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Think People Are Too Negative Online? Welcome to the Internet

Note: This post doesn’t have much to do with professional development and is instead a brief commentary on the legal blogging sphere (read: navel-gazing). It also contains some strong language. Feel free to skip it if that’s not your thing.

Nancy Myrland over at Myrland Marketing recently made a post about a spate of negativity in comments she’s seen recently:

A while back, my friend Gini Dietrich wrote a blog post that was on many of our minds.  It had to do with rude comments left on her blog by people who had strong opinions about another post Gini wrote about dressing professionally, or looking the part.

Gini and I, as well as many others, were a bit surprised by how rude people can actually be sometimes.  I reacted to it because I’ve always had the strong feeling that human beings deserve to be shown respect at all times, not because they’re powerful, have more money, have less money, know more than we do, have a “better” job, or a host of other reasons you might imagine.

Which made me immediately think of a post I read this morning by SHG over at SimpleJustice:

The problem is that twitter just isn’t a viable medium for expressing critical thought.  It allows for the snide remark, but not the reason behind it.  It would be great to make enemies, but poor to challenge ideas (or the lack thereof).  Which means that it’s a fine medium for a pat on the back, a cute statement, some fun chit chat.

But all of this is what’s led twitter down the positivity path to pointlessness.  Does it not get boring, really quickly, to engage in some half-witty repartee with people you don’t know about things that don’t matter?  Why do we engage in pleasantries with a disembodied name and avatar when we could be speaking to actual people whom we know to have some value to our lives?  It’s not to call these unknown twitteratti worthless, but rather to say that their relevance is (a) as yet undetermined, or (b) too superficial to be worth the time.

My sense is that the whole positivity thing on twitter reflects some odd need for validation, even if from people you don’t know and with whom you will never actually engage in real human interaction.  It’s cheap affirmation to bolster some gaping hole of self-esteem amongst people who either don’t get out enough or, if they do, aren’t getting the sort of reaction from others in real life that sates their fragile self-esteem.

Personally, I think part of the problem is the spate of Johnny-Come-Latelys to the Internet. There are a large amount of lawyers and legal marketers coming online in the past few years and are attempting to carve out their own little niche online. In particular, they are using their real names and identities in an environment in which, historically, people have been anonymous. I’ve posted about it before. It occurred to me that these people are probably unaware of John Gabriel’s “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory:”

From the Wikipedia Entry:

John Gabriel’s “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory” was posted in the Penny Arcade strip published March 19, 2004. It regards unsociable tendencies exhibited by gamers while playing online multiplayer games such as Unreal Tournament and Call of Duty. In this hypothesis, Mike Krahulik suggests that, given both anonymity and an audience, an otherwise regular person can become a “total fuckwad,” meaning a very disagreeable person with an irreverent mode of speech.[67] New York University adjunct professor Clay Shirky, who studies social and economic effects of Internet technologies, explains: “There’s a large crowd and you can act out in front of it without paying any personal price to your reputation,” which “creates conditions most likely to draw out the typical Internet user’s worst impulses.”[68] In an Advocate article about online homophobia, this theory was used to account for behavior on online forums where one can remain anonymous in front of an audience: for instance, posting comments on popular YouTube videos.[68]

The theory gained popularity in 2004 after the above post, but it was already a given amongst gamers and people who been on the internet for years – “John Gabriel” just gave it a name. God forbid you were online in the 90s when people were hiding links to Goatse [Wikipedia link :) ] and the like in their posts.

If you’re going to be online, you definitely need to be prepared to share space with anonymous jerks and your thoughts ridiculed by people you’ll never know. Get some thick skin and deal with it. Why be concerned what anonymous strangers think of you?

Besides, there’s not much you can do about it unless you want to fly around the country and beat the shit out of guys talking crap on the internet:

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.

8 comments

  1. Hi Keith:

    Thanks for the mention.

