The concept of the flame war online is certainly nothing new. It’s been around since before most people were even aware the internet existed. However, more people are starting to look into the issue of why people tend to be such incredible jerks online when they might be perfectly nice in person. It seems that there are few different things contributing to the effect. First is that people somehow feel “disinhibited” when sitting behind a keyboard and monitor — whether it’s because of the supposed anonymity, the fact that you’re effectively “invisible” or even the fact that there’s a time lag between being a jerk and any response to it. The fact that you’re somewhat separate from the response just makes it that much easier to be a jerk. Some feel that it has even more to do with the lack of direct human contact in terms of either seeing hurt feelings or hearing someone’s voice. There’s just less empathy involved in seeing black and white text then seeing a physical reaction to being mean. Some of the latest research on this actually looked at how brains process messages during a conversation, and noted that in a normal conversation the person is tracking a variety of different cues in terms of how the other person is responding, and those cues help moderate what we say. Without any such cues when sitting behind a keyboard, you don’t get any of the warning lights to moderate what you’re saying, and the natural tendency is just to go right to the extreme edge without ever cooling off.
Another take from International Herald Tribune:
Jett Lucas, a 14-year-old friend, tells me the kids in his middle school send one another a steady stream of instant messages through the day. But there’s a problem.
“Kids will say things to each other in their messages that are too embarrassing to say in person,” Jett tells me. “Then when they actually meet up, they are too shy to bring up what they said in the message. It makes things tense.”
Jett’s complaint seems to be part of a larger pattern plaguing the world of virtual communications, a problem recognized since the earliest days of the Internet: flaming, or sending a message that is taken as offensive, embarrassing or downright rude.
The hallmark of the flame is precisely what Jett lamented: thoughts expressed while sitting alone at the keyboard would be put more diplomatically — or go unmentioned — face to face.
Flaming has a technical name, the “online disinhibition effect,” which psychologists apply to the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace.
In a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e- mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure. Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign — when a shy person feels free to open up online — or toxic, as in flaming.
Also there is this pithy cartoon from Penny Arcade (via a comment on TechDirt).
Out of the explanations, I tend to like the last one the best (The one in the cartoon). I think lack of accountability or even reliable identity and reputation online is the root cause of people being jerks. Without such mechanisms, I suspect even the real world, emotions/facial expressions or not, will disintegrate into a lawless flamefest. Another potential cause could be the lack of broad community participation on the Internet. This leads to people, who feel the strongest about a topic, to participate thereby causing the perception that people are jerks on the Internet.