A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Has The Online Community Lost Its Community Spirit?

I don't know about you, but I think the online community seems to be losing some of its shine of late. That's not to say there's not a lot of fun to be had out there, but more and more it seems that social networks and online forums are being 'taken over' by people who prefer to have a pop at anyone and everyone they don't especially like, at every available opportunity.

Like many of us, I suppose, I spend a reasonable time online 'chatting'. I'm a member of social networks like Facebook and Twitter and also smaller, special interest groups. But there some forums where the atmosphere is becoming less than congenial.

Now, we all like to have a bit of a moan about life and it's good to have somewhere to go to complain when we've had a bad experience. I happen to prefer forums with a more positive outlook, but understand, and support, those that are there to help people in those situations. But, I still like to think there's a line you just don't cross. On one side of the line is measured criticism, on the other out-and-out insults. And more and more, it seems, a great many people choose to use their online lives to malign, insult and criticise those around them.

I've been a member of a few forums for many years. But two in particular have become tainted recently by the negativity of the bad-mouthers. Both forums have grown vastly during that time and now have several thousand members each. I'll not mention the names, since the majority of the members, and indeed the owners of the forums are wonderful, polite and kind people. And in case you're thinking of looking, neither appear in Raggedy Ann's Favourite Web Places!

The first forum is devoted to an online department store. It is unofficial so often features threads about customer service issues, problems with products and so on, as well as information about new lines, comparisons between products and services, and recommendations for alternatives. It's a very useful and informative 'place' to be. And it's good to share and swap opinions. But over the years it's been prey to a cyncial, and dare I say it, unpleasant element who seem to want only to criticise. What's more, they want other users to confine their posts to criticism too. As soon as anyone starts a thread about good service, another member will come on and suggest they are in the employ of the company. When someone recommends a product, someone posts a reply mocking their tastes. If someone suggests a solution to a problem based on their previous experience, it's not long before a member nips in and accuses them of being a 'stooge' of the company. Perhaps I'm naiive? But I find all this cynicism and sniping depressing. We have to have some things we can take at face value, surely?

But I'm even more concerned with the mood at another forum of which I'm a member. This one is for fans of a type of television show and a few weeks ago things took a rather unpleasant turn. I was astonished to discover, after a few days away, that quite a nasty row had developed.

There'd long been an increasingly vocal (or whatever the written equivalent is) element that preferred to pass comments and use insulting language against certain stars of those shows at every opportunity. I admit I find this irritating. If someone wants to start a thread saying 'Mr A is 'shallow and fake' or 'ugly and thick', then I think that's over the line because it's insulting. They're not saying they're a bad actor, or a rubbish presenter, they're just hurling unjustified insults at someone who can't fight back. But, when it comes down to it, it's their choice to post it and, as long as it's within the rules of the forum, then fine. There'd been a few heated debates on the forum in the past, where people had critcised and countered and so on. And this type of punch-&-judy, oh-no-he-isn't, oh-yes-he-is row had become quite common. There'd be a huge fuss and eventually it would calm down. So, when I saw there was another debate raging, I didn't give it too much thought. But I'd commented on the thread fairly early on, so decided to take a look. And I was astonished to find that the 'cause' of the argument was not yet another example of someone badmouthing someone else. Not this time. This time it was me! Yes, a full-scale debate was raging about something I had written. Had I badmouthed someone? Had I insulted someone? Had I used inappropriate language? Well, no. What  I had done was write a one-line post on a complimentary thread that had, yet again, been turned into an uncomplimentary one. And all hell had broken loose. What did I write? Gird yourself for this inflammatory language - I wouldn't want to spoil your tea.

'It didn't take long for a complimentary thread to turn into an insulting one, did it?'.

That was it. The 16-word message that had caused such a storm. You see, what had so outraged  many of my fellow forum members was not that someone could  be insulting to someone, and believe me the words that had been used were extremely unpleasant. Or that they could take over someone's previously politely complimentary thread and turn it into something else. Not  against forum rules, but surely against forum etiquette? No, what had really caused the rumpus was that someone (ie me) would dare to air their disappointment at yet another positive thread turning negative. And there were dozens of posters expressing their annoyance. 

