They Have To Be Monsters

Since I started working on Discourse, I spend a lot more time thinking about how software can encourage and nudge people to be more empathetic online. That's why it's especially hard to read articles like this one:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I’ve gotten harassed online before (in anonymous forums), but mostly it doesn’t happen to me. However, I do know that it happens to other people constantly. It seems like an interesting research question, why some people get crazy harassment and others don’t. I don’t really know why.

Also worth mentioning that some forums (environments?) are more conducive to harassment than others. You need a tougher skin on 4-chan than on hackernews (although people on hacker news will tell you harshly that you are wrong).

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Interesting that the graph starts to trend downwards in early 2013. Is that because of more aggressive blocking and moderating? I find it hard to believe that people are getting better, because if anything they seem to be getting worse. There’s an old meme (which I can’t find right now) that basically says “take any normal person, add anonymity, and you get a douche-bag.” When you’re not risking a bloody nose it’s easy to spew hate.

Anonymity and brevity are simultaneously the internet’s greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses.

Being anonymous is great for users who have stories to share, or questions to ask, or just have some freakin’ things to say because they are too scared, or embarrassed, or whatever to attach their name on it. But the tradeoff, of course, is exactly what you just mentioned - it allows trolls to be trolls, and allows faceless throwaway comments to be posted that can really hurt someone.

Brevity is becoming equally awful, though. Twitter is a great resource for news and information - post a short headline and a link and if someone finds it interesting, great! But what I see happening more and more is no one clicks links, they just check the headline.

It’s even worse for Vine-like videos. People see 10 second clips of something, and instantly form an opinion one way or the other and debate it ad-naseum like their life depends on it.

What ends up happening is both skepticism and critical thinking go out the window. People read things at face value, and watch things at face value, and don’t stop to think about freaking context. Context about what happened 4 seconds before someone turned on that camera, or about someone’s life experiences, or the instant before the fatal car crash, or what could possibly been on someone’s mind when they forgot their child in the car.

Well you know what? Perhaps that person was threatening the police officer right before the video turned on and the police officer fired. Does it mean it’s not a tragedy? Of course not. It just means there’s more to the story than what you seen in your 5 second gif.

A perfect example of this was in an article I read about just this morning - about the “Yelp Girl.” This girl posted an open letter to the CEO of Yelp (whom she worked for at the time) telling her experiences working for minimum wage in an expensive city when that CEO made millions.

There was tons of backlash (which I’m sure you know) and everyone and their mother posted rebuttal articles, ranging from “I love your story, go you!” to “shut up you f’ing stuck up princess millennial.”

A story came out today that talks about her life, her experiences growing up and her life post yelp. And you know what? She’s had it kind of hard, she’s not a princess of a millennial, and she’s still trying to do good in this world. My views on the situation changed, because I got to know her more, know what she’s been through and know that she’s not just complaining for the sake of complaining.

A little context goes a long way, and it’s something we’re missing from the internet due to anonymity and now that it’s run over by micro-blogging.


Still reading your post, but would you be averse to adding in links to the original authors of the images in your post?

The Scream (by Nathan Sawaya)
Busy-Work (by Shen, owlturd dot com )

I’m sure they’d appreciate the extra visibility! For future reference, I used a combination of Karma Decay, TinEye, Google Images and some generic sleuthing to find out who those authors are.

(also, how effective is it just blocking mailinator? The first alias it provided worked. Is there much of an effect on spam by putting in low barriers?)
(also, I can’t link more than twice as a new user, so please excuse the lack of urls for the resources (also, how effective is that in stopping spammers?))


When you challenge a man, he might fight back, so you will interact differently.
The problem on the distaff side is that Women (and often other minorities) can dish it out but cannot take it. Look at the “all men must die”- you shrug instead of holding the women who post such hateful vitriol - or dox people, or insult, or try to get fired or worse - to the same standard.

Worse, you are disengaged from the “discourse”, pun intended.

What do you think of Milo @Nero on Twitter?

Even worse, while I treat women as equals, you treat them as fragile flowers that you, the manly male white knight needs to rush in to defend them. If they cannot or will not defend themselves, they are weaker, lesser, or something else you would be horrified to admit. If they are capable, they don’t need you and your privilege to defend them.

Empathy has suffered from inflation. “Help me! I’m in trouble!” has become an alternative to helping one’s self. It used to be those in bad situations would only ask for the minimal help required. Now they demand large subsidy and consideration as a natural right. People with a slight limp get the handicap placards so they can park close, not just those with severe mobility problems. Minorities with 160 IQs claim discrimination over majorities with standard intelligence. Women claim all sorts of things but they graduate from college (here in the USA) more than men.

I can remember many, many stories of those who have been minimally harmed, or were simply doing a confidence game and fraud that claimed some horrendous misfortune and in CS Lewis (Great Divorce) “misused pity”. The child who kills his parents then pleads mercy because they are an orphan.

