Bully Off

You don’t have to scratch far below the surface of the human psyche to reach the Neanderthal. Armed with a steering wheel, skin full of alcohol and in bad company, or sat in front of a computer, the thin veneer of civility quickly vanishes to reveal the savage within.

Recent debate on the conduct of Twitter users, bloggers, and others who post online, and their respondents, is hardly novel. Ever since the first online communities, nearly thirty years ago, some computer users have poured hatred through their keyboards, and vented their spleens on screen. If you have ever expressed an opinion on Twitter or other social media, a bulletin board, conferencing system, newsgroup, mailing list, or blog, the chances are that you have received some pretty poisonous responses by now.

Indeed the depressingly low signal-to-noise ratio on many online forums has rendered them all but worthless, unless you enjoy trading insults. Most mailing lists only survive thanks to the diligent work of listmoms who delurk to defuse tensions from time to time, perhaps having to place the list on moderation until tempers have settled. Apple’s lists have been particularly well served by listmoms, making them effective means of communication.

There is here a fundamental problem with electronic media.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have received email containing insults and abuse that the sender would never in sobriety have the guts to say face to face. Thankfully on most of these occasions I have been spectator to feuds between others, squirming with embarrassment at their invective. I dread to think how many have lost jobs, stunted their careers, and broken friendships as a result of sharp shards in ill-considered email sent in the heat of the moment.

The depressing fact is that many of those with Internet access, and plenty of time to exploit it, are bullies, psychopathic personalities, or frankly insane. But even more of us, when our consciences slip, can behave every bit as badly. Given that attempts to regulate more controllable situations, such as driving on the road or communicating at work, have hardly glittered with success, what good can voluntary codes hold over the near-lawless Internet?

We already have a lot of experience in trying to manage bullying in schools and the workplace, and know that tacit tolerance or weak castigation fail miserably. The only way to deal with bullies and bullying behaviour is to expose them and exclude absolutely those who persist. The best of us can, at times, get carried away with an argument, and say things that we regret soon afterwards. The wise sysop or listmom knows that, whilst those remarks cannot be tolerated, a clear warning shot is usually all that is necessary to get us to wind our neck back in.

But all too commonly those who should square up to bullies fail to do so. I have been a member of several online communities in which overt bullying has occurred, and I have never failed to expose and confront.

On several occasions I have done this as a sysop, charged with the responsibility of dealing effectively with such unacceptable behaviour. Yet so often more senior sysops (usually responsible for the conferencing system and its revenues) have been unsupportive, and on a couple of occasions rounded on me for tackling the bully, letting the bully crash on into other users. A common response is that all involved should get ‘thicker skins’, so as to be more tolerant of such bullying in the future.

I would like to think that we will all vote with our browsers and apps and stay away from sites and systems that do not deal effectively with bulling, as I have done. Depriving the sites of our clicks, thus income, and the bullies of vulnerable victims, is effective and costs us nothing. When using social media, particularly Facebook and similar systems, do not wait for the victim to complain: complain for them.

The worrying thing is that some seem to have a predilection for spectating: another disturbingly primitive trait, perhaps.

Updated from the original, which was first published in MacUser volume 23 issue 13, 2007.