The Science of TWA

Absolutely zero Desi Angle (TM) here per se, but a whole heap o’ relevance for anyone who frequents the comment threads here (and if you are one of those happy souls who only reads Sepia Mutiny for the blog entries, feel free to skip this one, as I’m about to get a little parochial). But I noticed that today one of the most-emailed articles from the New York Times is an essay by Daniel Goleman on the scientific explanation for why people say, uh, intemperate things online that they would rarely say — or at least say the same way — in person. So if you’ve ever wondered what it is that causes folks on discussion boards to insult each other, call each other idiots or worse, flagrantly mis-characterize each other’s points in order to drive home some strident and ill-conceived argument of their own, and generally stink up the joint — and if you’ve perhaps caught yourself doing so, whether here on in any other online exchange — you need look no further for your answer than your orbitofrontal cortex. (I trust that one of y’all medical/scientific macacas can explain the details to the rest of us, or indeed, critique the article — politely, natch.)

The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.

This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track. (…)

Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

But wait, what about :) and :P and ;) ???

True, there are those cute, if somewhat lame, emoticons that cleverly arrange punctuation marks to signify an emotion. The e-mail equivalent of a mood ring, they surely lack the neural impact of an actual smile or frown. Without the raised eyebrow that signals irony, say, or the tone of voice that signals delight, the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on. Lacking real-time cues, we can easily misread the printed words in an e-mail message, taking them the wrong way.

And if we are typing while agitated, the absence of information on how the other person is responding makes the prefrontal circuitry for discretion more likely to fail.

TWA – Typing While Agitated. Never happens to me. No, sir. I keeps cool calm and collected. But just in case…The Times article is really about person-to-person email, although many of the points it raises extend to other kinds of online communications. However probably the more troublesome kind of social interaction deficiency that you find in online communities is the frequency of rude or thoughtless communications that are, in fact, entirely deliberate and don’t result in regret on the part of the person who issued them. This got me to wonder what work has been done on the psychology of trolling. It’s a topic that I am sure has been endlessly brought up over the years since the Internet became generalized, but this article from last year in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz seems to sum things up nicely:

“When I speak with someone and see his eyes, it is easier for me to understand that he is someone like me, with needs,” explains Weinberg. “On the Internet, you do not truly realize that opposite you is another person with his own world. The other has become text, making it hard to imagine there is a person behind the text, and not to turn him into an object. Furthermore, we extrapolate our world onto the other, attributing to him intentions he never had.”

Houminer says that many of the surfers (nicknamed “trolls”), who flood forum discussions with provocative and aggressive messages, are actually acting out their frustration at the Internet’s inability to meet their emotional needs.

“Silence and disregard are the most common forms of harm on the Internet,” continues Houminer. “A lack of response is perceived as an active refraining from supplying a need, and results in the creation of vengeful energies. A troll’s subtexts always contain a claim of injustice by someone.

I wonder about the claim that follows, though. It seems to paint a lot of different kinds of trolling behavior with a possibly over-broad brush:

Psychologist Udi Bonstein notes that studies conducted in the U.S. show that, in many cases, people who speak aggressively online are themselves victims of aggression, on the Internet or in real life.

“This is evident in talkbacks,” says Bonstein. “People who write invectives and curses online are apparently people who do not feel strong in their lives.”

But I think many of us would agree with this bottom-line:

What is the solution? Houminer believes that an essential step in creating less hurtful relationships online is the removal of the anonymity barrier. “We need to examine whether the freedom we gain from anonymity is worth the price,” says Houminer. “When a person is only a user name, he is not much of a person.”

That rings true to me. I think I’m a lot more likely to take seriously an aggressive or possibly insulting statement when it comes from someone who, at a minimum, makes available a way of communicating with them personally (e.g., supplies an email address and responds to messages sent there). It’s much easier to give someone the benefit of the doubt when you know there exists an option for talking to them outside the performance-space of the public forum. Funkadelic (and later, EPMD) used to say, “Let’s take it to the stage, sucka!” Yet the bigger the stage and the more numerous the players who populate it, the more important it is to maintain escape hatches, back channels, side exchanges, and always, the liberating possibility of withdrawal.

