Download!Download Point responsive WP Theme for FREE!

Psychology of Technology: The Blogosphere Jungle

I can tell you this: It’s a jungle out there. I don’t mean the real world in which most of us inhabit; that world is pretty tame. I’m talking about the blogosphere. I’ve been blogging for about eight months now and, up until recently, it was a pretty unexciting experience. I would post a…post (I still haven’t figured out how to use post when it is both a noun and verb, but that’s another discussion) and receive responses that were thoughtful and reasoned.

Then a few weeks ago, I published a post both complimentary and critical of Steve Jobs and the iPhone on a prominent computer-technology Web site for which I write a blog as the Tech Shrink. When I first logged on after the posting, I noticed that the number of views was much higher than usual as were the number of comments. I then went to the comments and was totally unprepared for what I read.

Now I understand that blogs are mostly opinion pieces and not everyone is going to agree with me. I also acknowledge the risks of expressing one’s opinions on topics that are both controversial and for which people hold very strong views; my post qualified on both counts. But, as I read through the comments, I felt like I was thrown into the jungle among a pack of ravenous beasts, so ferocious were the invectives that were flung at me.

Yes, the majority – but not all, thankfully – of the comments disagreed with me. I’m fine with that. I’m not the final arbiter of what is right or wrong on any given topic. And some of the comments offered some intelligent perspectives and information that were both enlightening and softened my stance on the topic. But to say that most of the comments were unkind is to say that Yao Ming is pretty tall or Megan Fox is reasonably attractive.

To give you a flavor of the comments, I was called a clown, narcissistic, a nobody, envious, a hater, a fascist, a moron, and ignorant. And that was just the first dozen or so posts. In preparing to write this piece, I just couldn’t bring myself to continue reading the remainder of the posts to catalog the rest of the less-than-complimentary descriptions of me.

Even though I’m pretty thick skinned, I have to admit that I was pretty shaken by the comments, in both volume and tone, because they were, for the most part, personal, inaccurate, and just plain mean. No doubt I touched a nerve on a topic of some debate with people who have a cult-like devotion to the subject. Why people get so worked up about a mobile phone is beyond me (though I’m glad they do because otherwise no one would read my blog!); it’s just a thing, yet it obviously represents much more to many people.

Thankfully, shortly after my posting, I read an appropriately-timed commentary on blogging in the New York Times by the columnist Maureen Dowd, a much-better-known and decidedly more controversial figure than I will ever be. The column began: “If I read all the vile stuff about me on the Internet, I’d never come to work. I’d scamper off and live my dream of being a cocktail waitress in a militia bar in Wyoming.” Though my dream is a bit different from hers, my feelings were the same.

After my painful rite of passage into the blogosphere jungle, I began to think about the psychology involved in this “Wild West” of a technological frontier. As I’m not planning to stop blogging, I thought I would share some observations I’ve made about life in the blogosphere. The blogosphere has opened a seemingly infinite universe for exchanging and debating ideas. Blogging has given voice to many people with important things to say, but who didn’t have the soapbox on which to express themselves. Of course, blogging has also given a platform to narcissistic, attention-getting rants by people who think they have something of value to say, but really don’t (present company possibly included).

Because bloggers and their readers seem to have stronger and more polarized opinions than the general population, these exchanges tend to be little more than volleys of mutual assault aimed at not only proving the other person obviously, entirely, and undoubtedly wrong – and stupid and ugly and fat to boot! – rather than exchanges of mutual respect and interest in hearing other perspectives.

Also, without patting myself on the back too much, I have to say that blogging takes courage. Before the birth of the blogosphere, most people with an opinion on a topic could share with it with a few friends at most and have disagreements of varying intensity. Today bloggers open themselves up to potentially millions (though more typically tens, hundreds, or thousands) of supporters or critics. I have a new-found respect for bloggers who address topics of real sensitivity such as politics, sexuality, or religion.

You also can’t get away with anything in the blogosphere. There are just too many well-informed people out there who are perfectly willing to set the record straight. Of course, there are also an equal or greater number of ignoramuses willing to tell us what they think, the facts be damned. You have to not only have all of your facts straight, but you better also have good spelling and good grammar. Nothing in a blog post is too trivial to be dissected, judged, and ripped to shreds.

The vitriolic commenters, who are clearly not residing solely on my blog, obviously believe fervently in their points of view and find opposing opinions so repugnant that they have to attack the messenger rather than respond to the points of disagreement. What the commenters don’t apparently realize is that, by attacking the blogger, they are weakening their own positions. I’ve always found that when people get personal in an argument, they likely either don’t have a strong position on the issue or they can’t articulate it well. Certainly, vicious and childish rants don’t reflect well on the attacker and don’t present well to others, whether toward a spouse, a business colleague, or the blogosphere.

One unfair aspect of blogging is that, while most bloggers are out in the open and, as a result, easy targets, many Web sites allow commenters to be anonymous and that anonymity gives them cover from responsibility and license to say whatever they want in the harshest possible terms. Yes, many Web sites require registration (and many do not), but identity, besides some attempt at a clever username, is still not evident on the blogs where the attacks occur and, based on my experience, rarely have had repercussions. Hopefully, a recent court case brought and won by a woman against an anonymous blogger for her relentless and malicious personal attacks will force some degree of accountability on anonymous bloggers or commenters. Here’s a rule that I think bloggers and commenters alike should follow: If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face or in front of your grandmother, don’t say it on a blog.

These heated reactions certainly say something interesting about self-esteem, beliefs, and emotions. It has been my professional experience that such stridently emotional reactions occur in the face of an extreme threat to one’s world view and, by extension, one’s self-esteem. In other words, when these commenters read something that challenges their perceptions on an issue in which they are highly invested, for example, the iPhone was not sent by God and Steve Jobs is not the messiah, their primitive survival mechanism is triggered and they do what prehistoric cavemen did when they felt threatened, they attacked. Of course, opinions or facts shouldn’t be as menacing as spears or saber-toothed tigers, yet they seem to provoke the same kind of powerful emotional reaction.

One could argue that the blogosphere is self correcting, that is, supporters will confront the attackers and defend the blogger and the kharmic balance in the blogosphere will be restored. And, thankfully, this happened to a very small degree with my recent post. Unfortunately, it seems that people are more likely to respond to a controversial blog post that challenges rather than buttresses their own views, so my gallant defenders were few and readily overwhelmed by the marauding onslaught.

With this critique of blog comments, you’d think I would want comments moderated or have them disabled all together, but I don’t. My feeling is that, to use an old cliché, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” So, instead of running away from it, to quote Axl Rose of Guns N’ Roses, I say, “Welcome to the Jungle.”