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2010 May 4 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Too Much Noise Can Ruin the Internet Experience

One of the greatest benefits of the Internet is the way it lets people around the world easily communicate with one another. A great many people discuss a great many things using a great many words.

The flip side of this is, How do you get someone to shut up?

This is necessary at times in various kinds of online discussion groups with participants whose behavior falls outside of whatever the group has deemed appropriate, formerly or informally, for the good of the group.

One of two types of behavior is usually responsible for this: flaming or chitchat. These words have particular online meanings.

Flaming is the engagement in angry, insulting arguments. Because people in online discussions are separated from one another by space and often by time as well, flames are much more common than in face-to-face conversation. What’s more, with the absence of voice inflections, facial expressions, and body language, misunderstandings are more frequent. Consequently, most groups allow for more heated conversation than would typically be tolerated offline, but when flaming becomes excessive, many find it distasteful and distracting.

Chitchat happens online just as it does in person. But most online groups were created with the purpose of discussing a specific topic. Going off on a tangent and discussing “off topic” material such as the weather or what you had for breakfast that morning is only human nature, and many groups permit a certain amount of such chitchat. But when it becomes excessive, it’s seen as wasting time.

All of this has to do with “signal to noise.” Any given group needs enough “signal” conversation — interesting and useful exchanges — in relation to “noise,” or irrelevant conversation, to motivate people to join the group, come back, and participate.

At one group in which I participate, recently one poster within a period of days left the following messages:

  • Don’t you ever get tired of being wrong?
  • You are such a pompous, humorless twit.
  • Currently you appear to be just a step away from being a drooling imbecile.
  • Ah shaddup, ya weirdo!
  • I am the Führer of you.
  • If I could go back in time I’d make your mother get an abortion.

If you’ve spent any amount of time online, you know that behavior like this, from what appears to be very angry people, isn’t that unusual. Such online behavior has been studied since the 1980s by among others researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University.

One tactic that some online groups employ to deal with such tendencies is “moderation.” One or more people are designated to screen messages before they’re posted to the group, or to have the authority of removing from the group people who are abusive or irresponsible.

One challenge with online discussions is that many people prefer to post using a “handle,” or assumed screen name. This can be legitimate if it gives people the freedom to post honest opinions about politics or other sensitive topics when posting under their real names might get them in trouble at work or elsewhere.

But one of the approaches taken by some moderated groups is that participants must post under their real names. This forces people to take more responsibility for their posts and cuts down on flaming.

“Unmoderated” online discussion groups dispense with most controls over participants’ behavior, relying instead on written charters and group persuasion to steer discussion in the desired direction.

When such tactics are unsuccessful, you’re left with a chaotic, anarchic environment reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. This libertarian excess, which drives many participants away, is an interesting commentary on unfettered human nature.

One other tool that’s typically available sometimes goes by the blunt name of “killfile.” When you killfile another participant, their posts are invisible to you. A synonymous term is “plonk.” When you plonk participants, you add them to your killfile. Still other terms are “ignore list,” “block” and “filter.”

Unfortunately there’s nothing to prevent people using handles, out of spite, from changing their handles once they feel that too many others have added them to their killfiles, a phenomenon called “nym shifting.”

The most clever solution I’ve seen was one offered before the heyday of the Internet by an online bulletin board program called Magpie. It let the system administrator moderate an abusive poster so that he would see his own posts but nobody else would, without his knowing this. Instead of the abuser getting even angrier at being “censored,” more often than not he would feel ignored and quietly go away.

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

Reid Goldsborough is a
syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at
reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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