Saturday, February 16, 2008

Thoughts on Internet Discourse

The last couple of weeks, I've been in dialogues with various people about the frustrations they face dealing with what I call "message board superstars" -- people who relentlessly pick, extend, and must end with the last laugh drawn-out negative threads on forums and the comments section on blogs. I always advise, "don't let it bother you," but then I have to deal with the same bullshit.

If I had to describe the negative energy you feel when dealing with this sort of shit -- it's not healthy.

Can you actually have a rational conversation with these people? No.

Will obscure continuity issues be brought up? Possibly. Probably.

Can you win if you answer them? No.

Can you win if you shut the comments down? No.

Can you win if you just walk away from the thread/comments in question? Probably your best bet.

And then the person you had the tangle with will, somewhere, get in their last word, and wait with baited breath for you to do something -- anything! If you can do anything to recognize their existence. An angry response? Great! More fuel! A link to their blog? Great way to get the Technorati authority up! Just...please respond. Respond with negative energy. Keep fueling it. Keep fueling it.

The thread pages keep adding up. The number of comments go through the roof, though most is just a non-dialogue between two people.

Somewhere, the actual topic in question gets buried in a pile of LOLs, and fan neurosis.

Keep fueling it! More response! More attention!

I saw this with the "Dan DiDio must die" thing, and, while I appreciated those who defended me, the whole thing scared the hell out of me. Then I saw it again with the "One More Day" thing and the personal attacks on Quesada.

Keep fueling it! More attention! The loudest one wins! (and when all else fails, make fun of grammatical errors).

And then I get disgusted by all of it and I say, "I'm going to be really positive for now on, and I'm not going to perpetuate negative energy on my site."

But that's when you have the Zen test of having a somebody go completely batshit on you on another board or blog. And here is the test: what do you do?

You get caught up in the negativity. And you spin more negativity onto your site, because it's infectious.

And then you reach the Oprah point. (Not that I'm comparing myself with Oprah, I just have a little blog that gushes about World War Hulk and Fred Hembeck)

Years ago, when the sensationalistic talk-show scene was in full bloom, she said -- I'm not doing this crap anymore. I'm just going to work on positive issues on my show.

Would the ratings still hold up?

If the type of mentality that drives people to say epithets against Joe Quesada on a public message board keeps up, or drives a forum user to get personally involved with a freelancer's life, will the easy sociability between the professionals and the fans keep up?

Or will the comment sections on these blogs, one-by-one, get shut off? Will freelancers stop interfacing with fans online? Will there be bodyguards/bouncers for DiDio & Quesada and whatever writer is getting hated-on at the moment at the cons?

This used to only happen with "letters to the editor." You could file those away.

We used to get angry letters where they'd write all in caps and tell us we were full of shit. They were so cute. They would tell us we should die because Hal Jordan was not Green Lantern. We'd tape them on our doors. The scarier ones we'd file away. Some we would forward to upper management because they had better resources to deal with it than we did.

Then, there were the conversations and debates you got into at your local comic store. They ended when you got home. Now, via all your lovely devices, you have at least two or three ways to extend that debate out into your home. And you can slowly roast on the coals all day, if you'd like.

I'm not a saint, and I've made my share of incendiary posts. But I'm just observing that the whole dark side of Internet discourse seems to be one that builds and builds, building gigantic feuds that spill into personal lives, building enmity, creating ever more obsessive fans, then these clusters of obsessive fans who all hate or love the same things. The Internet is largely not like that, but I wonder if it has to change eventually to deal with this obsessive element.

The Internet fosters an openness, but I wonder if, by virtue of this very openness completely taken advantage of, it will eventually react by becoming more and more private.

And I wonder if, when the openness of professional artists and writers and editors are taken advantage of, will they and this industry become more and more private as a result.


  1. On the pro side, some will flee the web, some will turn off their comments, some will learn to deal with it smoothly, some will outsource the dealing with it, some of them will thrive on it, and some of them will be every bit as obnoxious as their 'fans.'

    On the fan side, some will grow up and learn to handle it differently and some will be trolls for life who get banned from lots of places.

    It’s not going to be any one thing that happens. It’s going to be all of them. Personal observations from too many years of forums and webcomics.

  2. On a somewhat related note. You know what bugs me? People who don't have comments. Like for instance Digital Femme. I really like her blog! & want to say so, & comment...but can't. One time I made an RSS feed for her blog so I could read it on my feedreader (I use Livejournal, since I blog there) & she (politely) asked me to take it down & then mangled the code so it wouldn't work anyhow. Gah. Sure, the community can be stupid, but so what. Any community can be stupid. You are right not to dignify it with response. I guess it just comes down to the fact that shutting down avenues of communication shuts down the good, too. Now I only read Cheryl Lynn's blog when I click on it from WFA. Cest la vie.

