Fighting Web rage

There’s something about the Internet that turns people into jerks. Or maybe there’s something about jerks that turns them on to the Internet. — Tim Barker, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I loved that lead, and the rest of the story is good too. I first started using the Internet in 1993, and I first went online sometime in 1986 or 87.
I think people who started going online in the 1980s and early 1990s tend to be more polite because in those days, “going online” usually meant dialing into a computer that a hobbyist set up in a spare bedroom for the purpose of attracting like-minded people who wanted to talk about shared interests. It was an expensive hobby–generally the computer had to be dedicated to the purpose, and the operator had to pay for an extra phone line, and the software to run the operatiion cost money too.

Whenever someone would start acting rude, it didn’t take long for someone to step in and remind the person that he (in those days, it usually was a he) was essentially a guest in someone’s house, and he had to play by the owner’s rules or get thrown out.

There were still disagreements, of course, and if there were too many people I didn’t like on a particular bulletin board, I’d quit calling. At first I took it personally, but considering that in 1990 there were literally hundreds of bulletin boards running in St. Louis, it was always easy to find a new hangout.

One of my friends from those days ended up being the best man at my wedding. I ran into someone else I knew from that timeframe back in December at a train show. He and I probably talked for more than an hour, catching up.

The big problem today is that people think they own the Internet because they pay $20 a month for Internet access, so they have the right to go anywhere they want and say and do anything they want. And they also think they can do this without anyone knowing who they are or where they live. The combination of unlimited entitlement and zero presence of fear tends to bring out the worst in bitter, unpleasant people.

The thing is, you don’t own the Internet. That monthly fee just gives you the right to use it. If you hop in your car, drive someplace, and pay the cover charge, you don’t own the place. If you start threatening people or otherwise making things unpleasant, the guy who pays the rent can throw you out.

The anonymyty is a bit of a myth too. Ask anyone who’s been sued for downloading MP3s. Tracking someone down online is sometimes difficult, but it’s never impossible. There’s a guy on a train forum I frequent who uses the cryptic name of LS51Heli. Hiding behind a cryptic username, a throwaway Gmail address, and a bunch of false information in his user profile, he relishes in taunting and harassing anyone who disagrees with him–and some people who don’t.

But the security LS51Heli thinks he lives under doesn’t exist. Ask Lori Drew, the woman whose online bullying drove Megan Meier to suicide in 2006. Knowing nothing more than the name of a neighbor, hundreds of people tracked her down. A friend and I spent a couple of hours one Sunday night and Monday morning tracking her down, before her identity became widely known. Most of the tools we used were a bit more complicated than a Google search, but everything we used is free and open on the Internet, ready for anyone to use–provided they know where to look.

I can’t speak for anyone else’s motivation, but we unmasked her so that we could keep her away from his kids. Once a bully, always a bully. We never did anything else with the information.

I’ve never felt the need to go unmask LS51Heli. But it could be done.

Usually the troublemakers on train forums will eventually get banned, and then they’ll slink off to another forum and complain about how their rights to freedom of speech got stepped on. One forum in particular tends to be a real magnet for these people, and they refer to the more mainstream forums as “North Korea,” “Iran,” and “Iraq” while they talk about goings-on at the places that banned them and poke fun at the forums’ owners and anyone they don’t like.

They forget that the person who pays to run the web site has rights too–including the right to throw out unruly guests.

The Internet would be a much more pleasant place if we all remembered that we’re just guests in someone else’s house. I pay my monthly fee, but the site operator’s bill is a lot higher than my $20 a month. It’s no different from visiting my sister. It costs me $20 to drive there, but she pays the mortgage, so she owns the place and she makes the rules.

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