I, Probert

Former GeekPlanetOnline Site Editor Dave Probert is a man with an ear to the ground of the geek community. When that ground starts to rumble, our man in East Sussex has something to say...!


Someone writes something contentious on the internet. It might be an article, a blog post or a comment on another article. What they have written is considered out of order by most reasonable people. They may have slighted an individual who has rightly exercised their right to reply or they may have responded to a bad review of something that they have invested a lot of time in. A few people chime in to object to what they have said and then someone will post a link to this mild fracas on a social networking site. And then things get silly.

The argument goes viral and people from all over the world decide that they have an opinion on the argument that they can't keep to themselves. Soon there are page after page of comments tearing the initial offender a new one and the whole thing is blow massively out of proportion.

Anyone who has used the internet for a reasonable amount of time will have seen at least one situation like this at some point. A small scale online disagreement going viral to the point that a large section of the internet shows up to rubber neck the incident like an online car accident, and everyone has something to say about it.

In situations like these I often find myself agreeing that the initial comment is unreasonable and deserving of censure, but by the time that I have read it the level of response has become grossly disproportionate. Hordes of people jump on the bandwagon, wanting to be a part of the righteous mass sticking it to someone who has made an ill-advised statement online where it's very difficult to take anything back once you have spewed it out into the aether.

I'm not a fan of this level of online mob mentality. If this was happening in the real world these people would be carrying torches and pitchforks and would probably find themselves kettled by the Metropolitan Police force. It's behaviour that would be considered completely unacceptable in the real world and yet it happens with startling regularity online.

There is a cruel streak in human nature that enjoys watching someone make a complete arse of themselves. Some of Britain's greatest comedy creations have been based on this very principle. From Basil Fawlty to Alan Partridge and David Brent there is a long tradition of characters whose appeal is they have no idea how to conduct themselves, and we laugh as the world runs away from them and they utterly fail to cope. This is considered fine though because they are fictional characters and we are being invited to laugh at their misfortune.

However when something similar happens online people are lining up to put the boot into a real person. Once open season is declared via Twitter or Facebook some people seem to think that means the rules of polite society have been repealed. They proceed to be way more abusive and unpleasant than the original offender and start to make me feel a little sorry for the person on the receiving end of the virtual punishment beating. While I may think that what they have said was out of order, they don't deserve pages of people showing up to take their turn to virtually kick the bloody, twitching corpse.

I'm sure the websites where these incidents take place love it when this sort of thing boils over and someone manages to make a complete Partridge of themselves. Their hit rate goes through the roof and they may end up with a few more regular visitors either because they have found that they quite like the site itself or because they are hoping that it might happen again and they want to be in on the ground floor next time.

The thing is that whatever has been said initially is usually so silly and inconsequential that if you overheard someone say it you would just ignore them. You wouldn't shout at the top of your voice “HEY COME HEAR WHAT THIS JACKASS JUST SAID!” and invite people to form an orderly queue to abuse them. That would be a ridiculous way to behave and most people would consider you a jerk for doing it. So why is it considered a perfectly acceptable way to behave online?

If you look at the response comments to these things the most abusive tend to be anonymous. It's the internet's cloak of anonymity that gives people the chance to say things to people that they wouldn't say in person for fear of retribution. At least the initial offender has had the guts to put their name to what they are saying. Hurling anonymous abuse at them is just cowardly and makes the person who is on the receiving end seem mild by comparison.

I'm not saying that people who behave objectionably online shouldn't be challenged (hell, I've been known to get into the occasional dust up myself) but when the level of vitriol directed at one person by many reaches a certain level it ceases to become a debate and turns into a witch hunt and that reflects badly on everyone involved.

The best way to deal with people who are determined to make a fool of themselves on the internet is to not pay them the attention they feel their ill-informed nonsense deserves.

Oscar Wilde once said “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” and for the perpetrators of these incidents there can be no punishment more fitting. But if you must respond then remember his other words of wisdom:

“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”