  3. I know it sounds simplistic, but the solution really is thicker skin. The Internet, by its very nature, is the Wild West. Always will be; that's both its problem and its charm. When you go into the Wild West, you go in packing heat. And you come back because despite the times where you run into dicks, it's still a pretty fun place to be. And it probably would not be if it were tightly regulated.

  4. My brother likes anti-trolling.

    Basically, it entails making one-off common sense rebuttals of a non-abusive nature to the bizarrely-entitled rants of the more obnoxious internet dwellers. He finds amusement not in making the posts, but in the increasingly-irrational and abusive responses they generate in return. He never makes more than his initial post, and not being able to drag someone into a mudslinging match seems to be the one thing that truly aggrieves the troll mentality - possibly because it denies them the attention they feel they deserve.

    I don't like e-dialogues that get too passionate, though - the human mind is used to interpersonal communication based on body language and tone of voice, and that's lost with words all alone on a screen. Why else did we need to create emoticons to help people know when we're kidding, being sarcastic, etcetera?

  5. Back when I was heavy into Wikipedia, I used to do a fair amount of debate, & I have a pretty clear head for it-- some of my friends & opponents, less so. The "thick skin" tactic IS a good one, I think, but I sometimes wonder if Wikipedia's guidelines would translate well across the internet-- like "assume good faith." Like, whatever everyone going straight to Defcon Zero, it was assumed that there might possibly be misinterpretation, or what have you? Be interesting.


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  7. I myself really don't understand how people get so worked up over Internet "discussions."

    I mean its not like its a real person... (yes, I know that there are other people, but its not face to face) I think without any real connection (meaning a non-faceless relationship) to the other party of the Its virtually consequence-free… people don’t have to ‘conform’ to any valid discussion form. Not only that, but words (as opposed to prose) are so rarely able to communicate tone, infliction, subtext, feelings. So I have to KNOW going into any blog / chat / board, the poster that it’s not a real life or rational situation. And to hold Internet ‘discussions’ to that standard is to do that at one’s peril.

    Mind you I am not saying that it can’t / won’t / doesn’t / hasn’t happen(ed), but rather it’s the rare exception to the all to real I-norm.

    On the other hand, sometimes admitting you made a mistake and/or laughing at yourself can diffuse "bad" feelings.

    (rewritten to better conform with the english language - lol)

  8. The worst online discussion I ever got into was about the Gamecube game Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, which I thought stunk.

    Nerdier than comics? Hard to say, lol.

    I am still stung from your review of Booster Gold a while back though, but I'm trying to let go, lol.

  9. I'm mostly a reader around here, not a commenter, but last spring I jumped into one of the more contentious MJ statue threads to try to help Rational Mad Man get his head out of his ass. I failed, as is to be expected when something so very pointy is shoved so deeply up something so very tight. In the process, I came to some realizations about thread warfare and codified them. The rules apply to single-thread battles, or multi-front wars being fought on blogs, forums, newsgroups, and street corners.

    If you're interested, by all means come on by and read them. Most significant is my rule #6:
    When it becomes clear that logic won't work...get OUT!!! Seriously, don't stay in the debate. Don't have the last word, don't correct another mistaken understanding, don't even tell him to run a spell-check on the words he's quoting from you. Let him "win". The only victory in a case like this is to stop burning time and energy on it.

  10. Mordicai: You aren't missing anything. It's totally a personal blog for me and my weird-ass friends. I don't even get linked on WFA anymore. Nothing there worth reading for anyone who doesn't know me.

    Val: Since you are not like me and actually answer letters in a timely and efficient manner, try e-mail. Communicating with someone one-on-one would probably help to eliminate any misunderstandings and bad feelings before things escalate. Professionals need a way to communicate with fans. Promotion and feedback are important.

  11. We as comics retailers just faced a lot of this. There has always been a lot of anti-LCS chatter on the fan boards and blogs, but the ComicsPRO position gave some people with highly trafficked blogs an opportunity to hate on retailers as a group.

    Many of us tried to counter it, but at the end of the day, I had to say, for me personally, I've never seen these people in my shop, they have little to no influence over those who do come in my shop, and I get that much more done by not trafficking their sites.

    End of the day, these tend to be people who argue for recreation. I don't invite people like that into my house so why invite them into my laptop?

