Why People Are Such Jerks Online

from the social-clues? dept

The concept of the flame war online is certainly nothing new. It’s been around since before most people were even aware the internet existed. However, more people are starting to look into the issue of why people tend to be such incredible jerks online when they might be perfectly nice in person. It seems that there are few different things contributing to the effect. First is that people somehow feel “disinhibited” when sitting behind a keyboard and monitor — whether it’s because of the supposed anonymity, the fact that you’re effectively “invisible” or even the fact that there’s a time lag between being a jerk and any response to it. The fact that you’re somewhat separate from the response just makes it that much easier to be a jerk. Some feel that it has even more to do with the lack of direct human contact in terms of either seeing hurt feelings or hearing someone’s voice. There’s just less empathy involved in seeing black and white text then seeing a physical reaction to being mean. Some of the latest research on this actually looked at how brains process messages during a conversation, and noted that in a normal conversation the person is tracking a variety of different cues in terms of how the other person is responding, and those cues help moderate what we say. Without any such cues when sitting behind a keyboard, you don’t get any of the warning lights to moderate what you’re saying, and the natural tendency is just to go right to the extreme edge without ever cooling off. Of course, so far, it doesn’t seem like the research is coming up with many good solutions to get people to moderate what they say online — other than suggesting that using video communications might help. Other than that, perhaps just being more conscious of the fact that it really is a human being at the other end might help — but so far that kind of “self awareness” hasn’t caught on. And, even if it has, as long as one person in the group is unable to moderate his or her speech, it tends to set off many others as well.

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Comments on “Why People Are Such Jerks Online”

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JOE says:

Re: Re: Re:

LOL…the BEST has to be when something obviously sarcastic SOARS over another’s head…Anon had a damned good joke right there, and you not appreciating it, and making a smug reaction, is WORSE than a flame…I tell ya, maybe flaming is just the counter assault to the smug high and mighty who say things like, “I’ll be laughing at your ignorance…nyaarrr” …perhaps we should all respect that balance, enjoy what we can, ignore what we cannot…just don’t jump down people’s throat when they say something you don’t like, then you can stop being the current “asshole-fuel” substance that you are.

Cjay (profile) says:

What about the cues while reading

I think the other 1/2 of the flamewar equation is misreading intent. We use a lot of the same social clues to understand what a person is saying. Things like irony are easily lost and misunderstanding of what each side is saying is a frequent supplier of flamewar kindling. So we are angered by what we thought we read and disinhibited in our response.

The infamous Joe says:

Re: Re: Go F Yourselves!!!

The firefox thing is another tongue-in-cheek reference to mac/pc or IE/firefox fanboys. You may or may not realize that some people take great offense at someone liking a different OS or Browser than they use themselves. I personally don’t care– it seems like everyone should just use the OS/Browser they like, and I’ll use what I like. But nay, this isn’t so.

If you’d like an example, go to any digg story that in the slightest bit involves Mac/PC or IE/Firefox and has made it to the main page. Read the comments there, it really is quite facinating.

PS- This site works fine on Firefox, I’m told. I wouldn’t know, myself. Maxthon ftw! 😛

Willpower says:

Others act nicer than they do in person

This reminds me of a study done a long time ago in a Concentration Camp. The study set out to prove that when deprived of the Necessities of Life everyone would lose their humanity and revert to their basic Animal Instincts. However while the study found that many did revert, others went the other way towards Saintliness.

Personally I find the same to be true online. While some people act like Jerks online, others act even nicer than they do in person.

Anonymous Coward says:

Online jerks are also offline jerks...

Some people are jerks, period. Online they have an easier time giving free flow to their character (or lack thereof), but it doesn’t mean that they are nice in person. A jerk is what he/she is and there is nothing anyone can do to fix them – only life experience might.

A nice person will be nice online or offline. Or driving a car. Or waiting in line.

Nice persons are rare and far in between.

Mitch the Bitch says:

It’s funny how 15 years ago I would ponder how wonderful this new publishing tool called the internet will be. How each person will have a powerful voice.

