”
Anonymity, Martin says, removes the fear of effective social disapproval. “The funny thing is that one of the places where you see that syndrome is on the highway; it’s as if people think they can’t be seen. Not just road rage, but smaller things — giving the finger, cutting people off — are based on the idea that you will never see them again.”
Add to that the idea that many people online “think they can’t be traced,” and it gets worse. “I think they forget that there are a lot of clues in their e-mails, in their addresses and in other things. Anonymity is not assured, as people think.”
Adds Martin, “When the Internet first became wildly popular, and everybody started using (it), there was this wonderful idea that it was free of commerce and free of rules.” The financial freedom didn’t last long, “and people discovered very, very soon that you cannot function as a community without etiquette rules. Pretty soon rules were posted on message boards and chat rooms. People had to learn all over again that you cannot depend on the goodness of human nature; you have to have etiquette.”
The message board rules at Ship-of-Fools.com are known as the “Ten Commandments,” appropriately enough for a Web site that bills itself as “the magazine of Christian unrest.” The first commandment is reasonable enough — “Don’t be a jerk” — and the others are like unto it: “Engage brain before posting your message.” “Attack the issue, not the person.” “Respect the hosts.”
“The Internet is still new; it still has kind of a Wild West feel to it,” says Laura Geyer, a volunteer administrator on the Ship. “We have expectations of how to behave at a party, but not necessarily of how to behave online. Anonymity and numbers make it more likely that people will be willing to engage in incivility. The response is not what you’d get on the street — nobody is going to punch you — but people are likely to say things that they wouldn’t say if they were sitting across from you at the dinner table.”
Geyer says that the Ship, given its Christian underpinnings, “is an unusual Web site in its hybrid expectations, when you’ve got a nominal background of an expectation of religion that calls for niceness.” Religion or not, it has plenty of flaming (the Internet’s term for ferocious responses), gratuitous potty mouth and snide attacks, depending on where you post. Newbies are regularly horrified.
The Ship’s British captain, Simon Jenkins, and his officers have dealt with this by dividing the boards into different areas, particularly Heaven (for “idle creativity and tangents”), Purgatory (“our space for serious debate (yes, really)”) and Hell (“asbestos underwear recommended”). The lower you go, the more apt you are to encounter free-floating hostility and language that can’t be quoted here, but the system gives some latitude to those looking for everything from friendly chats to a chance to discuss the underpinnings of the episcopacy or an opportunity to vent.
“The way they divide things up makes it easier,” says Geyer. “There’s a place where it’s fluffy, and a place where it’s no-holds-barred.”
Geyer believes that netiquette is still forming, but cautions, “Flaming is a part of netiquette. It isn’t so much that there’s an absence of etiquette online; it’s that there’s a wider range of behaviors than would be acceptable at a cocktail party.
“Every Web site makes its own guidelines, and one of those is the way in which rudeness will be directed or put in bounds somehow,” Geyer observes. “We have to deal with it, and I would imagine that any set of moderators and administrators is going to have to figure out how to do it. In our case, Christian principles are going to play into it a bit, because we want to encourage theological discussion.”
Trolling, or posting in a way designed to offend and stir things up, is an ongoing problem on almost any message board. “Every now and then we’ll have to make a judgment call that someone is so consistently unable to play by the rules that we have to do something about it.” After a few warnings, the offender is thrown overboard, banned from the Ship.
Says Geyer, “Sometimes things seem rude (online) that might not be if you knew the person. In a text medium, you lose (things like) tone of voice, and you don’t have any of the context. And some people are constitutionally incapable of detecting irony. It’s easier to be rude online — but it’s also easier to seem rude.”