re: They Have to Be Monsters, by Jeff Atwood.

This is a good essay, but I think Atwood overreaches here in trying to find the root psychological cause of online hostility. People can leave comments like “junkie” because the technology enables them to deliver such a comment effortless and with virtually zero- repercussion. In the “junkie” example, it turned out to be a father (as far as public Facebook searching can discern)…but as far as I can tell, there’s nothing that backs Atwood’s assertion here:

This man left the junkie comment because he is afraid. He is afraid his own children could become drug addicts. He is afraid his children, through no fault of his, through no fault of anyone at all, could die at 30. When presented with real, tangible evidence of the pain and grief a mother feels at the drug related death of her own child, and the reality that it could happen to anyone, it became so overwhelming that it was too much for him to bear.

It’d be nice if there really were deep and dramatic reasons for people’s seemingly inexplicable behavior. But the reason could just be that this guy – who happens to be a father (but correlation is not causation) – is just a bored and callous type who has access to the Internet. In a pre-internet era, this father would just be bored and callous in his own limited network. Just because he can now spread and amplify it worldwide with a few taps on a phone doesn’t amplify the root cause.

I worked at a newspaper in the years in which phone calls from readers were almost as common as emails. People who called in to complain were generally much nicer and calmer than they were when they were greeted with an answering machine – it’s much easier to rant off to a machine than it is to someone who greets you sincerely with “Hello”. With email, the sender is always interacting with a non-responsive/interactive recipient…moreover, it takes much less effort to to send an email than it does to look up and dial someone’s phone number from your (wired) phone. So the people who called in had greater reason and depth-of-reason to complain. Whereas with email, it could just be anyone who wanted to vent or troll.

On the other hand, I found that when I responded in length to people’s emails, even the rudest ones, I’d usually get a much lengthier email that included some measure of gratitude that I took the time to hear them out. With commenting forms, you now have even less effort required for people to leave feedback, and fewer personalized ways to respond. The kind of people who leave glib “junkie” comments would have never done that by phone, regardless of what deep-rooted psychological fears they may be harboring.

(This is a repost of a comment I made on the HN thread.)