Shot Down in Flames – Netiquette in the 21st Century

flame-warThe other day I wrote a thinking-out-loud post about physics and the nature of time. Since I’m just a marketing guy and know nothing about science, I posed the question over at /physics. I got some replies and learned a little too.

But then someone wrote this:

This post made me angry at you and its hard to explain why. Id like to take this opportunity to call you stupid.

That’s word for word. Spell for spell too.

I have to tell you, it stung – for maybe half an hour. I could feel heat in my face like I’d been insulted in a room full of people. I never met this guy, no one would ever know it was me, but even so I was really embarrassed and very pissed off.

So I did what anyone would do – I spun out a response that cut this guy to shreds. I wrote so fast my fingers were falling off. Anyone can come up with a killer insult, especially when you get to work on it over and over. Mine was good, let me tell you. It ended with a smart summation about spelling and grammar and their role in illustrating one’s apparent intelligence.

I didn’t send it. It’s like that rule about writing emails to your friends or co-workers when you’re angry: You write it out, save it as a draft, wait a day, then delete. Keeps your friendship – or your job – alive. Back in the 90’s I got into a nasty email war over politics with my best friend, who was also my best man, and after that we didn’t speak for a year. We patched it up eventually, and then he died unexpectedly, and I can’t even imagine my grief if we’d let that stupid flame war go un-doused.

In this particular case from /physics someone else came along and put this guy in his place for me – which is always the more effective way – by reminding him that “physics enthusiasts don’t promote science by calling people stupid.”  I mean, really.

Anyone’s who’s ever posted an opinion online has almost certainly been blasted in return. Browse the comments section of a sizable website and watch the flames fly. And for what? Making an argument by calling someone “libtard” “teabagger” or “idiot” might make you feel good about yourself, but it’s not changing any minds, and isn’t that the point? If an argument’s valid it’ll stand up on its own. If you want to win someone over, a little humility goes a long way.

The more our interactions take place virtually, the easier it can be to forget that there are people on the other side of the Ethernet. Tossing flames across a website is like screaming at the car that cuts you off; the distance makes you brave. But bump into someone at a store by accident and you’ll be friendly, polite and apologetic. That’s the difference between building community versus social disorder, and given the choice, I think the more preferable one’s fairly obvious.

So here are some basic, simple netiquette rules for commenting on the web, and they come down to two:

  1. If flamed, don’t respond. It does absolutely no good and makes no difference anyway.

  2. Respond to someone online whose opinion you don’t like as if you are standing in front of them at a party and they’re a friend of your boss.

Basically, act like an adult, not a child, and we’ll surely all get along.

So let’s chuck the easy arrogance that comes from anonymity, and let’s act in our virtual worlds just like we’d act in the real one, OK?

About Eric

Blogger, some-time poet, full time dad and marketing director.
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