  12. The Internet has already changed significantly based on this kind of behavior. Back in the early 90s, it was a lot more open and friendly, before everyone went to blogs and moderated boards.

    Atom's post illustrates part of the problem: it's hard for people hurt from feeling attacked to distinguish between those who disagree with them (perhaps vehemently) and those who are truly troublemakers. You end up writing off *anyone* who disagrees with you, and that way lies Fox News.

  13. Johanna,

    It is true that that is sometimes difficult. But, when it comes to an area of expertise that I am proficient, I usually look at what experiences guide their opinion and whether or not they entertain dissenting opinions.

    I personally don't mind, in fact I quite enjoy, well informed discourse with those whose opinions have earned respect. Especially when I disagree with them. It is a rare opportunity to learn a new perspective and perhaps inform my future decisions. Also, they don't tend to be recreational arguers.

    Those who weigh in on an issue for the sake of having an opinion tend to do so about so many things that their opinion loses value quickly.

  14. I think a golden rule is to act as if you were in the outside world, adress someone if you feel it necessary, if the person replies in a way that tells you he is unable to commit to dialogue or use any sort of logic skill, then leave the conversation.

    Debates should be a learning and enriching experience, not a shouting match.

  15. With all due respect, what distinction would you make between legitimate discourse and 'trolling'? I find that many bloggers don't have any experience with dealing with the public in their private/professional lives, and tend to be intolerant of any serious disagreement.

    With regard to the professional creators, they have to maintain ties with the fanbase, or risk irrelevancy. It's hard to imagine how they would survive otherwise, given the huge changes afoot in the entertainment industry.

    Generally, I think it's important for people to assume that others are attempting to engage in constructive discussion, unless proven otherwise.

  16. The last few lines on your post made me think of a book I'm reading at the moment - Ben Elton's Blind Faith. Basically it's set in the future, where absolutely everything has to be on the web, and nothing is private. The main character has a major struggle with thoughts that he wants to keep private (a big no-no in the future) and thoughts he projects on the boards to appear "normal".

    It's quite a sad story in a way. It probably wasn't written to be a sad story, but I've had to put it aside for a few weeks because the reasonings about keeping something private/non private was becoming too intense.

    I'd highly recommend it to you as a grounding point in what varieties of realities other people exist in on the web, and why they do it. If you get a chance, have a flick through it.

  17. Wasn't sure whether to comment on this or the previous post. If it matters - I read everything you write (well, most of it - never really got the Planet Hulk thing) and while I don't always agree, I'm always grateful for the perspective. For every troll/idiot who decides to over-react to a comment, there's a hundred who got something out of it. Maybe we should say so more often.

  18. I never know what to make of the comments of some fans alleging that Didio, Quesada et. al. are intentionally destroying characters out of disrespect for the fans.

    It always sounds like when Ann Coulter insists that the mainstream media takes a "liberal" viewpoint no matter the effect on its bottom line. Maybe in her parallel universe the profit motive means nothing (hah!), but in our world it should be enough to make fans understand that writers and editors don't have it out for them.

    It's a pitfall of the Internet's small-"d" democracy that the lowest-common denominator's voice has the same volume as the more reasonable commentators. There may not be much to do but to either lock everyone out or tolerate the more unpleasant elements while taking note of the very few who may actually be dangerous.

    But I suspect that a lot of it is simply that we're in a time of transition in both technology and etiquette. We have methods of talking to each other that didn't exist a few years ago. I have hopes that the proper ways of using these technologies will develop along with the technologies themselves, especially as more and more people have grown up with them.

  19. Comments and trolling are a frustrating situation, no matter how you slice it. Any good debate might stir up a little vitriol but it's like all the basic rules of etiquette vanish for some people once they're faceless behind a keyboard. :(

    I just try to keep things logical and stick to the old adage of the Golden Rule. I've been lucky enough to not have to moderate my comments so far but that can only last so long.

    In a perfect world, people would realize that the most effective and intelligent discourse comes from a place of reason and mutual respect. Sadly, the real world isn't that way, much less the "Wild West" of the Internet (kudos to Matt for that one). While it's fun to read and watch about the Wild West, I'd sure as hell not want to live there . . . and yet, here we are.

    I suppose I have it easier because my comics blog isn't nearly as thought-provoking as yours. I try to keep my tone light and playful whenever possible but that's just my personal preference. We need intelligent discussions of issues facing the industry today. I would even go so far as to say that blogs that encourage intellectual debate about comic books are vital to the medium. For me, trolls who ruin or deny us these discussions are the most frustrating people on the Internet. A thick skin can only go so far when they're derailing an otherwise fascinating and civil debate.

