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Why Are People Such Jerks Online?

When’s the last time a total stranger walked up to you at a party and just started berating you?

“You should be ashamed of yourself. You should be fired for being such a spineless shill. Maybe they’ll replace you with someone who has a clue.”

I’m guessing that no stranger has ever spoken to you like that. Nobody except the tragically unstable would open a conversation with you, in person, with that kind of intensity.

But online, this happens all the time. If you’re a writer, you get email like that routinely. Even if you’re not a writer, you see that sort of language in the cesspools — I mean the comments areas — of many websites.

It’s a problem. The Web has the potential to eliminate our differences in geography, social class and demographic breakdown. It could be humanity’s best hope for freedom of speech. It could be an amazing, centralized forum for useful discussion, solving problems, moving forward.

Instead, all too often, it’s a place for the anonymous and insecure to take potshots. It seems to be a global incarnation of that old, sad rule: If you can’t feel good about yourself, at least you can make somebody else feel worse.

Hiding behind the Web
For many years, I’ve pondered why the Internet turns people into walking toxic spewers — people who, in real life, might be perfectly nice. (I’ve also wondered if people ever heap hatred unknowingly at people they actually know. Kind of like when you honk angrily at another driver, and then realize, as he seems to follow you all the way home, that you’ve just been a jerk to your own neighbor.)

For most of those years, I had these theories:

– On the Internet, you’re anonymous. There are no social repercussions for having a tantrum. Nobody knows who you are.

– There are thousands of other voices all around you. So you feel the need to shout because, deep inside, you worry that you won’t be heard.

– As I’ve often said, technology has become a surprisingly politicized field. A phone or tablet has become a fashion statement — a lifestyle choice — and it’s always open season for criticizing people who’ve made different choices. (See: Mac vs. Windows, iPhone vs. Android, iPhone vs. Samsung, and so on.)

– There might be a youth factor at play. Today’s youngsters spend much less time in face-to-face social interactions than their parents did. So they may not be very good at being civil because they’ve had less practice being civil. (What will happen when they seek a job? Or a spouse?)

Lately, though, I’ve collected two new data points on this question. To me, they shed more light on the “Why are people such nasties online?” question.

First data point: So far, it’s much better now that I’m at Yahoo.

During the 13 years I wrote for The New York Times, the nastygrams amounted to about 25 percent of the reader email. Yahoo Tech has only been open for a month, but so far, my readers’ email has been far more civil.

That’s not to say that people aren’t critical — you, dear readers, have plenty of good suggestions for Yahoo Tech’s improvement. But for some reason, you’ve been surprisingly constructive about it.

Example: “Hi David: The new site is entertaining and very informative. But I wanted to say that I am really tired of all the continuing CES stuff —you are sort of running it in the ground. The event is over and the articles are stale. Otherwise, keep up the good work!”

My correspondent is correct. We’re working on it. But do you see how gracefully he made his suggestion? Do you see why he’s much more likely to get action than if he’d just fired off a nastygram?

So what’s going on here? Why are Yahoo Tech’s commenters much more civil than The New York Times’ commenters?

Is it that our site is so new, visitors are cutting us some slack?

Is it that leaving feedback requires some effort, so casual drive-by insults aren’t worth making? (We’re building a great new comments system — so, for now, the only way to leave feedback on a Yahoo Tech story is to email the author.)

Or is it that The New York Times is considered an All-Powerful, Shining Obelisk of Power — and is therefore a bigger target to tear down?

Speaking truth to power
I think that’s it. I think the higher your profile, the riper you are for potshots. When people post things online about co-workers or fellow school parents, they’re much less horrible than when they say things about, say, members of Congress or Justin Bieber. At least I hope so.

Second data point: The following exchange, concerning this Ask Pogue article:

Reader, dripping with sarcasm: Good Job not answering Tamara’s question and instead answering an entirely different one. Kudos.

My reply: What do you mean?

Tamara asked: “I’m thinking home phone lines and cable subscriptions. Do you agree? What about books and newspapers?”

I answered Tamara like this: 

Everyone thinks cable TV is dying, since so many people have now “cut the cord” and watch TV exclusively on the Internet (from Netflix, Hulu and so on). But the cord-cutters add up to 1 million people a year — just 1 percent of all U.S. cable subscriptions. Cable TV will not be going away in three to five years!

Home phone lines are also a lot less popular, thanks to cellphones and voice-over-Internet services like FaceTime and Skype. So maybe they’ll fade away, too—but in 20 years, not five.

In what way didn’t I answer?

Reader: I apologize. I was definitely in a sour mood this afternoon and had no right to take it out on a perfect stranger. You did directly address the examples she provided.

Now, that’s big of my reader to apologize. But here’s the nutty part: That pattern goes on all the time!

I mean, hundreds of times over the years.

Reader: Nastygram. Me: Calm reply. Reader: Apology.

What the heck is going on?

My guess is that the reader never really expects a reply. She finds me guilty before the trial. Her thinking is: “He’s this almighty columnist who doesn’t care what think. What a jerk!” So her initial email has resentment for being ignored built in — before it’s actually happened.

Then, when she gets a reply, she’s a little embarrassed. Suddenly this is no longer an anonymous exchange, as in a comments section, but a personal exchange, as at a party. In that context, her initial volley seems inappropriate — too heated, too intense.

It’s a shame it has to be this way. It’s a shame we can’t start out civil, with the assumption that people care about our opinions. Maybe that kind of maturity comes with experience; I know for sure that I’d never send a nastygram, even to someone with whom I heartily disagree, even to a big, famous person. (After all, I’ve been on the receiving end.)

I don’t really expect that anything will change. As long as you can hide behind anonymity online … as long as we get secret pleasure from putting other people down … as long as there are no repercussions for incivility … nothing will change.

But maybe, just maybe, now that you, O Reader, have considered what makes people nasty, you’ll take that one moment to reword your comment before you send it. Life isn’t long; let’s do what we can to make it a pleasant ride.

You can email David Pogue hereYahoo Tech is a brand new tech site from David Pogue and an all-star team of writers. Follow us on Facebook for all the latest.