Attack of the On-Line Droogs

February 04, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

The Internet can be a hell of a nasty place in which to interact. It's a chicken-and-egg situation. Is the unpleasant and hostile on-line an environment the result of a growing cultural incivility and impoliteness, or are we becoming more belligerent in person because that's where the impersonal nature of computer interaction is leading us? Either way, there's a problem, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better. People trading comments in forums, participating in chats, and sending e-mails think nothing of launching unprovoked, vicious attacks against others. It's disheartening to read some of these things. Certainly, these cretins represent a vocal minority, but their numbers are growing. A few years ago, it was easy enough to identify these on-line droogs. Now, having been fruitful and multiplied, they have turned even comfortable corners of the Internet into potential hell holes.

Why am I writing about this now? Some might think it is because I'm less than two weeks away from opening the ReelViews forums which will, for the first time, provide a two-way channel of communication between critic and readers for all to see. Truth be told, I am a little worried about the reception of this forum. Part of me wonders whether anyone will visit and whether it will quickly become an abandoned appendage to the main site. (If that happens, at least I can say I tried.) But I'm more worried about spammers, trolls, and those whose sole purpose is to incite flame wars. There's only so much moderators can do, and the last thing I want is for the ReelViews forums to turn into a contentious and unfriendly stop on the Internet superhighway. Actually, though, the underlying reason for this column has more to do with something unrelated that occurred on Monday.

For years, one of my daily morning stops has been to the blog of AccuWeather meteorologist Henry Margusity, who provides write-ups and videos about the short-term and long-term weather prospects for the United States. Yesterday's East Coast storm bedeviled meteorologists far and wide as they tried to pin down the storm's track and intensity. Over the weekend, Henry was among the 95% that got it wrong, and he had to change his short-range forecast several times. For this, he was subsequently eviscerated. I was shocked at how nasty some of the comments were, and it made me angry to think there were being read not only by Henry, but by his family and friends. There was no sense of perspective. Yes, Henry blew a forecast, but it's not as if he did it on purpose or with malice aforethought. We all know that weather forecasting is not an exact science.

Monday afternoon, in the wake of this flood of electronic bile, Henry announced that he was hanging it up. No more blog entries. Could anyone blame him? Two hours later, after hundred of impassioned e-mails, he reversed his decision. The silent majority sang and the droogs were defeated - at least temporarily. But, while Henry was vindicated, the Internet was not. It's more than disheartening to recognize the degree of thoughtlessness and cruelty that lurks out there.

It's important, I think, to understand why people commit these senseless acts. A lot of it has to do with the nature of on-line interaction. We sit at a computer and type. There's no sense that there's another real flesh-and-blood person at the other end. We're interacting with a computer, not with someone who has feelings and emotions. There are no consequences to lashing out because computers are soulless and impervious to words. The problem is that perception - or at least this one - is not reality. Every word reaches a very human target and there's a reason why Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase that "the pen is mightier than the sword."

I have a simple philosophy when it comes to on-line communications: never write what you would feel uncomfortable saying to a person face-to-face. Few apply that simple maxim. I sometimes tell a story about an incident that occurred in the late '90s. I got into a heated e-mail debate with a reader. Although I tried to keep the discourse calm, he resorted to name-calling and profanity and I eventually stopped responding to his e-mails. By chance, I met him a year later at a film festival. He sheepishly admitted who he was and wanted to get away from me as quickly as possible. It didn't take a student of human nature to understand that he was mortified. On-line, he was bold and brash. Faced with the flesh-and-blood target of his slings and arrows, the bravado was gone.

Yes, from time-to-time, I have written nasty things about films and those who make them. Although it's my job to be blunt, there are occasions when I have gone too far and gotten too personal in an attempt to be witty or amusing. Of late, I have been trying to refrain from anything that resembles a personal attack and restricting the negative comments to the work in question. It's fair game to criticize someone's work but there is a line. In a review, it's not always easy to identify. In blogs, forums, e-mails, and public comments, it's usually much easier. Those who attack in those arenas are like animals who have scented blood. They don't think about ethics. They don't think about the feelings of their victims. In fact, they don't think. They simply act, because it's an electronic playground and there are no real-world consequences. And, if something bad happens, well, it's not really their fault, is it?

The Internet is a tool, not a force for simplistic terms like "good" or "evil." Without it, I never would have connected with my wife. Without it, no one would be reading this. But while it's easy to laud its positive qualities, one must not forget its darker side. All I'd really like to see is a little more patience, kindness, and thoughtfulness put into on-line communication. A reminder that the person on the other end is an equal, not an avatar. That, however, is asking for the impossible. Welcome to a brave new age, where civility is an antiquated concept that applies only to wimps and old people.