Does the Internet Need a 'No Jerk' Rule?

It’s well past time for there to be rules about abusive Internet commenting. But until then we may want to craft policies that keep these jerks out of our companies and off our Web sites.
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John Gordon, who goes by @bluedonkey on Twitter (I have no idea why), asked an interesting and recurring question: “Why do people feel the need to leave semi-abusive comments on a blog”?

I make my living as an inquiry analyst, which means most of what I do is answer questions -- and this one hit a chord with me. I sent him this link about abusive Web comments, but as I thought about and researched this I ran into a somewhat related piece talking about abuse in the workplace and something called the “No [Jerk] Rule.” Evidently there is a book on the topic and it is relatively popular (they even have a Kindle edition).

As I looked further it became clear this was more than just a threat to bloggers and businesses but to children as well, and may have recently resulted in one death.

So let’s talk about getting rid of jerks this week.

Why People Leave Nasty Comments

I really didn’t find a great third party answer to this but I spend a great deal of time studying behavior and have some theories.

Insecurity: I think the biggest cause is insecurity. Nasty comments seem to mostly be directed at people the writer disagrees with very strongly but likely doesn’t have good foundation for that disagreement.

The weaker the foundation – coupled with the stronger they feel about the disagreement – the more likely they will respond abusively. If they are well founded they aren’t threatened and are more likely to either not respond or to respond in a measured fashion, simply explaining why they disagree.

It may part of our threat response hard wiring. It is also likely why religious and political discussions can degrade so quickly. In those subjects, having a poor foundation for a belief is common, so the related insecurity is probably higher.

Attention: Making a nasty comment can often get a response where a more measured comment may not. People like to feel important and likely because of some perceived lack of importance in their current life use their hostility to get attention and feel important. This is also an insecurity but with a different cause.

Stature: Probably should call this the “gunslinger rule.” According to legend, gunslingers were often attacked by far less capable people who wanted to build a reputation fast. There appears to be a belief that by taking down the author, the result is an improved status for the individual making the nasty comments. Kind of a pack mentality where the pack leader is taken out by their replacement, even though there is no pack or corresponding benefit that actually will be achieved. It appears perception rules over reality (which is generally the case if you think about it).

Dominance/Control: More of a turf issue, the nasty writer feels threatened because the initial post or comment seemed to create a question about status, somehow shows disrespect, or otherwise makes this nasty comment writer feeling inferior. They feel the need to dominate the conversation and use their hostility to restore this sense of dominance. I think you likely also see similar behavior in abusive spouses and parents. I would expect to see a high corollary between people who post abusively and those who are abusive elsewhere. Behavior is often consistent, in my experience.

Contributing Factor: Anonymity

People feel free to make these comments, regardless of the cause, because there is little consequence for this bad behavior. So people behave like kids without supervision – badly. This lack of accountability, coupled with the perceived benefits of the bad behavior, likely causes the perceived increase in this behavior.

Years ago, as part of an IBM executive training session, an expert was brought in to talk about why anonymity in employee surveys was a bad thing. According to him the assumption that it assured honesty was false. His research indicated that anonymity reinforced the belief that management couldn’t be trusted and thus the anonymity was false. This resulted in surveys that overstated employee satisfaction and management competence.

He said that when people could respond as themselves and could see they weren’t retaliated against, the result of the surveys better reflected what the employees actually thought.

It is somewhat ironic that even the idea of anonymity on the web is likely false, given how easily law enforcement is able to track anonymous posts. Not to mention the information Google collects on people using their products.

Fixing the Problem

First people have to realize that the cause of the nasty comment probably has more to do with behavioral problems with the person posting it than anything to do with the subject matter or the recipient of these comments. Since few of us are qualified to deal with behavioral problems – nor is the nasty poster’s mother or their shrink – we are not equipped to deal with this issue.

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