40 thoughts on “The Science of TWA

  1. It all boils down to the fact that it feels anonymous, there is no face to face, and you got Shaytaan whispering in your ear.

  2. Very interesting. I think there’s a world of difference between non face-to-face interaction over email per se and anonymous online interaction, though. With people you know otherwise, you’ll be polite even over email, and in small online forums and blogs with “regulars” people are nicer because of the likelihood of repeated interaction (as left darwinists love to point out, niceness evolves too) or future interaction (as on some political blogs where people are Known Names and you’re likely to meet x person in real life at some point). It’s when blogs/sites are a place for us to project our otherwise socially unacceptable strong emotions without the restraining force of repeated or future interaction or desire to impress that we succumb to TWA.

    There’s also the diary-ish confessional nature of typing things anonymously to get them off your chest…

  3. Check out the internet flame warrior archetypes, jungian in their tellingness.

    Here are a couple of cute ones:

    Profundus Maximus eagerly holds forth on all subjects, but his thin knowledge will not support a sustained assault and therefore his attacks quickly peter out. Profundus Maximus often uses big words, obscure terms and…ahem…even Latin to bluff his way through battle.

    Idealogue There are two distinct varieties of Ideologue, conservative and liberal, but each being smug and self satisfied in his certitudes, they are really flip sides of the same coin. Though Ideologue’s “opinions” merely represent a loose collection of intellectual conceits he is nonetheless astonished, bewildered and angered when his views are not immediately embraced as Truth. He regards honest disagreement as a form of cognitive dissonance that can only be cured by relentless propagandizing. The conservative iteration of Ideologue parades himself as a logical, clear thinker, while the liberal version trumpets his higher level of mental, spiritual and social awareness. Troglodyte is the natural ally of conservative Ideologue, and for liberal Ideologue it is Weenie. Whether conservative or liberal, Ideologue is a fierce, but very predictable Warrior.

    Lamer is a Warrior who appears in different guises to different people, and is therefore difficult to describe in full detail. Nonetheless, he is readily identifiable because of his mediocre wit, utter lack of insight and vacuous comment . You begin to sense Lamer’s presence when you are able to anticipate the content of his messages even before reading them. Lamer actively participates in forum discourse and readily jumps into battle, but his ineffectuality renders him relatively harmless when encountered in single combat. CAUTION: Lamer’s crushing dullness can enervate even the most robust Warrior, and while it is usually possible to overcome the presence of a few Lamers, enough of them banded together the can numb the liveliest forum into extinction.

    Jerk is sarcastic, mean, unforgiving and never misses an opportunity to make a cutting remark. Jerk’s repulsive personality quickly alienates other Warriors, and after some initial skirmishing he is usually ostracized. Still, Jerk is very happy to participate in electronic forums because in cyberspace he is free to be himself…without the risk of getting a real-time punch in the mouth.

  4. Wow…Siddhartha you’re a mind reader or something. The vitriol spilled here had me wondering why people invested so much into defending a position and arguing it to death. Good insight in this article..

  5. I dunno, though. Those ‘lame’ smileys do occasionally structure the way I understand the tone of comments online. For example:

    “This is just another example of Siddhartha’s anti-Hindu bias”

    is not the same as:

    “This is just another example of Siddhartha’s anti-Hindu bias ;)

    The first is a straight-up accusation. The second is ironic. Siddhartha’s reaction to each statement would likely be very different.

    I think a good case can be made that, while smiley use is not nearly as versatile as facial cues, it serves a similar purpose in the e-text world.

