Sowing Discord, Eating Crow
October 8, 2007

It seems as though everywhere I go lately in "real life" and online, I see conflict. Not just, "gee, I disagree with you about that." I see people foaming at the mouth, veins on forehead and neck throbbing. I see epithets thrown at each other like kids shooting marbles into the circle, certain their shot will cause that clink and knock someone else out of the game ... and equally sure that they won't get knocked out ... or if they do, they were robbed, cheated, taken advantage of.

At the moment, I'm part of three online communities, to varying degrees. In one, a solely social site filled with a fair number of young people, I see roughly an explosion a week. Someone misinterprets what someone else says and then all hell breaks lose. Accusations fly. Feelings are hurt. Someone plays healer ... and all is mostly well again. Some bruised feelings all around, but things are better.

That's the best situation of the communities I've seen lately. And it's essentially young adults learning how to behave and interact as adults.

A second site revolves around writers. Here I see the "adult" version of fighting. I see people deliberately posting something to a discussion board, not because the ideas are necessarily believed, but because they will create anger. The worst possible spin ... the most emotionally loaded words. All to get a negative reaction. And when the community called one person on this behaviour, the response was simply "I don't think the community has the right to police its members. Leave that to Admin." An interesting thought.

The problem, of course, is that like in a real-life community, the Admin for an online community are far outnumbered by the community itself. It is impossible for each police department to know that none of the drivers in their jurisdiction are running red lights. It is impossible for them to know that none of the people in their jurisdiction are stealing. Instead, they act on information they are given from the community ... and from what limited observations of the whole they can make, considering that they can't be everywhere at once.

Likewise, Admin for an online community must rely on the community itself to let them know what is going on. They have to look at the Terms of Agreement ... they have to look at the tenor of the community. But they cannot read every thread, much less every comment and private message.

It was not surprising after a few weeks of kicking the ant hill, the member who insisted "they" were always correct and knew more than those with whom "they" conversed, "decided" to leave the community.

But during the course of that tenure within the community a lot of damage was done. Several people had been calling the recalcitrant member to task after witnessing "their" behaviour over a series of posts. New people only saw one thread's worth of the story, and missed reading a lot of earlier arguments. Those new people, acting in ignorance of the backstory tended to try to defend the recalcitrant member ... until they, too, read enough threads to see the pattern emerging.

Still others were simply afraid to post at all. Afraid that this "clique" who was hounding (oh, let's call this person Rosalita Conchita Consuela Gonzalez ... a fictional drag queen from my high school days ... and if enough people hound me about this fictional character, I'll tell her story which is nothing like the one I'm telling now) ... hrm. I hate it when the asides get so long as to foul the grammar of the sentence they appear in. Anyhow ...

Still others were simply afraid to post at all. Afraid that this "clique" who was hounding Rosalita, would come after them.

But there was no "clique." There were some like-minded members who were calling Rosalita to task. But, without knowing the entire story, it certainly did appear that a pack of jackals was terrorizing poor Rosalita until, despite a valiant fight, Rosalita had no other choice, but to leave.

It took some time before the community recovered, and I daresay, that in that time, some members left in fear, others in disgust. And now, as the United States begins seriously ramping up for the elections still a year away, that cycle is starting over again somewhat. Some people are looking for reaction so that they might belittle the opposing political side. Some are looking for honest discussion of the issues.

The result of the reactionaries often ends in sound bites and name-calling.

To be sure, I've actually been quite impressed that this particular community was able to maintain a few political threads without devolving into angry argument and fighting. But it seemed no sooner than someone said, "Wow, political discussion without the crap" ... the crap started up again.

The third community, like many communities around the world, was going through a time of immense change. They'd started out as one type of site ... and begin developing more and more along related lines, but lines requiring more active participation. Months of discussion among the members and the Admin happened between the participating members. Those who had been passive were left out of the conversation, not out of malice ... but because they were not participating.

After some months, the active community decided that they preferred to be a community with active participants. A new terms of agreement was emailed to the non-participatory members stating that the community had discussed this in some depth and decided that if a member felt they could not participate, then they should resign from the community -- with an emphasis on this: there was NO quota on what participating meant. Once a week, once a month? Open-ended.

This seemed more than fair to me. I would not have been surprised to discover that those of us who had not been participating were "kicked out" with an invitation to re-join should we choose to become a part of the community. The Admin's handling of the situation seemed more than fair to me.

