Jack wrote this in April, 2005:
Okay. What’s been on your mind this morning, the readership asks, me adroitly putting the words into the communal mouth.
In between working on my lottery numbers for coming Wednesday night, I’ve been thinking about Discussion Boards and Chat Rooms. What is it about those things? What’s the appeal to us? Why do they so frequently erode into acid exchanges between the users? How do complete strangers come to have such a rancor for one another? And how to otherwise, probably nice enough people (they have to be… someone would have taught them manners if they behaved that way offline) come to have such nasty streaks when they wear a mask of anonymity?
I’ve seen discussion boards and participated in a few previously. A couple of prospector/treasure hunter boards during the mid-90s when I published the forerunners to The Lost Adams Diggings – Myth, Mystery and Madness.
In those days a few people were still doing non-spectator things outdoors. Enough were, at least, to keep sites of that sort in business selling metal detectors, gold pans, books, sluice boxes, dry-washers and whatnot. That’s when I first noticed this discussion board spinoff phenomenon I eventually came to think of as the snake pit.
People would come to the boards to learn about prospecting, about a particular lost mine, about some piece of equipment or other. But on any site there’d come a time when a specific group of individuals would just sort of hang out there. They weren’t there to learn, and they obviously weren’t there to share information. Mostly, they were just wasting time, disparaging people who asked questions, disparaging the attempts others made to answer. The snake pit.
These weren’t just trolls. They were men who knew the subjects the board was created to discuss. But treasure hunters and prospectors have never been long on the information sharing business. So instead, these guys hung around blustering at one another, arguing which had the most skill with a metal detector, which detector brand was best. Online acquaintances who frequently hated one another and everyone else, but still hung around.
Mid-1998, I became convinced Y2K was an actual threat. That belief led me to another type of chat room. A place where people who believed similarly hung around to talk about TEOLAWKI (the end of life as we know it) and exchange information about Y2K preparedness. At least, that’s how it began.
Before too long we all discovered that, while we each believed Y2K was going to happen, to one degree or another, we had some serious rifts in the other aspects of our lives. Some were born again Christians who wanted to ask one another and answer one another whether this was going to be the Rapture, and if so, when it would begin, and what it would be like, both for themselves, and for the non-believers who’d be left behind to suffer it out on the ground.
That sort of thing. That, and just how bad would things get, post-Y2K. And how much a person should bet that it would happen at all. Attempts at risk analysis, though most of us didn’t know a lot about computers.
From mid-’98 until I departed for my woods-retreat mid-’99, I watched the Y2K chatroom with a measure of awe, disgust, concern and wonderment. I watched those people who came to the chatroom to learn become experts after a few visits (the fundamentals of preparedness were, after all, relatively simple). I watched the competition among the new survival experts when `newbies’ came to the chat room. people who’d just heard about Y2K and wanted to know more. The poor old newbies found themselves swarmed by all the old-timers who were, themselves, newbies a couple of weeks earlier. Everyone wanted to demonstrate his knowledge by telling some newby about it all.
Meanwhile, the rancor, the snapping and snarling, the pro-gun/anti-gun, born-again/non-religious wars raged among those folks who came there first to just learn, who all had the same reason for their original visits. And, of course, the romances.
The snake pit.
So. How do strangers who have no reason to give a hoot in hell what one another think come to such a pass? What is it about discussion boards and chat rooms that draws people so closely into one another that they wish to apply pain, sarcasm, poison? That they actually allow the poison being spewed by the malignant random stranger to pierce their feelings.
It’s a study. I’ll swear it is.