  6. Great post!

    SM should have registered users and one should be able to read previous comments by a user to understand the person. I am guessing this idea has been considered and rejected, any insight into that? I would have no problem putting in my email address if it were only available to other resitered users, just a thought.

  7. I think a good case can be made that, while smiley use is not nearly as versatile as facial cues, it serves a similar purpose in the e-text world.

    True. On the other hand, it’s very hard to control your facial expressions when you’re ranting at someone verbally. It’s very easy to turn a cyber rant targeting a specific person into something innocuous by throwing in the appropriate smiley. It allows for a certain disingenuousness in online debate that is far less likely in real life debate (assuming you’re neither a lawyer talking to a jury or a politician addressing sheep…er voters).

  8. “When a person is only a user name, he is not much of a person.”

    True. But once this “user name” has left a comment, then we know something about her. If she leaves ten comments, we know even more. If, over a period of weeks or months she makes herself part of the interchange that this blog is, she’s real to us. Doesn’t matter that we don’t know where she lives, whether she’s married with children, whether she’s Arundhati Roy or Shilpa Shetty using a pseudonym, whether she just got realeased from prison. None of that matters. The thing is her willingness to exchange, and to do so in a civilized way.

    There are a great number of “user names” on this blog. The fact that I don’t have their email addresses or their real-life good name, matters not a whit. What matters is that there is a flow, a to and fro of communication. We do have a sense of each other as people, in the absence of smileys (hate the things), addresses, photos. On the peg “Coach Diesel” or “Red Snapper” hang any number of attributes. The more they write, the more sophisticated my picture of their minds becomes. And the more, too, I find, that the conventional facts about them interest me less than what they have to say about the subjects at hand.

    This list exists as a rebuke to the theory floated in the Haaretz article, that anonymous strangers can’t engage in continuous reasoned discourse with each other.

    Part of SM’s success, in my opinion, is because of the zero-tolerance policy towards trolls on this site. Without that policy, this ship would sink in about two days.

  9. This list exists as a rebuke to the theory floated in the Haaretz article, that anonymous strangers can’t engage in continuous reasoned discourse with each other.

    Not to pick nits or anything, but I don’t read this to be the thesis of the article. I think the article is simply trying to explain the existence of trollery. Otherwise, I agree completely with your points.

    Part of SM’s success, in my opinion, is because of the zero-tolerance policy towards trolls on this site. Without that policy, this ship would sink in about two days. Very true.

    This policy works because it brings accountability into the forum. IRL, when I say something in public, that statement is going to have an effect on the people who hear that statement. My reputation could be enhanced or diminished based on this reaction and therefore I am accountable for making that statement. In blogs where the trash isn’t routinely taken out, this accountability does not exist and that is when the discussion is reduced to mindless rants and pseudo-intellectual drivel.

  10. risible

    those archetypes are hilarious. thanks for sharing.

    siddhartha

    no desi angle, true, but a high relevance, nonetheless. i’m guessing that you and the other mutineers have had discussions in the bunker about how to handle forum trolls on something more than a case-by-case basis. can you describe some of the ideas (e.g., having only registered users post) that may have been discussed?

  11. A different way of looking at it could be interactive vs. non-interactive debate.

    In everyday person-to-person verbal debates,there is a swiftly ticking pendulum where people dont get a chance to develop an elaborate\extensive rant.The tendency is for the disagreeing party to cut them off early in their spiel to argue against a point\position which then leads to counter arguments and so on.

    OTOH, with non-interactive written communication ( forums, chats, emails, even newspaper articles), the writer gets to prepare a complete download of their thoughts on the subject and the other party then has to go through the whole argument before getting a chance to counter-strike, which is more aggravating.

    A 30 minute reading of a TIME Magazine feature full of unsubstantiated claims, illogical conclusions justifying the War on Iraq will aggravate me more than discussing it with the writer in person and getting a chance to refute claims every 2 minutes or so.

    Of course, that doesn’t explain flaming in chatrooms.