What Ive learned since is that an overwhelming majority of people are pure IDIOTS and don’t deserve to be heard in any way shape or form.

What is funny is how something so wonderful can be abused so badly by the frailty of the human condition.

We are only animals…

MikeT (user link) says:

The masses are asses

There are a few rules in life about this:

1) Most people lack the abstract thinking capabilities necessary to dissect an argument or to understand nuance in things like comparisons. I can’t even count the number of times I have seen people who lack that ability get pissed off over a comparison that they apparently don’t have the intelligence to understand. A good example is Neal Boortz recently said that the damage the NEA and other teachers unions are doing to the next generation is worse than a nuclear bomb going off and taking out 100,000 people. ThinkProgress uncritically repeated the NEA’s response that it was “morally repugnant to compare teachers to terrorists.” Many, many shrill, emotional responses when it is obvious that no direct comparison was being made, but then, sometimes we need a sign that says “you must be this smart to participate” I guess.

2) People frequently resort to profanity and emotion when they completely lack a leg to stand on or have nothing more than an emotional attachment to ideas.

3) People frequently adopt ideas because they like them, despite having effectively no logical reason for believing them. People tend to be very defensive about this, and this runs the gamut of ideas with no exceptions for any group.

4) If you allow people to effectively hide from being accountable for what they believe, they have no chance of getting stronger.

slimcat (profile) says:

I believe a lot of flamewars start when writing is not clear and concise in expressing ideas, feelings or making general statements. Without visual or audio cues, it is very easy to misunderstand the point a writer is making when they assume you know what they are talking about and don’t elaborate. Assumptions are the mother of all screw-ups.

If I write STFU in a post or email, I could be laughing or angry. If I don’t explain what I meant through sarcasm or humor, you can’t be sure where I’m coming from.

How many times have you had a misunderstanding among friends or family because of something written in an email that was taken the wrong way?

On the other hand, some folks are just jerks.

TIM says:

i’ve gotten in a lot of fights with significant others from chatting online that would have never happened had we been talking on the phone or in person… for some reason we get defensive and always assume the worst when the other person says something.. a comment such as “you’re so dumb” can be said in person… and we’ll both laugh… but online… the other person will take it wrong.. and then the flames begin…. so i’ve stopped doing that

Paul says:


It is because there are no consequences, I can be a jerk on this website one day and then not even read the replies. As long as I don’t make too big an ass out of myself no one will even remember me the next day; and if they do I can simply change my name.

Slashdot has a pretty good system of weeding out the trolls with their peer moderation system, eventually temp banning or perma banning people who get downmodded too much.
Of course, someone could still just make a new user account and start at a fresh slate but then their numerical user ID would be extremely high; which some people covet a low user ID as it shows how long they have been around slashdot

Mike says:


I get tired of everyone telling everyone else that they are idiots.

I work with a guy that is like this IRL. Everyone that is not him or “his own” is worthless, a waste of space, moron, Idiot, or whatever else.

You are obviously an *insert random insult* if you can’t figure out *any subject no matter how long it took us to learn*.

Even in this thread, people are trying to make a point about falming ppl for the wrong reasons, by flaming them.

I imagine that everyone that reads here views themselves as superior to me, or anyone else that may happen to drop a comment. Superior intelect, looks, physical stature, sexual prowess…you name it.

even with out a shred of understanding about who i may be, I’m positive i’ll be dissmissed as just another moron…I could have a third grade education, or a PHD, or something inbetween….no one knows or cares.

“Keyboard Commandos” are common to any “online” environment…The day CS implemented voice over ingame, i LOVED IT. Some of the LOUDEST and most intimidating “chatters” ended up being middleschool aged boys.

It’s a game, and therefore it’s their place to do so, but it put everything in a different perspective.