    I guess what I'm trying to say is that there are no easy answers. Trite, but true.

    And I want to thank you for blogging about all of this. Not just the problems of Internet Discourse we all face but the heavier issues in comics as well. If this post has made just one person stop and think about whether or not they're being an ass on the Internet and improve their behavior, it's been well worth it.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I have to keep up my side of the Comics Blogosphere by cheekily posting horrible Batman fan-fic, snarky previews and the YouTubed theme to Charles In Charge. :)

  20. I think the important trick is being able to just walk away. It's hard, and it doesn't really get easier, but in the end, nobody can argue with you without you arguing with them.

  21. Part of the situation, for me, is that my focus has ALWAYS been a LOT less on the opinions of other people and a LOT more on how they conduct themselves in a debate/opinion/discussion.

    If someone doesn't agree with me, I have no problem with it. If someone finds a boat load of "facts" that pick apart a thought/opinion of mine... hey... cool. They felt strong enough about it to attempt (or succeed) to debunk my idea(s) with a lot of reasons? I think that's great.

    No, really. No joke.

    My issue has always been with the style that people use the anonymity of the internet to be just total #*&$heads.

    For me if someone picks apart, piece by piece, a post of mine and sticks to a respectful tone and doesn't feel the need to attack my character, background, and thought process... well... I welcome and encourage it. I love debate. It's fun when it doesn't become an attack.

    But if someone needs that sort of thing to feel superior and spouts off with snark and nasty speak, turning it into something beyond the scope of the inital post.. well... that's how flame wars start and I start fantazing about sticking someone's head on a cyber-spike as a warning to others.

    Yes, the best thing is to always let it go. I have had issues doing so in the past mainly because there seem to be so many idiots who's only real pleasure is being nasty to others on an internet forum. I HATE the thought that they sit back with a smug grin and think to themselves "I showed 'em". Even though it's a pathetic attempt at life on their parts... I don't like feeeling like I contributed to their snarky pleasure.

    It's a personality flaw of mine I suppose. However, I think a lot of us feel the same way.

    In the end, like I said, I think the main problem is not the opinions, but the manner in which those opinions are expressed. I've seen some VERY good arguements on this blog that I would LOVE to agree with and support, but in the end I do not because the comments were peppered with unnesessary nasty inclusions that turned a comment from an insightful arguement into a hateful and smug tirade.

  22. The relative facelessness of the internet combines the best (or worst, depending on your viewpoint) of high school debate teams and barroom pissing contests. You have no inhibitions and therefore have the bravado to run your mouth without fear of consequence. However, instead of being drunk and therefore unable to form any coherent, logical arguments, you can use the tricks you learned on the debate team to full effect and push all the right buttons on your opponent.

    Oddly enough, some of the worst internet debates I've read weren't even about "nerdy" subjects. They were on a hiking/backpacking message board I frequent. The internet is the internet.

    The only thing you can do is defend your point and then stop before you get dragged down. No one will think you've lost if you don't get in the last point. Chances are everyone will see how ridiculous the other guy is being and won't blame you for walking away.

    People need to remember that this is supposed to be fun, as illustrated on the hilarious Flame Warriors website; It puts everything in perspective.

  23. You know, a lot of what you said sounded very familiar. That might be because I've said things like it for years.

    I agree with pretty much everyone who said the lack of "face-to-face" exchanges, lets some people feel ther have a consequence free environment to treat others however they want. And for the most part that's true.

    But technology is catching up with us all. I have friends and family who work in the computer/tech industry. So, I know of things before most do. If you knew about the equipment and knowledge people have today, it would blow you away. Do any of you realize, for example, how much easier it is to find out who you really are? Your fake handles aren't the gaurentee of anonymity, that they use to be. This isn't the ealry-90's Internet, tracking and decoding programs have come a long way in the last 10-15 years.

    I've often said, the only way the Internet will "grow up" is after something tragic takes place. An Internet "Columbine," if you will.

    One day, not too far off, IMO, we'll be watching the news and we'll hear about a murder of someone far from where we are. Nothing new there, but what will grab your attention, is when you hear that the killer drove 700 miles to this person's home to kill them. And why? Because that person was a jackass to them online. And we'll all be shocked and horrified, when really we should have all been watching the clock and expecting this a lot sooner.

    See, this is what I find most interesting about all verbal thugs of the Internet. They never stop to think about who it is they flame. They never ask "is this person in their right mind?" You can't always tell the crazies from normal people in real life. How can you expect the different online?

