Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Internet Asperger's Syndrome

That's what Jason Calcanis calls the lack of empathy, the failure to acknowledge common humanity, that he sees too often in the online world. And yes, he knows that this is an insult to people with Asperger's. See his links and also Catarina Fake's reflections for further details.

Whenever someome raises these concerns, there are always plenty of people who show up and say "What, can't you take it?" or "You need a thicker skin." What these comments tend to miss is the fact that participating in online discussions is almost always a voluntary activity. So sure, most of us "can take it" — the question is, Why should we? What value do we get in return? When you blog and welcome comments, you're hoping for constructive and interesting ones, and if you get too high a proportion of belligerent and dimwitted ones, you're likely to consider disabling the comment function. And why shouldn't you? Nobody has an obligation to interact online, much less to do so through the one medium of blog comments. (In fact, there are some people who think that you can create better conversations by using your own blog to reply to what people say on their blogs. Kinda like what I'm doing here.)

So, what counts as "too high a proportion of belligerent and dimwitted" comments? There's obviously not a one-size-fits-all answer to that question. I've been amazed for some time at the levels of hostility Megan McArdle is prepared to accept (though lately she has been more active in moderating than she used to be, and that's had a real effect on the conversation). Over at my other internet home, The American Scene, the general tone of comments is milder, but there's still too much wrangling, sneering, and mocking for my taste. I've stopped subscribing to the comments and am less inclined to visit the site at all. It's not as pleasant as it used to be, and — maybe this is a function of age — I don't see why I should expose myself to more unpleasantness than life is already prepared to deal out to me.

Note that I'm still enabling comments on this blog, though. Maybe that's because I don't get too many. . . .


  • You don't get many comments because every time I've tried to comment here (before now) the comments were broken.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    JS, I have notified the Authorities, but it would also be helpful if, when that happens to you, you would contact the webmaster (the link is at the bottom of the page).

  • The sort of interaction that has become a regular part of internet communities really is amazing. The very unfortunate aspect of anonymity is that it emboldens people, and gawky, dorky college students will suddenly get into vicious flame wars about random topics in internet forums, saying things they would *never* say in real life.

    Blog comments can be even worse because not only can you post anonymously, you aren't even tied to a certain user name. You can get in a flame war under the name "x" and then switch to using the name "y" from then on, thus avoiding any repercussions.

  • Tony Comstock said...


    IRL, we have to work very hard to put ourselves in proximity of people with divergent points of view, experience, etc and harder still to find a time and place where it is appropriate to exchange opinions. For most people most of the time, our real life tends to confirm our own views.

    The internet makes it vastly easier to seek out and engage, and challenge people whose experiences are different from our own, and sometimes this gets out of hand.

    I never say anything online I wouldn't say face to face, but that hardly guarantees my civility.

  • *raises his glass* Well said! You're right though, age has something to do with it. The older I get the less I argue and the more grace I extend.

  • Alan Jacobs said...

    Tony, you're absolutely right that contact with people of different views is one of the major reasons to jump into the comments on a blog. You do that well. But for me, the signal-to-noise ratio gets so bad after a while that I become discouraged.

  • I wonder if the incivility occasioned by the internet could have spillover effects? Surely there's some psychologist out there who has done some research on the matter: stick some college students in an internet chat room, start up some flame wars and then see how they interact with people afterward. My guess is that they wouldn't be *as* nasty as they might be on-line, but that their real-life personas would be degraded a bit.

  • Tony Comstock said...

    RE: Frustration

    I suppose that is largely a product of needs, temperament and expectation.

    I need the diversity of thought that I can get from being at TAS one moment and TNC the next, often making the same argument to persons of very divergent philosophy, and often provoking strong reaction. And coming from so far outside any institutional or organizational framework, I'm glad for the access and interaction with vibrant minds.

    I also enjoy combativeness, even to the point of rudeness. In fact, my own experience is that there's a certain sort of bully who will, in real life, very much take advantage of the expectation of politeness; and while they can use this to advantage IRL, the different standards of civility online strip that sort of person of their advantage.

    I also find myself engaging with people who I would avoid in real life precisely because my expectation would be that interaction would be inflammatory, but the non face-to-face of the internet buffers those interactions,

    There is a chance that if I had the option of spending my time in a lovely garden conversing with like-minded fellows while sufficient funds to maintain my household were automatically deposited into my account I would prefer that to the rancor of the online time that consumes a large measure of my day. The weather is turning. Maybe sales will too, and I'll have a chance to give it a try. ;-)

  • Maureen Ogle said...

    I often wonder how much comment-snark has to do with haste, rather than intent.

    You know: people read a blog entry and, because there are 75 zillion other blogs they want to read in the next hour, they zip off their instant, not-thought-through reaction.

    Which, alas, often sets off a chain reaction of other instant reactions. And snark ensues.

    My reaction to blogs that manage to provoke snark-reaction is to avoid the comments altogether. And if the blogger joins the fray, to avoid that particular blog.

    And having said all that, I have no idea how I'd react if it were MY blog being snark-attacked: ( don't get many comments, and the ones I do get are thoughtful and respectful.

    And again, I wonder if it's the time issue: my commenters are people whose blogs I read, and so they're inclined to be respectful and considerate because we "know" each other.

    On the other hand, I could have no idea what I'm talking about...

  • Donald Johnson said...

    I mostly agree with you here, but I really dislike one of the people you mention and that, I think, is part of the problem. Not my dislike of that person--the problem is, at least in some cases, that we think a person richly deserves the hostility we fling his or her way. It is surely true that some people online do say contemptible things and should be called on it.

    I suppose the proper way to call them on it, though, is to point out what is wrong with their statement in no uncertain terms, and if they persist in making stupid remarks, then one wipes the dust off one's feet and stays away from that person's blog. You've led a sheltered online life if you haven't encountered people who weren't worth the effort it takes to interact with them politely.

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