There was a bit of a controversy in the comments of one of my posts, which boiled down to the interpretation of an offhand remark by one of the posters which, at face value, seemed to demean those who didn't share either the poster's political (in the broad sense) views or the poster's gender. After getting hassled a bit about this, the poster made the following comment:
...when people get mad over something so clearly a joke, what else can you say?
Just to be clear, I am not picking on the above poster at all. It just seemed to me that it offered a good opportunity to gently remind our community of the realities of internet life. When I first became involved in the internet community life, it was on a site that was about choral music, for choral musicians. Hard to imagine people getting their panties in a twist because someone preferred, say, the Brahms Requiem to the Charpentier Messe de Minuit, but some of the frequent disputes were over stuff that inconsequential. This was absolutely baffling to me. But after studying some of these bizarre disputes, I isolated the problems:
1. On the internet, one is completely lacking the ordinary cues of social discourse - facial expression, tone of voice, body language, etc. Emoticons are an attempt to duplicate them, but have only limited effectiveness, and in fact can be very useful for a sort of passive-aggressive type behavior in which one says something obnoxious and then adds "j/k" or : ) This is scarcely confined to the internet, of course - it happens in real life, too, but it is harder to get away with.
2. On the internet, people cluster to discuss topics that they care deeply about. This has two unexpected effects. First, it brings together people who would in most instances never meet in real life, and these people may have little or nothing in common otherwise, especially in terms of what I will call for lack of a better term 'cultural understanding.' The people I hang out with in person tend to have similar upbringing, education level, and expectations about social interaction as I do. I suspect that this community is much more diverse. The other thing that happens is that naturally the people that cluster together on the internet on these sorts of sites feel much more strongly than the average person about the subject they have gathered to discuss. This is scarcely unprecedented in real life, but probably doesn't comprise the majority of people's social interactions.
3. The internet reduces personal accountability. Combined with the difficulties outlined in my first point, this means that things can be said (or appear to be said) that probably would not be said in person, or at least not said in quite the same way. Knowing that fact also leads people to assume the worst, thus bringing me to my final point, which is that
4. people appear to have less tolerance for what they assume is an insult than they would in real life. I suspect that the main reason for that is that there is no imperative to get along with people in the way that there so often is in real life. You may not like someone much, but you have to work with them, and so you find a way to overlook, rationalize, or otherwise deal with occasional remarks that seem to be insulting or obnoxious. At least if you want to keep your job. You may not like your hairdresser's political opinions, but you like the way he/she does your hair, so you just let it roll over you. And so on.
The corollary to my points is obvious.
#1 - Don't assume that everyone understands when you are joking. Even if the regulars do, you never know who else is reading, and really, is there any point in offending random people that you might quite like if you knew them in person? And don't use emoticons, sarcasm font, j/k or whatever to insulate yourself from the consequences of making a snarky remark. We've all been guilty of that, or at least most of us, I suspect, myself included. Sometimes the temptation to be funny overrides the necessity to be kind, and I hereby vow to stop.
#2 - Don't assume that everyone shares your culture and values. This is a very hard thing to overcome, because you're dealing with your base assumptions about life/people/social interaction, and it can be pretty hard to realize that one's base assumptions are not universal values, or even to know what they are.
#3 - Don't say something to someone on the internet that you wouldn't say in person. That isn't going to remove all conflict of course, because some people are much more blunt and/or confrontational in person than others - see the previous point. But for the sake of the health of this site that we all love, it never hurts to think twice, or ten times, before saying something offensive. People have different opinions about things. Even if someone else is wrong, and that can actually be proven in a scientifically precise way, that doesn't thereby make them the necessary target of anger and/or ridicule. Compassion, perhaps - I'm thinking of, say, Bengals fans now : )
#4 See what I did there? But back to point #4, if we all were to give each other the same benefit of the doubt about what would seem to be an obnoxious remark as we would give our best friend or ourselves, we would be offended a great deal less often.
To answer in advance those of you who say 'what's the big deal, it's the internet,' I respectfully disagree. Fifteen years ago, maybe. Today the internet is a primary, if not the primary, source for social interaction for a great many people. This requires some effort from all of us to make this community remain an awesome place to hang out. I love hearing all of your divergent viewpoints, partly because they are divergent. You will never learn anything new if everyone around you agrees with you.
And a final reminder/rebuke - we can hardly complain about trolls on our own site when we troll other people's sites. If someone is misguided enough to be a fan of another team, especially of a team that is a primary rival of ours, simple compassion for the fact that they were apparently dropped on their head as an infant should dictate that we are kind to them, rather than making fun of them. And remember that when you go on another site, you are representing not just yourself but all of us. You may not want to believe that, but it is true. Just Say No to trolling!