It always seems that just as I’m about to sit down and write an article, something happens which is related to the topic I’m about to bring up. No sooner was I writing about the dangers of Email after having my Email address hijacked, but this week we have been hilariously parodied by a disgruntled ex-forum member and my topic today was going to be on the subject of Internet personalities.
Next week I’m planning to write about what I would do if I won the lottery.
Anyway, this weeks editorial is regarding the form of flame, the strange intricacies which turn an everyday normal teenager (or indeed, adult) into a simmering pot of rage waiting to pounce on the hapless noob.
When I first got onto the Internet back in 1993-ish, things were simple. My time consisted of playing a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon), which (for those too young to remember) was akin to the online role-playing games of today such as Everquest or Star Wars Galaxies but with text, so we had to emulate the 3D Accelerators using something called ‘our imagination’. There would be around 20-30 of us playing at any one time, people were nice to each other and helped one another out. You would go on and happily chat to a stranger knowing that a verbal kick in the gonads was not going to be forthcoming.
"Were they the kind of person who enjoyed going around town stirring up trouble?"
Then I began to post in Usenet groups and, whilst this was a bit more wild and untamed, on the whole people were nice. Occasionally someone would come in and cross-post, they were politely told that was unacceptable and once in a while someone would actively participate with the sole purpose of causing trouble, however they tended to be dealt with swiftly and would rarely keep it up for any amount of time once the excitement of being annoying wore off.
When the few people were like that, I often wondered who these people were. Not in the literal sense of course, I didn’t particularly care that CyberGuy1995 was John Smith from Newmarket, more like 'what kind of person' were they? Were they the kind of person who enjoyed going around town stirring up trouble? Unlikely at the time, in order to even get on the net you needed to own a PC and have the smarts to get dialled up, that took both a reasonable chunk of brains and money... back in the early-mid nineties people who had Internet access were technophiles or students, certainly not the types you’d assume would go around stirring up trouble by waving a broken Newcastle Brown bottle in your face.
As the Internet boomed, it became easier and easier for the masses to enjoy the random world of online communications and the amount of people frequenting online gaming, Usenet and the new phenomenon of forums, was increasing exponentially. People with a voice now had a larger audience and not only was there more to say, there were more people to say it to.
The average person is not particularly unique when viewed as a User; you can tell this trend by going out to your average shopping centre and watching the people walk by you. No-one really stands out, except the odd person about whom you can make a pretty good judgment call as to what they’re all about. The Goths are Goths, the enormous bouncer types probably would beat you senseless if you spilt their pint and the kids in gangs are no use solo. These are normal things everyone sees in their lifetime.
Take away the outlying image and put them behind a computer, with their same attitudes and opinions except they have the benefit of a little personality anonymity. I say personality because it’s very hard to remain anonymous on the Internet. I don’t assume for one second it would be very hard to find out things about me, the rest of the team or most people on our forums -- It comes with the territory. However, very few people actually know me and what I’m like.
Am I the same person who posts on the forums? If you met me in a pub, would you think ‘He’s nothing like I thought he’d be’, would you even recognise me if we spoke for an hour? I think you would be surprised to meet me in person after spending some time reading my posting style; I alter the way I write and behave to suit the medium. And believe me, everyone is doing it.
I am but one man, now apply that attitude to every person on the forums. Suddenly you have ten, fifty, three thousand people all tweaking their personalities to suit the online persona they want to develop. A bit of a weed at school? No matter, you can be tough as nails on the Internet. Led a boring life? Easy, with a bit of adjustment you can be partying all weekend and tell the tales on Monday, safe in the knowledge that no-one can prove otherwise. Conversely, if you’re a hulking brute who gets treated like a thug when you go out, you can show off your soft sensitive side without people making a judgment call about you.
"...arrogance is beginning to take the place of assistance, threats are deemed more appropriate than resolution."
This leads me into the final issue I wanted to raise about this. I have noticed that the general ‘attitude’ of the Internet is becoming sour, and the black sheep are beginning to infect the flock. People are becoming nasty with one another, arrogance is beginning to take the place of assistance, threats are deemed more appropriate than resolution. It has become natural to fire off a smart-arsed reply instead of stopping for five minutes to consider the possibilities. What happened to apologies, what happened to humility? All concepts now outdated because of the ability to not have to care what people think of you, because as soon as you’re back out with your friends, you’re the caring puppy-loving sap you always have been. They need never know you just told a digital nemesis that you’d tear their spine out and play Xylophone on it.
The Internet is an angry place, and I have no trouble meeting people day to day who I know have a dual personality. They are perfectly nice face-to-face, you can judge how they’ll react to a given situation and they’re generally all round great people – then they get on the forums and turn into a seething mass of hatred and anger. I watch how people get frustrated with them and I want to interject with ‘But, he’s not like that!’ Then I realise that this is their release, this is something of their own making. They enjoy being two people… the irony is that if two users in a flame war met face to face, they would most likely get on famously, especially as the heat of debate is far easily settled across a table than across a cable.
People discuss how much the world would be a better place if people just started to be nice to one another, as if it’s in our nature to be nasty to our brothers and sisters. The truth is, we had an opportunity to do that with the Internet and it seems even nice individuals don’t want to be nice all the time.
And if you don’t agree with me, you know where you can stick it.