Hey social media users, where the $%&@ are your manners?

Author’s note: I originally drafted this post during the height of a social media flame war that affected identified people offline in my local community. Coming back to this draft a few months later, I’ve chosen to bring it up a level, and genericize it so that it doesn’t refer to the original incident.

A few months ago I watched the evolution of controversy, and the fallout from, a prominent local individual make an off-hand Twitter comment about a particular, well respected profession. Many people in the community who are supporters of that profession saw it as a personal attack against the members of that profession.

That backlash online was swift and could be categorized along a spectrum of severity:,

  • On Twitter there were actual members of the profession retorting, as well as a mass of other people with varying opinions and levels of offense.
  • On Facebook there were a lot of comments, notably on one news anchor’s page page after the Tweet was posted by a fan — that post drew over 1,000 comments.
  • On reddit, our largely anonymous local subreddit was expectedly crude with many of their comments.

In my own meta-discussions with people about this, the opinion was that a “mob mentality” had emerged in response to the original Tweet.

I’m a huge believer in someone’s right to free speech, even if it offends me, which is pretty hard to do — there are limits to that of course, such as when someone airs private information publicly.

Taken individually each person has a right to their own opinion, and to express that equally in response to someone they disagree with. Yet, when the ratio approaches something like 1 for : 1,000 against, it is labeled a “mob”.

When so many people express their disagreement, is their right to express it reduced because there are so many others expressing it? I don’t think so.

What happens is, their manners seem to go down hill. As people try to put their unique spin on something already said a few hundred times, it is all too easy for them to get more crude. Yet, they forget that there are real people much like them on the other side of the screen.

Historically, I think Internet forums have always been this way (eg. back to 80’s BBS’s, 90’s USENET, etc).

Whether it’s anonymity, distance, not being face-to-face with someone — or all of the above — it tends to cause people to drop their filters. When one side hits a bandwagoning multiplier effect their comment stream manifests that “mob mentality”.

What has changed today is that so many people on these online forums are often our neighbors and real parts of our offline community. But, many people forget their manners online. They say things they never would to someone standing in front of them. The level of civility drops in a frightening way.

So, next time you see a group of people lifting virtual pitchforks and torches, stop and think if you really want to join the mob, or politely decline. If you think it’s going too far, speak up.

As important as the right to free speech is, just because you have the right to do something, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Chris Busse has hung around enough online forums to know that anonymity brings out the worst in someone, and even though the best way to defeat a bully is to stand up to them, that doesn’t always work online.