    I have some thoughts to share, but wanted to make sure I understand your words clearly first. I don’t think you were referring to me when you mentioned Johnny-come-latelys, or when you mentioned getting thicker skin, correct?

    Just in case, I do want to make sure you understand the entire post I wrote. My point was that whatever your personality is, figure it out, be comfortable with it, then be that to the fullest, prepared to have people react to you negatively and positively, but just figure it out because it’s part of what your clients get when they do business with you.

    As I mentioned, it’s my preference people leave their intimidation and name-calling at home because I don’t have a great deal of respect for it IF it is being used to do just that…intimidate. That certainly wasn’t the whole point of my post, though, which I’m sure you got.

    Again, sharing thoughts, but also wanted you to clarify I wasn’t the object of those comments made in my first paragraph before I addressed them.

    Thanks again for the mention.

    • Hi Nancy,

      I have no clue whether or you’re new to Internet or not. Your blog archives go back to 2008. Mine go back to last month. Neither of those facts mean anything though. Personally, I dialed into my first BBS with a 9600 baud modem in 1988 when I was in middle school. I’ve been online ever since and have had a variety of accounts, websites, blogs, etc. over the years. I have accounts on websites with tens of thousands of comments spanning 12+ years. An Associate’s Mind just happens to be my current online home.

      So generally speaking, when I refer to a Johnny-come-lately to the internet, I mean someone getting online in the past decade. If you fit that criteria, don’t take it personally, it just means that I’ve been online longer than you, nothing more. If you don’t, then you don’t.

      Whether you fit the criteria or not is irrelevant to my point, which is people get waaaaaay to bent out of shape about what anonymous people say about them on the internet. This seems to be especially true for those *sigh* in the “happysphere.” People who have been online for along time get that, and the “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory” is meant to illustrate that – not to mention that it’s a joke.

      As far as intimidation…law is an adversarial process and intimidation is part and parcel of that process. If legal marketers don’t want any of that, that’s fine. But I would certainly hope the online ranting of some anonymous coward in their mom’s basement wouldn’t intimidate or discourage a lawyer from blogging. If it does, god help them, they need to find a new job. They should have been getting intimidated back in law school by their professors or the gunner student kicking their asses grade wise. What the hell is supposed to happen when they’re in front of a judge who is an asshole? Or opposing counsel is a shark in a suit? Shirk their responsibilities to their client because they don’t like raised voices and name-calling?

      Intimidation is part of being a lawyer, not just one a trial one either. If I’m hiring a lawyer to draft a contract I want whoever is on the opposite side of the contract to go: “Oh shit, they hired that lawyer?!?”

      In regards to being themselves and comfortable with it, I agree – but I would hope that grown men and women don’t need to be reminded of it.

    • You’re kind of bystandered walking into a gunfight here, the gunfight in question being restricted to lawyers and their blawgs.

      I don’t think I have any issues with marketers being nice to each other. In fact, I understand the wisdom of not saying mean things about others when it can be helped. However, the situation is very different for lawyers and our profession.

      The difference between what’s said on marketing blogs and law blogs is that they have very different consequences. If someone spreads stupidity on a marketing blog, the worst thing that will happen is that some other marketers will try it, will fail, and a few clients won’t attract that many new clients (and risk going out of business). If someone spreads stupidity on a blawg, some other lawyers will try it, will fail, and ruin the very lives of some clients. Less new business is not the same as a major lawsuit, prison, losing custody of a child, deportation, and so on.

      As such, lawyers will denounce crap when they see it in the profession. As they do so, I’m sure a sense of civility in competition is the furthest thing from their minds. Maybe it’s a duty to society, maybe it’s duty to the profession, or maybe it’s a duty to the integrity of our whole system. I don’t know since I can’t speak for the experienced lawyers who do it. Nonetheless, as a new lawyer, I can say I very much appreciate it when they do it, and I’m sure my clients will in turn.

  2. I still can’t believe I just read penny-arcade on a blawg. Putting my astonishment aside:

    I find what SHG is discussing is actually quite distinct from PA’s fuckwad theory.