  12. If it means anything, I can tell you were pretty excited by the prospect of writing this article and it didn’t even need smilies.

  13. Thanks Brooklyn Brown, Siddhartha’s post prompted me to recall them, though I am curious as to why http://www.politicsforum.org/images/flame_warriors/flame_55.php“>ethnix is depicted as a desi uncle, pencil-moustache and all.

    Ethnix is an extremely powerful Warrior who effectively exploits his minority status and the general nervousness about race to gain advantage in battle. Ethnix deftly wields his ethnicity and can instantly shift from defense to offense, keeping even the most skillful Warriors off balance. Impostor, covetous of his power, often impersonates Ethnix, but he can seldom maintain the ruse. While all Warriors are wary of Ethnix, he is most feared by Weenie.

  14. OTOH, with non-interactive written communication ( forums, chats, emails, even newspaper articles), the writer gets to prepare a complete download of their thoughts on the subject and the other party then has to go through the whole argument before getting a chance to counter-strike, which is more aggravating.

    See, I much prefer being able to develop an argument in total before having to deviate to talk about various tangents. That’s why I actually prefer talking about contentious issues over the Net rather than in-person, where it far too often descends into personal confrontation. Here, if something devolves into that it’s possible to respond, but not required.

  15. For some reason, it seems that more serious/relevant discussions evolve in places like SM, than our everyday encounters – which are usually small talk or none at all (i’m talking L.A. here). And the net gives us the ability to zero in on topics of interest with others who share the same interest/obsession. Which makes it even more worthwhile to not be completely anonymous.

  16. “That’s why I actually prefer talking about contentious issues over the Net rather than in-person, where it far too often descends into personal confrontation”

    Exactly Neal…and therein lies the awesomeness of the net…. like a wind tunnel for ideas. A whole lotta folks build their planes…then the fans start to roar. And we can see what flies.

  17. Clearly NO ONE has read the holy works of Gabe and Tycho at penny-arcade. They have prophesized much of what has transpired on the ‘net and have even provided an elegant equation: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad (ref)

    Many pundits have expounded on this theory all citing the seminal Internet Fuckwad Theory by penny-arcade.

  18. “…The other has become text, making it hard to imagine there is a person behind the text, and not to turn him into an object. Furthermore, we extrapolate our world onto the other, attributing to him intentions he never had.”

    I’m suprised when someone in an innocuous comment,reveals their [male] gender. It seems that I impose my ideas of what a “girl” or a “boy” should reason like- more than I think. I’ve been surprised a few times when my favorite woman commenter is revealed as a man or vice versa.

  19. Thanks for such an interesting post. I’ve been getting the feeling around this joint that we were in need of something like this.

    Any thoughts as to why people that get banned can’t seem to stay away and keep coming back under new handles, only to find they can’t behave?

  20. A focus on emotions is good, because it reveals the absurdity of political correctness. But then, how do you answer the criminal when he glibly says, “I couldn’t help it”?

    Well, the Hindus got there first, when they connected biology and meditation (instead of relying on abstract reason). Accept your destiny (don’t do that nose job, choice-chaser) and maintain a calm mind. Drive the other idiot mad; use Gandhi’s weapon. :)

    I think I’m a lot more likely to take seriously an aggressive or possibly insulting statement when it comes from someone who, at a minimum, makes available a way of communicating with them personally (e.g., supplies an email address and responds to messages sent there). It’s much easier to give someone the benefit of the doubt when you know there exists an option for talking to them outside the performance-space of the public forum.

    Didn’t Bill O’Reilly follow the exact opposite path, outside the public forum? But, then, his stance also helps in bringing out the hypocrisy of people. To give an example – If you are living off this nation’s policies (past and present; foreign and domestic) do not argue against it. Such a posture obviously makes any criticism illegitimate, ensures positive feedback and increasingly cohesive cohorts who disagree on nothing at all. Methinks that will be unfortunate – the seeds of aggressive mediocrity will be sown.