Scheffy says:

I think part of it’s just because it’s pretty tough to get your ass kicked through a LAN cable after saying something stupid or bad-mouthing somebody else. Plus when somebody sees they’re losing an argument online they can just walk away, as opposed to having to stay engaged in a face-to-face conversation and looking like the idiot they probably are.
FYI – That’s the correct argument and everybody else is wrong. I know because I have 8 degrees, one of which is a masters in Internet Arguing and Just Being Generally Awesome Online and I’ve been teaching a debate class at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and Ed’s Oil Change and Community College for 189 years. I was also raised by Einstein, Condy Rice, and Zeus himself. It’s totally true and nobody can prove me wrong.

kenl says:

Flame Throwers

There are a couple of things at work here:

1. Most people aren’t jerks. The truth is many people don’t add comments because they see others flamed after doing so. Why subject yourself to a dialog that gets hijacked by legitimate jerks?

2. I guarantee that those that flame are cowards in the “real” world. It is easier to be harsh and judgmental with others instead of facing up to the fact that you are a cowardly, logically challenged, and immature. If you flame face the facts…

The infamous Joe says:

Inflection influences direction.

Oh, sweet, sweet irony, how I love thee. Even in this very post, the tongue-in-cheek “fake flames” that were put here solely for sarcasm have been misinterperated as being serious, and subsequently “flamed”. It’s brilliant! This, quite clearly, proves that without body language and inflection clues, serious people will assume everything is serious, and light-hearted people will assume everything is a joke!

This, I might add, is an excellent time to mention that these so-call emoticons are more useful than one might think. For example:

“Whatever, freak.”

“Whatever, freak. :)”


“Go play in the street some more.”

“Go play in the street some more. :-P”

I think two examples is enough, don’t you? Now, go back to the first 5 or so posts and put a “:)” or a “;)” or a “j/k” at the end of them in your head. Enjoy!

PhysicsGuy says:


all this analysis of flaming. frankly, the internet (aside from the “scientific research” perspective, whatever that is) is founded on flaming. comments such as “I guarantee that those that flame are cowards in the “real” world.” and “I believe a lot of flamewars start when writing is not clear and concise in expressing ideas, feelings or making general statements.” and “Most people lack the abstract thinking capabilities necessary to dissect an argument or to understand nuance in things like comparisons.” just go to show how little people actually understand about the fine art of a flame. yes, there are a lot of amateurs who give the flame population a bad name. however, we need to look beyond this at the relative size of douche-bagged-ness of each and every one of the quotes i gave above, to really understand what’s at the heart of a flame: arrogance. yes, some might say “well, what about ignorance or intelligence level”; to this i reply “ignorance and intelligence in an impartial textual format only provokes a response from those who fall prey to arrogance.” it’s clit-nosed-fecal-stained-cum-guzzling-dickless wonders like kenl, (non-techdirt) Mike, slimcat, and MikeT, to name a few, who provide the source for every flamewar that ever was. were it not for their “”holier” than thou” attitudes, what sort of miserable non-flame state would the internet currently be in? it is the pseudo-intellectualism, the kind that needs constant self-reassurance and needs to be defended, where the beauty of the flamewar starts.

PhysicsGuy says:

Inflection influences direction.

until i use the ambiguous ;P … is it a face happily winking while playfully sticking out its tongue, or is it a face so pissed off that the contorted face causes one eye to be closed while sticking out its tongue in a manner suggesting to suck/eat my nether region.

personally, i use it in the latter sense. however, often to my own amusement, people seem to confuse it for the former description.

billy says:

Re to 31, 32 & 34

@31, yup, people like that are also no fun to be around usually, you nailed it on the head
And I do not view you as a moron at least, simply because of your acknowledgments of others and your views
I believe it takes a good level of intelligence to realize all that you mentioned there, since many do not seem to understand (the guy at your work for example).

@32, lol, nice
I have done all of that, except I was also physically trained by Hercules and Arnold Schwarzenegger

@34, Very very true about the emoticons.
And, life is a joke =-D
Life is a garden, dig it.
Or one I have been saying, but honestly do not remember hearing anywhere before I said it (not saying it didn’t come from somewhere, but I have no clue where in my memory it is from if I didn’t make it up)::
Life is a game, play it.