    Just like anything else, most people will always choose to learn things the hard way, rather than the easy way. It will take something tragic, before people wise up. It's just human nature.

  24. james meeley: There's the frightening and tragic tale of Jesse James, which isn't quite at the level you're looking for, but pretty close.

    And of course there's the MySpace bullying of Megan Meier to make your skin crawl. There already have been tragedies online, just as there are regularly in the meat-world. Getting people to act more civilly, with more respect for others, is going to be harder than a few distant tragedies, unfortunately.

  25. r.a.: Thanks for those links. I knew of Megan's story, but Jesse James was new to me. And I agree they are both cautionary tales from Inernet users, but you are also correct that they aren't exactly the same as what I'm saying.

    In both those cases, the people responsible for those tragic events have the personal information on their victims, because they gave it to them (whether knowingly or not).

    What I'm talking about is a total stangers who suddenly gets access to your name, address, workplace, ect. You haven't given it to them, there is no pre-existing relationship with them (outsider of you having flamed them online). It might seem a small difference, but a very importnat one, IMO.

    Jesse James and Megan's stories tell you to be careful who you give your personal info to. My example, however, shows you that you are still very vulnerable, even if you DON'T give out that information.

    A lot of people put a lot of stock in their anonymity online. They think it is an indestrucable shield they can hide behind forever and allows them the freedom to treat others however they want, with no reporcussions coming to them.

    My example shatters that myth. And, as I said, it's closer than you (and most folks) might be aware. When one is careless and opens themself up to a potential tragedy, folks might be shocked, but will simply say to themselves, "Well, I won't be so careless." But when you aren't careless and the tragedy happens anyway, that has a much deeper effect to everyone who do as you did. Their illusions of saftey and invulnerability are gone. Then you will see changes in their actions and attitudes. But look at what it takes.

    Still, as I said, that's just human nature.

  26. Oh man. I hope nobody ever finds out my real name.

  27. Your points are well taken, James. I just have my doubts that even a well publicized tragedy of the exact type you're talking about will really get people to change their ways. Particularly if we make the assumption that the biggest trolls are young (at least they act quite juvenile) and given to a false belief in their own immortality.

    As for you, Mr. one will ever begrudge the face-kickingest man in the blogosphere. Even if you are going through with the week of Bring It On.

  28. If it's on your own blog, you can just edit people's comments and then delete their posts where they call you out for doing so.

    That's what i do, works just fine.

  29. That's a slippery slope, Tucker.

    It leads down a path of deleting people who disagree with you even when they have data to back up their disagreement.

    I'm not saying that you would do this. But, it is a slippery slope.

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  31. I've heard of a couple of cases recently where this outside bullying has happened, one with a freelancer. And it concerns me. Because some comic creators have become so "open" with fans. Comics seems to be the last media, outside of perhaps Pro Wrestling, where there is such a connection with the fans. It would be a shame to lose that.

    I'm not proposing censorship, or a list of internet discourse dos and donts. I have no answer. I'm just saying it concerns me. Comics has never had, to my knowledge, a huge stalker-like violent event between an obsessed fan and a creator/editor. And I'm not sure if the Internet gives an outlet to a potential stalker to blow off steam a little every day and feel a sense of accomplishment, or to only rile them up.

    But when I witnessed the online reaction to "One More Day," I just got really really really concerned. And maybe that's me being "Pollyanna." I hope so.

  32. Comics seems to be the last media, outside of perhaps Pro Wrestling, where there is such a connection with the fans. It would be a shame to lose that.

    Might already be too late with that, Val.

    In my near 11 years of surfing the Internet, I've seen a lot of creators cutback, or cut out, the time they used to spend interacting with the readers online. This is on top of the "fans" who say creators shouldn't go to message forum and the like in the first place, if they can't handle getting personally insulted and having tons of innuendo spread about them publicly.

    Add to it stories, like from the one gal at The Pink Raygun site, who says that creators are starting to clam up in person, when they find out she writes for an Internet site, because they don't want to say something jokingly, or make and off the cuff comment, then suddenly see themselves as the new poster child of "misogyny in comics" or whatever pet cause is making fandom to rage that week.

    Personally, one of the biggest reasons I first got online, we to be able to interact with creators who's work I enjoyed and admired. But with the growth of the assholes who have access to the Internet and no one to play referee, like the way the people who used to answer the old letters pages in comics, and act as a buffer between creators and jackholes who call themselves "fans," I'd say those days of interaction are long gone and not likely to return. More's the pity.

  33. ain't no stopping the future.

  34. Today's xkcd seems appropriate to this thread.