However, as seems to be human nature, some had to screech. Disagreement I can understand. Disappointment.

But shrill "THIS ISN'T FAIR!!!!111" ??

People angrily denigrating the site and their Admin for what ultimately is a consensus from the participating membership?

What is it that causes us to snap, to lose our reason and begin degenerating into five year old kids in the sandbox? "That's MY toy, you can't play with it." "I can so." "Well, your Daddy is a dummy."


What emotional defect do we all share to cause so many of us to falter to this childhood behaviour over what is really the stupidest of things? What out-dated piece of biological machinery is pumping out some insidious "asshole" chemical and flooding our brains until we can't reason any more?

And ...

... what is the connection between those "minor" verbal snaps ...

... and Crandon, Wisconsin?

Below is a portion of my comic book which asks some of these same questions. Talking about the extremes as in Crandon and Virginia Tech and Noida, India.
(Don't strain your eyes to read the captions ... I've re-written them for you in the lower right corner ... somewhat bigger and more clear.)

Why do we hurt each other

What does it take to "graduate" from the small and petty snaps we make as humans ... to a life of verbally baiting others so that we can belittle them and feel superior? And what does it take devolve further into the decision that hatred and destruction are good answers? That pain and suffering of others means that we are more powerful and somehow better?

Why do we seem to crave conflict and discord?

And why are some conflicts and discords and suffering more "interesting" to us than others? What keeps Madeline in the news and the Jena 6 quiet? What allows the incident with Mostafa Tabatabainejad to drop off the radar ... and keeps OJ's and Paris's and Britney's "plight" and antics in the news?

I'll end with a quote from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ... in this episode, each of the major characters has been forced to reveal some secrets that they had each preferred to stay secrets. Most of the characters were shocked and appalled at some of what had been hidden ... at surprises revealed about people they thought they knew so well. The episode is called "Once More With Feeling," and it's a spoof of broadway musicals and one of the most cleverly written pieces of American television I've ever seen. At the very end of the episode, after all the secrets are revealed ... after everyone is left standing around, reeling at what they've learned:

Where do we go from here?
Why is the path unclear?
When we know home is near
We'll go hand in hand
But we'll walk alone in fear

So is that the answer to all of this conflict and discord? That we might walk "hand in hand/ But we'll walk alone in fear"?

Why are we so scared? Why are we so scared that hurting each other can make us feel better or safer?

I wish I knew.

I wish we all did.

Posted by Red Monkey at October 8, 2007 2:09 AM | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


mikster said:

Good points made here Endy. I've definitely let myself get a little charged up in a forum on a few discussion threads lately.

October 8, 2007 12:40 PM


Mark Stoneman said:

The darned thing is, these disputes do not even involve something tangible. At least when it happens in a family it can be about who ate the last piece of pie.

Red Monkey says: LOL ... so very very true!
October 8, 2007 8:14 PM


Bobbie said:

I'm a psychologist by profession, and what I am about to say is from that point of view.

I have observed the kinds of 'forum wars' you describe on practically every forum I've ever been a part of (or even just read.) Usually -- not always, but usually -- they are started and sustained by people who exhibit signs of a certain kind of personality disorder -- signs that are obvious to someone trained to recognize things like that, but perhaps not by those who are not trained.

A hallmark is a very exaggerated sense of their own importance, for openers. Usually they need (and relentlessly solicit) constant attention and admiration, yet have little concern or empathy for others.

Well-meaning, well-intentioned, thoughtful people fall into their trap in forum discussions because they believe they are responding to and reasoning with a 'normal' person (I use the term loosely). In fact, the best thing to do in these instances, really, is to disengage. Don't participate. It just feeds the fires. You cannot rationally engage with this kind of person, so don't bother to try.

Didn't mean to turn this comment into a blog post, but I felt it needed to be said. Next time someone starts driving everybody nuts on a forum, you'll know what to do: Disengage. ;-)

October 9, 2007 12:29 AM


mikster said:

That's a great comment by Bobbie. I'm gonna find her, rub up next to her, and see if some of that wiseness will rub off on me.

(Chances are I'll get arrested though, but perhaps I'll be wiser)


October 9, 2007 10:49 AM


jodi said:

OHMY!!!!!! See what I miss...damn I have to read this like 5 times...

October 10, 2007 8:32 AM
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