A few years ago I stumbled into my first online fan forum. Never having stepped foot into this sort of online social scene, I laid low for a while to get the hang of it and to catch up on the posts. I was shocked to see fan-friendly banter packed with power trips, trolls, flame wars and sense of entitlement issues. It was the cyber-equivalent of a lion's den and it introduced me to an unattractive yet intriguing side of human nature.
For better or worse my curiosity was peaked. I felt like I was smack-dab in the middle of some twisted social experiment. I was drawn to the chaos and couldn't help but tune in for the train wreck night after night until I could no longer stand the ridiculousness of it all. For a while I was truly mesmerized and almost felt ashamed to be amused by this classic yet modern example of ethnomethodology.
Ethnomethodology is a sociology theory that describes how people in certain situations, such as online environments, create the false impression of a collective social order when they don't understand, or perhaps don't care to understand each other fully. Inevitably, the different points of view within this forged community can lead to total anarchy if not intensely moderated by an unbiased member.
Within these online communities, notions of hierarchy are quickly established by the more seasoned posters who exhibit a rather skewed sense of importance and authority. Cliques are formed and mimic real life by picking on weaker or less popular individuals within the group.
In forums saturated with women, passion and possessiveness trumps kindness and rationality. In male-oriented groups testosterone takes over as insults fly, everyone suddenly belongs to Mensa and the discussion can turn into something along the lines of locker room bullying. Above it all, sarcasm reigns supreme, of course sarcasm doesn't easily translate online.
Anonymity allows people to toss their reservations out the window resulting in all sorts of embarrassing behavior. Fan forums can turn into a virtual soap opera where drama reigns and passions fly and crash just as quickly. Admiration for a celebrity can vary from innocent appreciation to awe, unbridled lust, "love" and virtual stalking.
In many fan forums, members equate their seniority or number of posts to a personal, real-life bond with their celebrity of choice. In one forum, every few months, the celebrity would pop in and say hello and give everyone an update about the happenings in his life.
Despite this outreach a couple posters turned against the celebrity for not properly acknowledging his or her existence while engaging other members' questions. Their admiration quickly turned into brutal malice overnight with brutal verbal attacks on the celebrity and the "sheep" who worshiped him.
Over the years, I've encountered more extreme examples of hostility and especially racial intolerance in forums and comment sections on YouTube and interactive news articles. If anyone thinks we've come a long way regarding racism, I dare you to spend one minute reading the comments under any of rapper Pimp C's articles of his recent passing over at TMZ. The racial hatred is a disturbing reminder of how online anonymity brings out the worst in people.
Children's forums are impervious to the absurdity as well. Some of the most embarrassing online behavior came from the old official Wiggles forum where some adult participants would harass other members for being dyslexic or for having general articulation deficiencies. What was particularly disturbing was how children would visit the message board and had to encounter the very same behavior their parents would discourage.
After writing hour's worth of illegible posts and being ridiculed for it, one poster admitted to having a severe learning disability but the teasing didn't stop. She loved the Wiggles and wanted to have innocent conversations with others who loved them just as much. The moderator even deleted her account several times assuming it would be easier to send her away than tame the masses. Every time she came back (poor thing was confused as to why she couldn't log into her old account) the mockery gained momentum until she finally left.
More recently, a friend of mine suggested I check out Discovery Health's Jon and Kate Plus 8 fan forum. I was shocked at how scrutinizing this couple's "doomed" marriage had turned into a virtual sport. Even Jon and Kate's children weren't immune from the public's contempt. Three-quarters of that forum is filled with negativity and in this case the moderator hardly steps in unless the messages go off topic. Jon and Kate are a real-life family and should be protected just as much as the forum users should be protected from personal slams.