Pro says:

Physical Violence

Since I believe that people are a lot less civilized than they tend to think they are, I have always assumed that people act like assholes online because it is signifigantly less likely that their actions will result in their face getting pounded in.

With no ultimate consequences, I don’t believe that most people would remain civilized

bobmarleypeople (user link) says:

This article is exactly right

I have a friend at work who is a nice guy. However, the moment he’s on the computer, he goes becomes a right jerk. I talk to him on Live Messenger sometimes and he makes sarcasm out of everything you say, corrects your spelling for every message, he’s like my old English teacher only male and more irritating. Funny thing is though, if I talk to him on Skype, he’s back to normal. I’ll have to show him this article.

Brian A. (user link) says:


The Internet tends to dehumanize us and we don’t readily identify with random posters on a message board. Yes it’s true that thoughts can be misinterpreted amongst friends when posted online, but the arguments on some of these boards are downright scary.

The simple fact is I don’t know any of you people. How can I empathize with someone I don’t know? It’s very hard and for most people it’s too much trouble so they resort to either mocking others or assuming some sort of intellectual superiority.

rstr5105 says:

can you believe...

well now that the subject of flame wars has come up, heres a quick question.

Why is it that people like me, “Lurkers”, get flamed? I mean, I KNOW i’ve made a few stupid posts in the past, but it was all in a sarcastic tone, (Which the rest of you NUB’s didn’t pick up on :^P)

And now one thing I’ve noticed. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been reading this site for a year or so now or what, but, it seems that I can tell which members who’ve posted deserve to be flamed regardless of how intelligent their post was. I cite for example, the Infamous Dorpus, or his (possible) alter-ego Doorpass. I have actually seen him post comments that were 1) Relevant to the article, 2) Quasi intelligent and 3) At least thought out for about 30 seconds or so. Even then in shock and awe at such a marvel, I turned on the burners and flamed away.

Why you ask?

Because sometimes life throws us scapegoats. (Sounds mean…I know) If I’m having a bad day, or I just need some Comic relief, I’ll flame somebody who gets flamed all the time. Because they, thus far, have handled it fine and so a safe assumption would be that they can continue to handle it.

I’ve been flamed before, and I’ll play along. And then a day or two after the heat turns down a bit I send the person a comment along the lines of, “I’m not as think as you dumb I am!?!” Just to lighten the mood and clear up any misunderstandings.

well there’s my two cents

Jo Mamma says:

Just some crap comments that no one probably reads

I think all you idiots are forgetting that it’s fun to be a jerk.

I think that’s a good point. It is pretty fun to be a jerk sometimes, but I will say that this site and this very thread proves that intelligent conversation can happen online, even with a little flaming going on.

Also, if you look at things like Second Life, I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) that you’ll see less blatant and pointless flaming going on, because people work to establish themselves and their personalities in the community.

When I first started commenting at techdirt, I’d mainly throw out pointless crap comments. Now I just throwout crap comments. This is because I’m a little less anonymous than before, since my I’ve used this pseudonym in numerous posts.

hbpantherfan says:

Compensatory and Individualism

it was explained thusly to me once….

you are at work, home, where ever…going about your business and are approached by someone who is stressed out and unhappy… you see the tense muscle tone in the person’s neck and its like an invisible hand is gripping the top of his/her head and scrunching it down on the shoulders… it’s called “The Neck”…

Everyone knows that the only way humanly possible to rid yourself of “The Neck” is to give it to someone else, and so apparently for no other reason than to relieve oneself of “The Neck,” the inflicted will lash out at the innocent and not relent until “The Neck” is passed on. It takes a strong individual to avoid inheriting the neck, and those most suceptible are those with inferiority complexes and other insecurities (the source of which may be found in childhood.)

When you have “The Neck,” you will do almost anything to get relief, and irrationally and/or unintentionally inflict those you care the most about. There is even less inhibition at passing “The Neck” on to complete and total online strangers from whom escape is possble by a simple press of the power button.


