The Lost Commandments of the Internet

I’m old. I’m old enough to remember an earlier version of the internet. Not Usenet and Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, I’m not that old. But right after that, in the early 2000’s, an internet of message boards and forum-based communities.

Often these days I find myself wistfully thinking back to that period. There were a set of unspoken rules that governed life there, an interlocking set of principles, norms, and ideologies. They weren’t perfect, they were a product of their time, and in many ways things have improved. But I can’t help thinking that many of the worst aspects of contemporary internet culture are the direct result of our having abandoned these fundamental guidelines.

So, in the hope that knowledge of the past can help us construct a better future, I have tried to reconstruct, to the best of my abilities, the sacred decrees that ruled this simpler, more innocent age:

1. You Are a Guest

Every member of an online community is there at the whim of the person who runs the server. They didn’t ask for this and they probably don’t want it. They never expected their office supplies message board or antique plane enthusiast forum to become a living, breathing community. This community, which is so valuable to us, is a huge pain in the ass for them, and it exists entirely due to their gracious generosity or benign neglect. They are like an accidental god. Their power is absolute and unquestionable, as is the power of the moderators they appoint. Are the mods petty tyrants? Probably. Is complaining about them a bannable offense? Definitely. Do you not like it? Please, please leave. I’m begging you.

2. You Are Content

An online community is like a party. You are there because it is rewarding — the other people make it interesting, informative, entertaining, compelling. And they are there for the same reason. Whatever your purpose in posting — whether it’s to win an argument, to get sympathy, or to make a point— your larger purpose must be to contribute to the overall value of the party. You do this by making your posts short, sweet, and entertaining, by thinking about how your posts will be appreciated by other members of the community, especially the lurkers — the silent majority who contribute attention instead of words. And most of all you do this by caring about the quality of your writing. It’s easy to recognize this principle at work in other people, some posters are a colossal waste of your precious time and attention, others are entertaining to read even if you dislike them or disagree with them. You should be terrified of being in the former group and always striving to be in the second.

3. We Are Here for a Reason

Maybe it’s to get better at Poker. Maybe it’s to share recipes. Maybe it’s to overthrow the government. Every online community has some original purpose around which it was formed. This ostensible reason doesn’t necessarily limit or completely define what a community evolves into, but it is an ever-present reminder of the fact that we are here within the context of a shared purpose. The intrinsic value of the community — relationships, companionship, entertainment — may eventually swamp that original purpose. The meaning of that purpose may fracture and mutate in multiple contradictory directions. Nevertheless, it remains as a powerful taboo against blatantly self-serving behavior. Obvious attempts to mine the community for personal gain — material, psychological, promotional — is a form of “commons exploitation” and will be met with disapproval, shunning, or even exile.

4. You Are Responsible for Your Character

In the “real world” our personalities feel like things that just exist. None of us invented our own personalities, we just inherited them and now have to deal with them. Things are different online. Who you are in an online community is entirely up to you. The quality of your character is the sum of the words you write, and the words you write are a deliberate, conscious choice. You can, and must, decide what kind of person you want to be in an online community, and this decision is the single most important fact about you.

5. Mind the Gap

There is an uncrossable air gap between online culture and the “real world”. No matter how intense things get, events that happen here exist as a kind of theatrical reflection of ordinary life. They are made of ideas, images, and words. Zeroes and ones. It would be an outrageous crime to investigate someone’s real-world identity and insert those facts into an online context.

6. Respect Your Elders

Communities are complex and delicate webs of relationships. To understand the meaning of any interaction in an online community you must appreciate the context of all the relevant interactions that preceded it — ancient battles won or lost, foundational promises kept or broken, points conceded, rules agreed to, vocabulary established, drama, history, inside jokes and shared memories. When you join an online community you are hopelessly inept at parsing the subtle layers of this complex history. The old-timers that you can rely on as attentive, knowledgeable, and trust-worthy are a precious resource without whom the entire community would unravel into noise. Look up to them, even if they’re 12 years old. Admire them. Aspire to become one of them.

7. Suspect Shenanigans

The internet is full of made-up shit. It’s trivially easy to generate fake stories that sound funny/interesting/cool and there’s a lot of incentive to do it. It’s embarrassing to fall for bullshit like a gullible idiot. People who circulate bullshit should be ashamed and people who call shenanigans on likely bullshit should be admired. Whenever you encounter a story that seems perfectly poetic or ironic or funny or shocking, a story that brilliantly expresses some wonderful or terrible aspect of society, a perfectly poignant moral fable, your first instinct should be extreme skepticism.

8. Don’t Feed the Trolls

The internet is rife with sociopathic behavior. The context of anonymous, consequence-free interaction allows for and encourages “button-pushing” — saying outrageous things whose primary purpose is to generate a reaction. Trolls are sick, sad, people, desperately trying to get attention, to feel some kind of agency and connection even if it is purely negative. Trolls are utterly worthless and destructive. There is no benefit or value to interacting with them. They feed on attention and will grow and multiply if engaged with. Responding to trolls, paying attention to them in any way, is a dangerous, naive mistake, and should be punished severely. (Note: this commandment is probably the one that most shows its age. Now that there are entire troll nations with their own troll culture and troll armies, it is common to question the wisdom of this ancient law. We no longer believe that trolls magically disappear when you aren’t looking at them. Nonetheless, I can’t deny that I still feel the wisdom of this ancient decree. Did not feeding the trolls contribute to the mess we’re in now? Or was it that we didn’t follow this rule closely enough? Further investigation is required.)

9. Fighting is Allowed

Every online community has its own local customs regarding the expected level of civility and courtesy. But there is no general prohibition against arguments and no general expectation of politeness. Personal insults are allowed, as long as they’re funny. Patronizing scorn is welcome, as long as it’s accurate and informative. Extended drama is encouraged, as long as it’s entertaining.

10. See You Next Tuesday

Living online is a constant source of frustration and annoyance. Everyone reaches a point where the aggravation becomes too much, where the endless outrage, the petty feuds, the willful stupidity, and the intolerable, humiliating indignity is no longer worth it. When you reach that point you will feel an irresistible urge to post a dramatic farewell that sets the record straight once and for all, that settles all the longstanding grudges and makes everyone sorry they were so mean to you, a post that permanently, irrevocably burns all the bridges connecting you to this terrible place. And when you write that post it will receive only one single reply: see you next Tuesday. And you will be back. And we will be here to greet you. Welcome home.