Whatever happened to… online politeness?

Very early in my BBSing days (1989 or so), I was talking to the operator of one of the first BBSs I called. He said he instantly bans anyone who engages in "flame wars."

I didn’t know what a flame war was, though I found out pretty fast. And they’re just as much a problem today as they were back then. Maybe more, since people can talk any time and they don’t have to wait for the BBS line to get un-busy.Gatermann and I were talking about how rude people can be online. It’s frustrating to me–probably the most frustrating thing about the ‘net. But that human contact is the best thing about the ‘net, so of course I always come back, no matter how torqued off I get.

But I think that’s the problem: Human contact. The computer dehumanizes it.

I first noticed myself dehumanizing when I was meeting girls on eharmony.com two summers ago. The girls outnumber the guys there, so if you’re a guy, unless you’ve really narrowed your focus, you’re going to get a lot of matches. It felt kind of like playing Alter Ego or another early game that tried to simulate human contact. I’d say something and try to see what they sent back. And it was at the point that I got to see one girl’s picture that it suddenly dawned on me that there was a human being sitting on the other side of that keyboard and monitor.

I don’t think some people grasp the concept of talking through a machine versus talking to a machine.

Of course, some people may just hide behind it. They can’t see the look of hurt on the other person’s face, and the other person can’t reach across the table and smack them when they have it coming, so they act like trolls and get away with it. Maybe they even relish it.

The most blatant example I’ve seen is a guy who swoops in on most of the train boards once a month or so. He’s a millionaire in Washington, D.C. (he’s a trash-hauling magnate, from what I understand), and supposedly has a train collection and layout that must be seen to believe. I’m told that in person he’s a great guy, and supposedly just about anyone can come into his house and see his layout just by asking.

But online, he’s a monster. He swoops in, says rude things, watches the volcano erupt as the people who disagree with him start screaming, and then the people who agree with him start screaming, and mostly just sits back and enjoys watching people bicker and throw temper tantrums.

That’s my worst experience, mostly because I stay out of chat rooms, except for a Yahoo chat room that meets on Saturday nights and talks about repairing Marx trains. The start of the whole conversation was Gatermann telling me about someone he knows signing onto a chat room. She got to talking to some guy she didn’t know from Adam, and almost immediately demanded to see pictures. And I’m not talking the kind of pictures you show to your mother.

Maybe some people enjoy being Dr. Jeckyl in person and Mr. Hyde as soon as they sign on to the Internet. Maybe some just can’t get the idea in their head that they’re talking to a human being, since they’re not hearing a human voice and they’re not seeing facial expressions.

Anymore, I try not to say anything online that I wouldn’t say in person to someone I expect to see again. And the funny thing is, that actually keeps me out of trouble most of the time.

To take care of the rest of the time, there are certain things that I just try to avoid talking about.

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