Have Online Communities become Havens for the Terminally Angry?

Online forums are filled with spam, irrational anger and hate, and plain-old mean-spiritedness. Have the mentally ill taken over the Internet?

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Blizzard Entertainment, makers of the wildly popular World of Warcraft online game recently started an online forum tempest when they decided to start showing users' online account names when they posted messages to their game forums. Blizzard explained they were making this change to their online forums because their "forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild."

No? Really?

It's not just Blizzard's forums though. Almost every forum I know that allows anonymous comments is filled to overflowing with abusive nonsense. Whether it's GoComics (http://www.gocomics.com/); local newspaper online forums; social bookmarking sites like Digg and Reddit; developer mailing lists, or, alas, my own blogs and Web sites, all too often instead of intelligent conversation about the subject du jour I find non-stop ranting, sweating, and insults. Oh, and the occasional bit of spam.

What's going on here? I'm an Internet veteran; I was using it for over a decade before the Web came along. And, as bad as things can get on all these forums, it's nothing I haven't seen before on Usenet forums.

I also used to run numerous online forum sites for ZDNet and other independent Internet mailing lists. I don't think you could pay me enough money to try to manage most social sites these days. Even if you do require users to login or jump through a CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart) hoop before posting, the spammers and people with an ax to grind make their way through on a regular basis.

What I didn't use to see was what we have now: a close to total breakdown in online civility. It seems to me that more and more online conversations are dominated not merely by rude people, but by people suffering from OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and Asperger syndrome.

Seriously, I get, for example, that some of you don't like Obama, but really, do you have to tell the world how awful he is every day on every online forum you can reach? And, on the other side of the political aisle, most of you do know that Bush hasn't been president for over two-years now right?

It's not just big issues though. I see it all the time in the flame wars that can spring up and burn out entire online communities over such questions as whether Windows or Linux is better. More recently, I've been amazed at just hostile some of the conversations between Android and iPhone fans can get recently. People, come on, it's just a phone!

It's not just online forums though. The one online game I play a lot is Guild Wars. In game, there are public areas where characters can talk to each other. I now turn it off the second I enter such areas. Instead of talking about anything remotely related to the game, what I always find now are people insulting each other with sexual and racial names, moronic anti-religion and/or US rants, and written fights that usually boil down to "You're a jerk!" "No, you're a jerk!"

Oh yeah, that really makes me want to listen to any of you.

It's not just that game though; I see that kind of stuff everywhere now. I used to be a big believer in the value of online communities. And, there are still a few, where people actually treat each other with civility. By and large though I'm sick of what passes for online conversations these days.

I'm not perfect. I've been rude online myself from time to time. I try not to be though. Another reason I turn off 'listening' to online chat in game is that all that vitriol is infectious, and I find myself wanting to flame back. I know that arguing with an idiot only brings me right down to their level and will end up annoying both of us, but the temptation is still there. So, instead, I just switch all of it off.

I'd like to think that things could get better but as more and more people who seem to me to be honestly mildly mentally ill dominate the common space of online communications I've lost almost all my interest in participating in them.

If you'd like to help make things get better, I'd like to suggest that the next time you're tempted to flame someone on an online forum, keep in mind that you're not talking to a machine; your words will be read by other people, not all that different from you. We could all stand a little kindness. If we all work at taking responsibility for our words and realizing that our words can hurt others so we should choose them carefully maybe, just maybe, we can take back some of the Internet's social forums.

I hope so anyway.

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