Other examples are the cries of “racism” or “sexism” where someone incompetent or otherwise in the wrong was properly disciplined or fired, or were simply criticized. If you do not know English and I point out bad spelling and grammar, it isn’t racism, it is either true or false. Factual or fiction.

Women especially have played the empathy card. By all means, we can return them to the pedestal where they will be comfortable and protected, but be mothers and not have careers in competitive positions (My mother worked before she had me and this was before equal pay for equal work, and she was smarter than her co-workers so I know of whence I speak). If they wish to descend to the rat-race, it cannot be turned into a safe space. Women don’t work in construction, or very many outdoor (cold/hot/rainy) positions that can pay more. There is no discrimination, but women don’t apply. But if a woman wishes to become a MMA, they will be beaten to a pulp by men of lower weight. Sorry, testosterone builds certain muscles. The most fair and just sport is rodeo. The bull doesn’t care what your gender, race, or orientation is, he will try to buck you off, and you can either go 8 seconds or not.

The desire for empathy is unequal. Which do you want, equality or empathy? If I have a thick skin, and can tolerate lots of insults and annoyances, and someone else is reduced to tears, do you treat us equally? What if it is a position that requires strong negotiations? Those who easily are reduced to tears desire empathy, those with thick skins do not. Why are you saying weakness is a virtue? Were it a defect in coding ability, you would recommend study and practice to gain still. Why when it comes to empathy is it different? If I wrote buggy code and was incapable of meeting deadlines, would you show me empathy and keep me on your payroll? If I couldn’t deal with competition, which might include insults and fights, would you keep me on the payroll?


Per The Guardian’s dataset, I can’t help but wonder how much of that disproportion is due to moderators being more aggressive in the comment threads of articles by female authors. There is definitely a prevailing sense of women as victims in online culture, so if the vitriol level of commenters can be influenced by the gender of the author, then surely the aggressiveness of the moderators can be too. As far as how much each factor contributes to this trend, I have no idea.


@codinghorror there’s an episode of This American Life that your post reminds me of that you may or may not be interested in. It’s called If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS and the first act is something I immediately thought of when reading this post. If I recall correctly it arrives at very similar conclusions about what motivates online trolls etc.

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There is nothing about equality that requires you to be a jerk.

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@tomz There two kinds of social equality: equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. You evidently favor the former. As do I, in fact, but for me it’s a very tough call as I too am a white male who has never faced serious bullying. I don’t know first-hand what I’m talking about, I know about bullying and discrimination only second-hand. Yet one does need to make a call on which kind of equality to emphasize, how to balance these two values. How can that be done without empathy for those unlike oneself? You can argue that we don’t really have a choice, that “equality of opportunity is just evolution in action”, but to me that degrades us to something less than human. We humans can choose to make society work on the basis of something other than survival of the successful warriors. (That’s indisputable, because we very frequently do.) And that kind of society may very well be in the interest of the vast majority, and even the long-run survival of the race as a whole.

(I was going to mention codinghorror, but since it’s your rule, you lose.) As for the motivation of online trolls, I don’t really care. This is just the “Dark Side” of “empowerment” of everybody (@davidzych said it first, but emphasized a different point), and we’re going to have to deal with it.

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You forgot the “coding” part of “codinghorror” :frowning:

I’ve been following this blog for a long long time, with more or less interest, and I surely never expected to cry reading an article. I’m gonna use it as a cornerstone of my argument for empathy from now on, as it expresses what I think better and more succinctly than I could.

I registered just to post a message of thanks. It’s a good think to use your notoriety and visibility to convey such a thought.

@tomz and other people thinking the same, you’re missing the point. Women are more likely to be the target of harassement, whether they fight back or not, I think…But that’s besides the point. The point is we need more empathy in general. You’re nitpicking points that might be interesting and worthy of discussion elsewhere, but they’re just not what the article talks about.

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I’m using an account that I haven’t used in nearly a decade because I don’t want my wife to see my reply to something that I know my words have a low probability of impacting.

I’ve previously read the article you linked, and I’ve thought the same things you talk about here. My wife and I lost a son about 1 month before I read that article the first time. While nothing you’ve said here is wrong and I do not disagree with any of it, my own life experience tells me you possibly did not fully empathize with the person who posted the hateful comment. Sometimes the things we say are coloured by our own life experiences, and even though later we recognize our words were hurtful we cannot help reacting the way we do. For instance, Jeff, I deeply hate you for making me relive all the emotions of my own sons death, and the somehow more complicated emotions I feel towards the people in this article. I hate that you make me think about how I’ve mostly forgiven these people even as I despise them for having kids then losing them through their own fault. Why did you do this?

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Thanks for chasing down those image attributions @kotonas, I have added them to the post.

A related story. My wife and I were on a walk with our son about a year after he was born (2009), and we were startled by a very low flying helicopter and other emergency vehicles. We didn’t know it at the time, but someone else’s son was already dying after tragically being left in a car seat, literally blocks from our house.

Imagine what that feels like, when you’re the one who forgets.
Imagine what your marriage becomes after that happens.
Imagine what your life becomes after that happens.

