Friday, July 06, 2007

I post, therefore I am

You're walking down the street, and a scrawny young man approaches you. He has acne and wears braces. He can't be more than seventeen. He says to you, "I'm George, a 52-year-old surgeon." A moment later, he says, "And I'm Clara, a 26-year-old law student."

As absurd as this scenario sounds, many people are acting this way for real, not because they are psychotic, but because the Internet enables them to get away with this sort of behavior. In most online discussion areas, users can adopt whatever name they want and say just about anything without facing the consequences that would result from similar behavior in the real world. Many use this anonymity to their advantage, making up facts about themselves to intimidate others and empower themselves. They also may pretend to be more than one person by posting under more than one name. In extreme circumstances people can be traced to their real identities, but this rarely happens except when law enforcement is tracking criminals. There are other, limited ways of counteracting the problem, none of them foolproof.

It is therefore important to be cautious before accepting claims that people online make about themselves. I'm not saying that you should go around calling people liars, but you should be cognizant about the way people in Internet discussions can use their anonymity to manipulate the situation.

I have had several apparent encounters with such individuals. I say "apparent" because I never was able to prove my suspicions. The earliest was in 1997, on the Excite message boards, which happened to be my first experience with message boards. A fellow started a board entitled "HOMESCHOOLERS ARE NOT QUALIFIED TO TEACH!!!!!!"

He took every opportunity to insult anyone who challenged his views. His main argument was based on personal experience: he wrote that he knew several homeschooled children who were "all lacking in social behavior, adjusting to their surroundings and general knowledge." I asked him to clarify what exactly he had seen, pointing out that his observations may have been too limited to draw general conclusions. He replied that he had encountered numerous homeschooled kids in his jobs as an interviewer and a college instructor, and they were "all blown away by others who had attended formal education."

A fairly well-known homeschooling advocate named Karl Bunday, who has made a side career interviewing homeschooling families, joined the board and asked for permission to interview some of those kids. The person replied, "you expect me to just cough up names of my students so that some nutcase can come to their house to evaluate them?!? That is hardly confidential or professional." The question, then, was why he would base his arguments on information that others could not verify. For all we knew, he could have made it all up. Even if he hadn't, his judgment of those kids may have been less than fair. That was a distinct possibility considering how quick he was to insult complete strangers.

When I raised these points, he said that questioning his claims was unreasonable since the purpose of these boards was to "share experiences." He then attempted to put his experiences on the same level as the documented evidence of homeschooling success I had presented: "I guess I could compile my studies and call it research refuting homeschooling as being effective."

People observing the debate told me I handled myself well, but I felt I was being suckered too easily by this person's antics. He was clearly exploiting his anonymity to win the argument, by relying on "data" that could never be investigated. I acted flustered at times, and he seized on that weakness. (The good news is that I successfully changed the mind of someone else on the board, a person who actually listened to my arguments instead of just trying to fight me.)

Years later, I got a new opportunity to deal with this sort of situation. In 2005, after taking a course in which my final paper examined the movie Fight Club, I went to the Internet Movie Database's message board for that film, eager to share my insights. I soon found myself in a heated argument with two posters. If I take what they said at face value, they consisted of a middle-aged psychology professor and a young female fan. Personally, I suspect both of them were in fact one person. How do I know? I don't. I found clues, to be sure, like the fact that they frequently posted just minutes apart from each other, and that their writing styles (particularly spelling errors) were similar. But I mostly based my suspicions on my familiarity with this sort of situation.

The argument started when the "professor" posted an analysis of the protagonist's mental condition. He ridiculed all the laymen (which he spelled "laimen") who had addressed the issue. Having researched this topic, I found many errors in his post, and I pointed out that the filmmakers were themselves laymen. I hinted not too subtly that I doubted he was a real professor.

He and the "girl" erupted into insults. Here is a sample (pardon the strong language, but this is what they said): "Stop being a little bitch crying because you don't like that someone here has experience and truly knows what they're talking about." "If you ever have something to say, do yourself a favor and just shut up." "YOU were the only retard unable to comprehend me, you think it's my fault. That's your mom's fault." "Being the arrogant asshole you are, I'm sure you're not done yet, so go ahead and prove me right again by posting another whiney bitch post."

Does any of this sound like the words of a typical professor? I asked him for proof of his credentials. He replied that they had been "proven to TRUSTED people on this board, aka NOT YOU." Of course I respected his privacy; however, as long as he was flaunting his credentials, it was ridiculous that he should expect everyone to believe him without verification. Any anonymous user can claim to be a professor. It doesn't prove anything.

For a working professor, he sure seemed to spend a lot of time on the board. He had established a club called the "Space Monkeys" (modeled after the film), and board members who wanted to join he would initiate into it. He started a new thread inviting his Space Monkeys to attack me. There, they each provided me with brilliant kernels of wit, such as the following (I'm not making this up): "Kylopod is stupid and his logic is stupid and the reason he is stupid is because the opposite of smart is Kylopod." Afterwards, the "professor" praised the intelligence of these comments.

I had a chance to get angry and join in the abuse. But I decided to restrain myself from such an emotional reaction. That's one of the advantages of message boards as opposed to real-life encounters. You get some time to think before posting a reply. Here is a passage from one of my posts:
I want to thank you.

Now, I'm sure you're thinking I mean that only in a sarcastic way, and maybe you're right. But I'm actually trying to be quite honest now. I really am thankful for the insight you've provided me with your latest posts, though I realize my gratitude is of a kind that you're not likely to appreciate.

You see, I've always been fascinated by multiple-identity trolls such as yourself. What makes you tick? I've had my theories, but it's largely impossible to confirm any of them. Trolls are elusive almost by definition. All I can deduce about you is that you're pretending to be a professor, and that you are assuming at least two identities on this forum. Other than that, I know very little about you. I assume you are young, but I don't know how young--you could be anywhere from teens to twenties. Perhaps you actually are older; I really can't say for sure.

But your two latest posts have helped me understand the troll mindset better than I ever have before.
Despite his/her/their attempts to portray me as an "attacker," I adopted a cool, detached tone when replying to their rants. I acted completely unruffled by their insults. I gave the impression that I was coldly analyzing them and reacting to their attacks only with quiet amusement. As one observer put it to me in an email, "you calmly and coolly handed them their asses time and again, and you did it without swearing at them. I am humbled by your patience."

I could have simply walked away as soon as they started attacking me. That would probably have been the most sensible approach. But I've always had the weakness that I enjoy deflating bullies. In this case, I was being passive-aggressive, a quality I don't normally display in the real world. I'm usually very direct with people. But because this was a message board, I had the opportunity to try a different strategy, and I was pleased by the results.

I may have improved in my ability to handle this sort of situation, but I'm still perplexed by what it all means. I have made actual friends online. But the lack of accountability remains a problem with Internet communication. I know I'm for real, but I often cannot be sure that someone else is. There's something positively solipsistic about this situation, where the reality of everyone else's life can only be accepted on trust.

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