First, Some all-to-real examples.
Mr. X. One writes an article about some Widget. He doesn't totally understand
the widget, but he has some insights into it based on his (limited) experience
with it, or the perceptions that he has of the widget.
People who disagree with him read that article, and tear him a new asshole.
They insult his family, upbringing and intelligence. They attack his spelling, his grammer, his integrity as a writer. They criticize him for not doing his research, yet don't provide any facts of their own. They hurl insults instead of facts. Opinions instead of data. Pro-Widget FUD instead of Anti-Widget FUD. They don't change his mind about Widgets, but now he thinks that all widget users are angry animals salivating at the bit and waiting a chance to bite into someone.
- Mr. O'Two guy runs a website that tracks new widgets.
(version 1.2.8 of WidgetMeister is out now- it features Y2k compliance.
you want your widgets to be Y2k compliant, right?)
Thousands of people use it every day and never pay a nickel. This
site doesn't even have banner ads. Each day they learn about new versions of
Widgets released by the various Widget Manufacturers
(ain't I subtle?)
He decides to change some things around. He has ideas on how to make his site better. He spends weeks working really hard to implement those changes. He pulls the switch and takes it live.
He gets thousands of emails from people who complain as if he has destroyed their lives. By changing something he owns, created, cares for, and probably understands far better then them.
Does this encourage him to keep working? Does this encourage him to continue providing his website for free to the thousands of people that use it? Does anger and hostility make the website better? Obviously people are very angry. But people only get angry when things matter (maybe thats just me: I don't get mad over bad officiating of a football game, but I have got really mad when my car dies and I'm supposed to pick someone up in 10 minutes) Anger implies that you care about something: You want change. You probably want somebody to do something for you.
Do you kick your grandma in the head if you want another piece of apple pie with your dinner? (If you do, can I eat at your house? Your family would make mine seem functional, and would probably also make an excellent FOX sit-com). Well Mr. Webmaster got kicked thousands of times in the head that day.
Mr Three posts a message on alt.widgets. He didn't read the FAQ and
(as happens with amazing frequency in alt.widgets) he
asks one of "those questions" that are so amazingly dumb that any casual
lurker would roll his eyes and tab to the next message. The guy gets 20 emails.
The posting generates a couple dozen replies insulting
the guy for not reading the FAQ.
The end result is that everyone has a few extra dozen messages to wade through. You might argue that a newbie lurker would see the reaction, and read the FAQ- but this guy didn't do that. And this Ask-a-FAQ-get-Flamed ritual happens every few days on alt.widgets. So far the flame system isn't working. A bot probably could have posted a single reply, and forwarded the FAQ to this guys email address. Instead of a dozen public replies and dozens of hate mail, a few polite messages could have achieved the same goal-- perhaps even better, because those flames probably spent more kbytes questioning this mans right to exist than answering his question. And if you think alt.widgets is bad, you should see #widgets on efnet.
Why are there a couple dozen people who post a comment after every Jon Katz story about him being a windbag? Why is it that I post a dozen stories a day, but if one happens a duplicate of something I posted a few weeks ago (hmm, 30 days, a dozen stories a day- that would be 360 stories ago. 300 submissions a day? That would make it 9000 submissions ago. Ooops. Sorry I didn't remember that one) or one that Hemos or Sengan posted yesterday that I missed, or one that they just don't think is up to snuff, there always are a few people ready to chime in helpful criticism: "Slashdot Really Sucks Now" or "This Story isn't Good Enough For Slashdot" or my personal favorite "Is this really News for Nerds?"
These people don't email me. They post it publicly. Considering that I read perhaps 10% of the 3,000 comments posted daily on Slashdot, I miss the vast majority of their complaints. Now I don't care if people want to complain- but often there are bug reports in the complaint that probably could have been fixed if I simply got a polite email. I occasionally read an article that has 30 comments on it, half of which could be summed up by saying:
- This was posted yesterday
- Rob is an idiot
- Slashdot really sucks these days
I'm fine with #2 and #3. You're free to hate anything I do, although the moderators tend to moderate them down because Slashdot sucking, while probably true, is also probably offtopic in a discussion about Holodecks or Light Sabers or Linus coming out of his office and seeing his shadow so transmeta won't update their webpage for 6 months. But if someone had politely emailed #1, then we all could have saved some time.
The scary part is the anger. The anger directed towards me. Towards the folks mentioned in my cheesy examples above. The reckless disregard for other people.
Why is this? Anonymity? Facelessness? Ease of Communication? Yes, Yes, and Yes. Its easy to forget that there is a person on the other side of the submit button. You say things in an email that you would never say to someone's face. I've done it. I'm sure many of you have too. Slashdot. Usenet. IRC. Email.
And it only takes a split second.
Its a knee jerk reaction. There's no time waiting for the printer to warm up, to lick the stamp, to find a pencil, print a label, walk to the mail box. In my case- its alt-F2, c, email@example.com, down, down, 'YOU SUCK', down, FLAME FLAME FLAME, ctrl-x, y.
The internet has moved communication forward leaps and bounds. I can send an email to any of you, and you, to me. Lets pick a few regular flame targets from here on Slashdot: Me, ESR, RMS, Jon Katz, or Jesse Berst. They each have public email addresses (although I'm pretty sure at least one of them writes by committee). And each of them has had to toughen up to criticism in order to write online. I guess that goes along with it these days. For me, Pants are optional, but I gotta have asbestos skin.
But that guy who gets flamed on usenet will be scared to ask another question- maybe even a good question. That webmaster might become frustrated and take his website down after getting all that criticism. 100 flame mails could cause a website to disappear for 10,000 daily readers. And that writer for that magazine might write another article- this one about something that he now is completely qualified to write about: being attacked by overzealous widget lovers.
Rob "CmdrTaco" Malda gets flame about being a programmer, an editor, a writer, a webmaster, and sometimes an artist. But he loves his work because he usually gets more constructive criticism and friendly feedback then real hatemail. If only he could say the same about spam. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, although since he is rumored to be functionally illiterate, don't expect his reply to make any more sense then this lame essay.