My view on people who are assholes on the Internet

July 24, 2016

A long time ago, I hung around Usenet in various places. One of the things that certain Usenet groups featured was what we would today call trolls; people who were deliberately nasty and obnoxious. Sometimes they were nasty in their own newsgroups; sometimes they took gleeful joy in going out to troll other newsgroups full of innocents. Back in those days there were also sometimes gatherings of Usenet people so you could get to meet and know your fellow posters. One of the consistent themes that came out of these meetups was reports of 'oh, you know that guy? he's actually really nice and quiet in person, nothing like his persona on the net'. And in general, one of the things that some of these people said when they were called on their behavior was that they were just playing an asshole on Usenet; they weren't a real asshole, honest.

Back in those days I was younger and more foolish, and so I often at least partially bought into these excuses and reports. These days I have changed my views. Here, let me summarize them:

Even if you're only playing an asshole on the net, you're still an asshole.

It's simple. 'Playing an asshole on the net' requires being an asshole to people on the net, which is 'being an asshole' even if you're selective about it. Being a selective asshole, someone who's nasty to some people and nice to others, doesn't somehow magically make you not an asshole, although it may make you more pleasant for some people to deal with (and means that they can close their eyes to your behavior in other venues). It's certainly nicer to be an asshole only some of the time than all of the time, but it's even better if you're not an asshole at all.

This is not a new idea, of course. It's long been said that the true measure of someone's character is how they deal with people like waitresses and cashiers; if they're nasty to those people, they've got a streak of nastiness inside that may come out in other times and places. The Internet just provides another venue for that sort of thing.

In general, it's long since past time that we stopped pretending that people on the Internet aren't real people. What happens on the net is real to the people that it happens to, and nasty words hurt even if one can mostly brush off a certain amount of nasty words from strangers.

(See also, which is relevant to shoving nastiness in front of people on the grounds that they were in 'public'.)


Comments on this page:

Kurt Vonnegut said it best in Mother Night: "we are what we pretend to be." I've been trying over the years to pretend to be the kind of person I'd like to be. It doesn't always go as well as I'd like.

Written on 24 July 2016.
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Last modified: Sun Jul 24 00:03:35 2016
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