Apparently, by passing comment I was attempting to squash their rights of free speech. So you can have free speech to insult someone, but not to express concern that this is happening?! At no point had anyone tried to validate their opinions. Only the right to express them. Which was ironic because neither I, or the others who had leapt to my defence, had suggested they shouldn't be allowed to air them. My sympathisers, of course, had been shot down by a barrage of accusations of trying to be the forum's 'thought police', the minute they'd popped their heads above the parapet. And yet all this outrage seemed misplaced. People had merely begun expressing their disappointment at the negative turn the forum had been taking of late. I attempted to make peace, but soon realised that things had gone way beyond that.  So I withdrew for a while. Then a strange thing happened. I began to receive messages from people who felt the same way. From people who'd been put off posting positive threads in the past for fear of them being hijacked. And people who were considering leaving the forum. Now I wasn't at all interested in starting some sort of 'be nice to people' resistance movement - 'It's mission to stamp out insults' - but I was heartened to find that I was not alone.

Of course, I'd only posted it as a passing comment. In truth I was particularly exasperated after one of those visits to Tesco during which every one seems determined to aggravate one another. I hadn't intended to spark things off. But the problem with online forums (well, one problem of many) is that what may well be intended as a one-off comment becomes that much more permanent. If I'd said that line in person, it would have been gone in an instant. It would have expressed my feelings and we'd' have been instantly on to the next thought. But on a forum what you write can be read and re-read, studied and gone back to. In truth, on the internet, there is no such thing as a throwaway line.

And it would be so easy to have what you write be misinterpreted. You need to take care not to dash off a response, pithy or otherwise, without careful consideration of how it might read. Some of what appears to be rude, may just be ill-judged. And because you remain vocally silent, any sublety of intonation is entirely absent. Unless you pepper your every word with cute little emoticons, it's very difficult to express an accurate level of meaning. For example, an attempt at sarcasm, without the vocal signal that tells the listener you are less than serious, can read off the page without a hint of irony. You may well find yourself insulting or misleading someone without intending to.  And, of course, we all tend to read online content at high speed - much higher than we would, say, a paperback. So it's all too easy to misread, and so entirely misunderstand, a comment. Before you know it, an argument's started.

It helps, of course, if you know for sure how your comments might be taken. In other words, you have to know your audience.  And in our online world that's a lot harder to do than you might think. The internet affords us all a degree of anonymity. We only have to reveal as much as we wish to. And, much of the time, we don't have to reveal anything at all. How do we know any of what we read is true? I mean, for all you know I could be a gun-toting 90-year-old with a drug habit. I'm not, by the way, but you only have my online word for that.  You may think you're 'best friend' on your favourite forum is a liberal-minded 40-year-old mother of three, but it could be a 70-year-old white supremecist. You've no way of knowing. I know that's a dramatic example, but it's hard to know who you're dealing with when you can't look them in the eye. Face to face we can make certain judgements on the people we meet. We all have fairly well developed antenna about the people we chat to, but it's difficult, if not impossible, to take advantage of this in our online relationships. Online you see only the part of someone which they choose to reveal to you.

In the real world, if you're anything like me, you probably try to avoid the gossips, the bullies and the rude and obnoxious types. On a forum, they're difficult to sidestep. You don't always know someone's true nature until a specific topic comes up. And you can't really turn your back, or take the conversation elsewhere. Any conversation on a forum is automatically a wide-open debate in full public view. And before you know what's happening, your once civilised chat has been turned into an argument. And often it's about as mature as scrawling on the door of a public toilet. 

And then there are the trolls. In case you haven't come across them, these are the people that join forums purely for the entertainment value of winding people up. They often take up opposing views simply to cause aggravation. And regularly disagree with themselves just to fire things up. And, yes, I know what you're thinking - they're people who seriously need to get a proper hobby!

Some forums, of course, are wonderful places to be. For whatever reason, they simply don't attract the type of people who enjoy aggravating others. Why are some are more prone to troll attacks or online bullies? Who knows!

But until I work that out, I'm spending no more time arguing with people who'd rather throw insults around like confetti. I wouldn't dream of hanging out with them in real life, so I'm damned if I'm going to do it online. Back at that television forum, where quite a few of us were considering quitting, the jury's still out. There are some nice people over there, and some useful and informative conversations going on. But I no longer feel entirely welcome there, and life really is too short for that.