Forums have become widely-known for their hostility and major corporations have begun to take notice. David Benady of Marketing Week points out how corporations often use forum hostility and social structure to their advantage. Benady discussed the advertising tactics of BMW marketing executives:
""They have their own blogger IDs such as Scott 26. They certainly come on forums around new model launches. They are not high-posting users, they just come on and say this is coming soon. BMW deliberately tries not to sound as intelligent as you would expect a marketer to." [Steve] Davies argues that brands need to understand the psychology of online forums, where people crave self-esteem and status, both as individuals and for the whole community. By giving advocates exclusive pieces of information that they can then disseminate to a forum, it creates goodwill. Potential brand advocates can be identified on forums from users with the highest post counts or the ones starting the most widely read threads. But Davies says it is important the brand owner doesn't put any spin on the information it contributes to a discussion. Instead, it should simply give data and information and hope the advocates spin it themselves."(Benady, 2007)"
One could say an online forum is a microcosm of society; however, a true microcosm would be comprised of unique individuals with a full range of interests and backgrounds. In an online setting such as a writers' forum, or an online classroom message board we find many people with varied backgrounds who share a specific interest. Despite differing opinions, there should be a blanket element of solidarity within the group and ironically, this does not seem to hold true.
Different personalities play a role in the hostility as well. People might suffer from low self-esteem, shyness, or a physical disability that prevents them from feeling comfortable enough to socialize with others in real life. For these people forums can be greatly therapeutic and fulfilling. Some people are passive-aggressive or have other control issues and find themselves in an environment where they are free to assert their aggressive nature in full force with no repercussions. Others can be tremendously passive in real life yet anonymously they are finally given a voice in a place where their opinions mean something to a captive audience. Also present are "trolls" that are just itching to start flame wars no matter that the topic is about and live to argue.
Class consciousness is brought into the mix by individuals who suffer from inadequacy or lack of validation and feel compelled to flaunt their real life social status, education, Mensa affiliation, employment or monetary status (whether genuine or fabricated) in an attempt to make others feel insignificant or to catapult themselves into the stratosphere of the forum's rank structure.
No matter what the individual's agenda or personality happen to be, people become intertwined in the drama of forums find it addicting and empowering to behave antisocially. One of the aggressors in a show's forum was a married mother of three who accumulated over 30,000 posts over a year and a half. That equals out to an average of 54 posts a day, seven says a week. The addiction can be very real and staying angry for that period of time can't possibly be good one's health.
Online forums can be a safe haven for people with addictions. They can use these forums to find support and better themselves. More specifically to the uniqueness of online sociology, others are allowed to voice their addictions with no repercussions or nagging. For instance, people with addictions to food or those who suffer from anorexia will seek each other out and talk about what they have (or haven't) eaten so far that day as if they are in a friendly competition, while alcoholics will compare how many drinks they have had before noon that day. I've seen others who according to their own dialog, are online all day playing games and complain when their children are hungry or that they want attention period.
Certainly not everyone who steps foot into these forums are monsters or addicts, it's just that the monsters have a habit of taking over. Why can some people cope with these unnatural interactions as if they were engaging with people in real life and why do others take on sanctimonious or belligerent attitudes?
There's a difference between healthy debating and blatant antagonizing. In an online setting where you can't see facial expressions or always sniff out witty sarcasm, people can easily misconstrue others' intended words. Next time you find yourself in a hostile thread, try to take the high ground and shrug off offending comments. Users should also try to gracefully respect comments that differ in opinion even if they are unpopular statements about highly controversial topics. Always report any obvious attempts of flaming to the moderator before it gets out of hand. That's what they're there for.
If you are the offender, and are going off for the gratification of starting chaos or inflating your own self-esteem, perhaps seeking therapy might be in order or at least ask yourself why you harbor so much animosity towards the world. It is never okay to rationalize personal attacks with anonymity. Respect the person's rights, regardless of viewpoint. I'm just waiting for the day when someone turns around and sues a forum's host for damages caused by anxiety, high blood pressure or a heart attack. The way forums are going these days it's bound to happen sooner than later.