I’m reminded of another truth after reading this thread…

man in the masses….. totally predictable

man as an individual…. totally unpredictable

Sara (user link) says:

general trend

It’s just part of the general trend. Netiquette is a microcosm of society at large. People online automatically assume bad intentions, sarcasm, etc. Tiny errors and misunderstandings get blown up. Like road rage (where being surrounded by a few inches of steel somehow makes you Superman) mainstream hip hop (where every woman is a b*tch who can blow you) and irresponsible communication (I swear I texted you! Honest!), it’s the overall trend: we’re becoming a bunch of feral idiots. It used to be that “flaming” was done with humor and was in good fun – meant to eventually produce a good result. Now it’s just a traffic war.

the digirati says:


I Love a good well thought out flame, a few examples have been shown here, I feel it is an art unto itself, But some folks still amaze me, it makes one wonder who turned on the PC for them. I never take any flame personally cause a) I have an ex-wife and b) I’m a Marine, I’ve been insulted professionally, I fear no amateurs….(insert favorite emoticon here)

mousepaw says:

#32 & #66

Although everyone had something to contribute, the two that were the most interesting are Sheffy, who did the BEST job of blowing everything totally out of proportion and showed the seriously humorous side of things (I laughed like hell) and Digirati, who “fears no amateurs.” You guys are great, plus all the people who think it’s fun to be a jerk.

I couldn’t help but notice the proliferation of emoticons and how they changed the contexts… 🙂 after The Infamous Joe made his point. See how easy it is to influence people?

I had something to add but I’ve forgotten what it was.

thecaptain says:


Going on anectdotal evidence with experience in meeting jerks/trolls/cheaters/griefers from online in real life (where they tend to be really nice and meek if they aren’t downright polite), I’ve noticed a lot of the people who get off on pissing people off on the net come from rather low and powerless positions where they are ineffective at making changes or taking control of their situation.

Of course, that being said, you can queue all the internet tough guys who will follow and say “I’m a jerk online and I love it and I kick ass in real life and I’m the CEO of a billion dollar company and my wife and mistress are both supermodels”.

anonymous mousepaw (hee hee) says:

To Mike

Maybe, since you received so many replies/posts to this paaar-ticular subject, you might consider dropping all t’other stuff about patents and lawyers and companies duking it out over same? THIS is OBVIOUSLY what the people want, right here, right now. DIRT! When else have you seen such traffic over a paaar-rticular (there’s that word again) subject?

Okay. I’ma not wonnerful after I’ve had a coupla beers. Sorry man. No ‘fence intended. I should have to punch in a code or blow in to sumthin ‘fore I get on the ‘net. (cough)

}:D !!!!!!!!

Linda says:

jerk on line

Ridiculous anaylis. A poor excuse for the jerks. A person who doesn’t even know you is hurling horrible remarkss and sometimes curses all the way through a game for no apparent reason. No, I think they are cowards, extremely rude and without social etiquette. and probably the kind of person that would take a gun and shoot innocent people in a mall or restaurant or work place.

Craig says:

Self-absorbed types who hang out in chatrooms get a power rush from making other people feel small, people they don’t know, people they’ve never met, people who have done them no harm and with whom they might even be friends if they met face to face. They get their jollys by being rude and insulting online but quite frankly they never come across as being intelligent or knowledgeable.

gary says:

Who says what to who

Because of the anonymous nature of the internet and the depersonalization of the human race due to the internet people are more apt to “speak out” in ways that they wouldn’t when viewed or held accountable. I myself am less inhibited when answering personals.

The rise of the internet is one of the causes of the escalation of vioilence and the absence of family values in the developed world.

Anonymous Coward says:

Get fucked all of you! SO FUCKING GOOD FOR THE WORLD, ALL OF YOU. Your puny little lives dont mean shit, neither do your comments, neither do mine! Hey, I’m going to hang myself! Anyone give a fuck?? Boo fucking hoo!! There is war and death everywhere else in the world. And here we are in a fucking chatroom. I’m as guilty as all of you. Sighning off forever! Goodbye assholes!!!,…..

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