    Yet the bigger the stage and the more numerous the players who populate it, the more important it is to maintain escape hatches, back channels, side exchanges, and always, the liberating possibility of withdrawal.

    That’s a great insight. I think it is also important to allow hypocrisy in society. In today’s world it is almost impossible to navigate your future on the razor’s edge. In the Journal of Philosophy, Sen has an article on consequential evaluation and practical reason, where he makes some points against Krishna’s advice to Arjuna. (I do not agree with Sen’s reasoning, but I will save my arguments for a pedantic forum.)

    However, is it true that the more we argue, the more we understand each other? (If you believe in this, your need for troll-policing will be of a lesser degree.) Or is it that we get caught in our own arguments? What happens if you genuflect to maintaining a nagging consistency – once you reveal your preference/taste/opinion, you cling on to that for the rest of your life?

    The more I read blogs, the more I wonder how people gravitate to the text. South Asia being a high context culture, how can that culture be captured only in low context interactions? Is there any escape from the onward march of rationality? Are we becoming Houyhnhnms?

    More food blogs, music blogs, photo blogs, direct experiences and practices please. They provide moments of sanity and joy, and you cannot troll on food, music, and photos. Can you?

  21. Mr Kobayashi, at 10 you speak most sagely, and at 13, I thank you much for nit-picking macacas.

  22. haha i totally thought of SM when i saw this article in the NYT.

    or indeed, critique the article — politely, natch.

    but scientists love being mean to each other…seriously, in undergrad, my profs would give these scathing critiques of the articles we read…and social norms be damned, scientists are prone to shouting matches over controversial topics…

    anyway, i don’t really have anything useful to add, except perhaps there is a spectrum when it comes to social skills. some people are just blunt and can come off as rude, even though they don’t mean to be. not to stereotype, but in my experience the sciencey types tend to be like that. whereas others are naturally more subtle with their words. and then when we all interact on the ‘net, it leads to “interesting” results.

  23. This is really a very interesting article, Sidharta. Thank you for posting it!

    I find that people do get very crazy on the Internet. And very emotional and quite rude. Much more so than in real life. I agree it’s probably because it’s a virtual space where they can get out their frustrations without dealing with any consequences.

  24. Any thoughts as to why people that get banned can’t seem to stay away and keep coming back under new handles, only to find they can’t behave?

    My theory is that these people simply get off on getting under the skin of others and confrontation. In real life, they would likely get punched, but in the anonymity of cyberspace, they can be ridiculous without any real ramification.

  25. Who ever said people make up funny usernames just to hide behind them has it all wrong.

  26. Any thoughts as to why people that get banned can’t seem to stay away and keep coming back under new handles, only to find they can’t behave?

    SM doesn’t just stand for Sepia Mutiny.

  27. In a word, entertainment. The popularity of the web is due to the fact that people find it entertaining. Just like a daytime soap with no backstabbing, husband stealing, generally whorish female character wouldn’t draw many viewers. It’s somewhat matrix-ish in concept. If the internet was a perfect place, our minds would reject it.

    Sometimes, trolls do bring value. It breaks the monotony of forums where people express the same ideas over and over – Like a liberal on a conservative forum, or a black person on a white supremacist forum.

    As for what the neurological basis is for this, I imagine that for some, the intelligent troll if you will, it’s a matter of playing devil’s advocate. As for the people that do it for no greater purpose, well, I believe the scientific name for those people is “idiot.”

  28. It’s somewhat matrix-ish in concept. If the internet was a perfect place, our minds would reject it.

    Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Forum is. You have to see it for yourself.

  29. So then it would seem our internet personas are in fact our real personas finally set free…free from social constraint..free from political correctness…free to run amuck even. Sweet!!!!

    But then what path do I chose… naughty or nice..or both…to build upon Chunky’s thesis….’the problem is choice’.