    The fuckwad theory is meant to explain how otherwise civil people will change into assholes on the internet if given an audience and his own anonymity. Being able to put their reputation aside, they can simply aim to offend, without any repurcussions or requirement to justify what they’ve said.

    Meanwhile, I believe that SHG is talking about something completely other. My understanding is that he takes issue with the proposition that the internet is a place which ought to be “offense-free” (In any case, reluctant to put words in SHG’s mouth, I’ll say *I* take issue with that proposition). Offense is allowed if not sometimes required when the original poster has said something completely idiotic. Someone needs to set them straight.

    However, whereas the fuckwad theory presents a reason for *ignoring* offensive things that are directed towards us on the internet, reality is that, in the context of blawgs, offensive responses are often grounded in reason and argument and the original poster *ought* to consider them, notably when the original poster is young and inexperienced and the person responding has been in the game a while. Why? Unlike under the fuckward theory, the purpose of the response is not merely to offend or “troll”, but to engage and challenge the idea of the original poster. If the person is too fragile to handle any criticism of their position, the problem is not that they do not have enough experience in the harsh environment of the internet, but rather that they don’t have what it takes to push their position in the marketplace of ideas. This is an even more worrying issue given that those too fragile to respond to criticisms are supposed to advocate for a living.

    In fact, another point of distinction with the fuckwad theory is sometimes it only takes the unmovivated condemnation of certain readers to be enough to sink the original post. Why? Because those responding may have reputations that stretch beyond the internet — some may be experienced lawyers or the president of a section of the bar (also note that they make no effort to conceal their identity). That alone ought to be enough to make another reader want to study more on the topic as to better understand where the condemnation is coming from.

    In any case, lawyers need thick skin. If one caves when people say mean things to them on a whim, imagine what will happen when people say mean things to them that are backed up with the weight of reality. If one can’t be bothered to learn to distinguish between the two, their fragile ego will impede them from gaining any sensible knowledge about the real world.

    • You are quite right, Kevin, as to what I was writing about in that particular post, though Keith is similarly correct about my general attitude toward the internet and blawgosphere.

      There is a growing contingent of teacup lawyers who pray that everyone be civil and respectful toward each other. They say that they take no issue with civil dispute, but are offended by ad hominem attacks. They are liars, morons and self-promoters.

      Their purpose is to market their firm, and anything negative disrupts their scheme. They are outraged by anything that smells at all of criticism, and immediately scream that they are being attacked. The gather in circles of like-minded self-promoters to interlink and write happy posts about themselves, praising each other and giving each other kisses and high-fives.

      They are turning this profession, and the blawgosphere, into a shithole of deception under the guise of being well mannered and refined. They are an insidious threat to the blawgosphere.

  3. People quickly learned that negative comments get attention online and nice comments are ignored. I believe many people desperately want to have a voice, to be heard that they purposefully push buttons for the gratification of a response.
    The media does this constantly and it works. News articles are written to elicit angry comments which equal popularity, clicks, money.

    • That’s definitely true on some level.

      I think the safety and freedom from any sort of detriment to their character that anonymity provides tends to bring out the worst in people as is illustrated above.

      However, as Kevin states above:

      “If the person is too fragile to handle any criticism of their position, the problem is not that they do not have enough experience in the harsh environment of the internet, but rather that they don’t have what it takes to push their position in the marketplace of ideas. This is an even more worrying issue given that those too fragile to respond to criticisms are supposed to advocate for a living.”

      If someone is being negative purely to illicit reactions (e.g. trolling), then they are rightfully dismissed. But if the only issue is that the commenter is in disagreement or forward and challenging with their position, then the offended person needs to grow a spine.

      See this conversation on LinkedIn (I hope this link works):

      http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=63909&type=member&item=32247765&qid=faba53c1-9785-41fa-943f-39b4f6515f38&goback=.gmp_63909

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