Even if Everett Carey’s death Monday was an accident, however, the father who left him in the car could face criminal charges. Parents involved in similar tragedies in the Bay Area have been prosecuted on charges including involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment.

Prosecution, because They Have To Be Monsters. (Mercifully, this is rarely followed up on in most jurisdictions unless the circumstances are exceptional.)

What punishment could you possibly deliver to this parent that would be even a fraction of the punishment they’re already going through? After this, your life is your punishment, of a kind I can’t even begin to fathom. And it doesn’t end until you do.

@Uboni_Paladin I see you. Understand that part of the reason I want to read and feel these things is to appreciate just how damn good most of us have it. We are so fortunate. So very, very fortunate that we simply forget. We forget all the time. We forget to be there for our fellow humans, all of us on this tiny rock hurtling through space, 4.3 light years from the next star.

So thank you for the reminder, and thank you for sharing your story. We’ll all be star stuff one day, all of us together with your beautiful, beloved son.

Thank you Jeff for writing about this important issue. Brings a whole new perspective to being a white male.

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It seems like the exact same argument can be made for why people feel the need to invent gods: Because they cannot accept/tolerate the implications of a world without any.

I would pay for a “verified identity” feature on the web sites I visit. I could then choose to show content from unverified users, or hide it. Some sites have the option to hide content below a certain rating or from anonymous users and it always provides for a more civil experience.

Anonymity has its place, but it causes more harm than good in most forums.

This is a topic with very little about Software and all about Humanity, Ethics, Philosophy and yes, even Theology. I’m sure 99% of visitors to this site would discount theological arguments. But I have to ask, what in the name of evolution requires “oughtness” of behavior? Aren’t we after all saying that some advanced neural networks don’t like the output produced by the seemingly vast majority of neural networks encountering the Internet? What is empathy in an atheistic worldview but a chemical reaction in a purposeless world?

But theologically, Paul wrote to the Church in Romans 2000 years back that all of mankind is sinful. The Bible is believable because there is nothing flaterring about man in it. Indeed, as Tim Keller as pointed out, the Bible offends all people across all time and all cultures. Why? Because we do not like our reflection portrayed in it. Yet, as I observe the world through a Biblical lens, I see its portrayal of man corroborated on a daily basis, both within me and in the rest of the world.

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Lewis’s Law: The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.

“When you challenge a man, he might fight back, so you will interact differently.” That’s because if women fought back against everything, we’d never have time to do anything else. The point of the article was that women and minorities face not only harsher, but greater volume, of vitriolic comments. In fact, the article started off with the example of a mother who responded to her online attacker.

“Women can dish it out but can’t take it!” …Sure. So how come those guys were so hesitant to read those comments, yet I listen and think, “Yep, same crap as always.” A lot of those were comparatively pretty docile, too.

“Even worse, while I treat women as equals, you treat them as fragile flowers that you, the manly male white knight needs to rush in to defend them.” How come, then, you’re so offended by the article, while I found it thoughtful and well-written? I’ve been treated like a fragile flower before, I know what it looks like, and it pisses me off. This isn’t that.

The Guardian’s data may be skewed. There’s a lot of human error and bias on the part of the moderators to be spoken for. That might matter if this were the only evidence that women get attacked online. It gets crazy anywhere, and just because it can’t be wrapped up in pretty numbers to look all sciencey doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Look at GamerGate. It might have started off with a few people who had a point–it’s impossible to tell now–but it escalated into an excuse to be awful on the Internet. There is absolutely nothing new about this, nothing that needs to be “proven.”

Social experiment: go online with a new screen name that makes it look like you’re the opposite sex and see how you get treated. Comment on news sites. Comment on YouTube especially. You can even set up a dating profile if you like. Do this for a week (people take a few days to respond). Empathy is great, but the very anonymity of the Internet lets you experience this yourself, if you so choose.

You’ll probably reply back attacking me. But, because I’m a woman and I have not only a hundred other, similar comments I haven’t replied to–and because I have better things to do than give online abuses my full attention 24/7–you’ll just have to wait in line.

This time, though, I’m responding not for your benefit but for Jeff Atwood’s. You’re attacking him as much as anyone else here, and I want him to know that his writing was appreciated.

After all, he’s not as used to your kind of treatment as some of us are.


That’s a really good point.

I don’t believe normal people turn into assholes through anonymity provided by the internet. The difference is the size of our room has increased to hold thousands or millions of people. Go to a football stadium and you can hear a lot of those hateful things being yelled at the players. Being online takes that to a whole new level, as the negative social impact to yourself by saying something rude is diminished even further online from the stadium atmosphere. Additionally, the target of those words is far more likely to hear it, and those words can come in repeatedly at all hours of the day no matter where they go or what they’re doing. Also, kids 8-17 will copy other kids behavior and haven’t yet developed the emotional acuity to understand the damage their words can have. That’s why some of the worst groups for hateful speech can be in video games heavily populated with teenage boys.