I’ve recently picked up a copy of Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, a book I haven’t yet completed but (so far) highly recommend. The book itself is about behavioral psychology and neuroscience, but I found it specifically enlightening in regards to the study of community management.
Anyone who does business with people online is familiar with John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.
People are jerks on the Internet. This is not news, and a lot of digital ink has already been spent discussing and rehashing this concept, in ways both humorous and otherwise. It’s one of the immutable laws of the Internet, and no one who has ever worked with an online community would think to tell you otherwise. The question that is more important to community managers, of course, is why—and about this I believe Mr. Lehrer may have something to say.
Mr. Lehrer refers to an experiment conducted by a Harvard scientist named Joshua Greene. In the experiment, which is intended to shed some light on why people make moral decisions the way they do, participants are asked to respond to moral questions while hooked up to a brain scanner. The first of the questions is as follows:
You are the driver of a runaway trolley. The brakes have failed. The trolley is approaching a fork in the track at top speed. If you do nothing, the train will stay left, where it will run over five maintenance workers who are fixing the track. All five workers will die. However, if you steer the train right—this involves flicking a switch and turning the wheel—you will swerve onto a track where there is one maintenance worker. What do you do? Are you willing to intervene and change the path of the trolley?
According to Mr. Lehrer, roughly 95% of participants in this study agree that they would throw the switch—that changing the track is the right thing to do. Some even go so far as to claim a moral imperative—that not changing the track is a moral failure on the part of the trolley driver. A second thought experiment is then posed:
You are standing on a footbridge over the trolley track. You see a trolley racing out of control, speeding toward five workmen who are fixing the track. All five men will die unless the trolley can be stopped. Standing next to you on the footbridge is a very large man. He is leaning over the railing, watching the trolley hurtle toward the men. If you sneak up on the man and give him a little push, he will fall over the railing and into the path of the trolley. Because he is so big, he will stop the trolley from killing the maintenance workers. Do you push the man off the footbridge? Or do you allow five men to die?
Lehrer notes that in this scenario, despite the fact that the mathematics of the situation—five lives or one—are identical, almost no one is willing to make the decision to kill the one and save the five. The experimenter reasons that these represent two different classes of moral decision, calling them “personal” and “impersonal” moral decisions. In the former scenario, all I really do is flick a switch and turn a wheel. In the second, I must physically pick up and fling a stranger to a horrible death. I am physically using my body to do harm to his body. In the former, there is a layer of abstraction between myself and the horrible act I have been forced to commit. In the latter, I am forced to look my own actions (and the victim thereof) in the eye. What was a moral imperative, suddenly becomes murder.
The interesting thing about this is that, as Greene points out, this distinction is not a vague or fuzzy one—it’s actually hard-wired, directly into our brains. When the subject is presented with the second choice, an entirely different set of neurons lights up. The decision is made in a different part of the brain.
Before I started working for Wowhead, I worked for the ZAM Network—at the time, a holding company that owned a number of different MMO sites, including Allakhazam, Thottbot, and the MMOUI network of sites. When Wowhead became part of the ZAM Network, no announcement was made right away—the team wanted to be able to spend some time time discussing how exactly the announcement would be made.
This is the Internet, though, and nothing stays a secret for long. Within an hour after the paperwork had been finalized, the info was leaked on a tech blog that Wowhead had been purchased. In response, we wrote a hurried announcement for the front page of the site, talked a little bit about why Wowhead had taken this step, and provided an email address for people to contact. My first job working on Wowhead was to monitor the emails coming in to this address.
Over the course of the next two weeks, we received hundreds of emails. Many of them were complimentary, curious, or just had simple questions, but a good number of them were written in outrage—people were furious, angry that Wowhead had “sold out”. My (self-assumed) responsibility was to read, understand, and respond to every one of these emails.
As I wrote these responses, I noticed something odd—the minute the writer of the angry email received a response, their tone changed completely. It was as though the writers didn’t realize that these emails did not simply get dumped into a virtual bin somewhere—they were shocked to find that a real, honest-to-goodness human being was reading these responses, and hand-writing individual replies back to each one. The moment one of these replies was received, the writers would back off immediately and apologize for being harsh. I didn’t have to say much—just a little “hey, we’re not going anywhere or changing everything, give us a chance”—and people calmed down very quickly.
People are jerks on the Internet. But I don’t think the reason for this is because the anonymity shields them from consequences—increasingly, people are becoming married to their usernames. I know that if you google “Malgayne“, you can quickly find anything I’ve ever written. If I were to post something embarrassing, rude, or ill-advised on this blog, anyone who was offended could spend ten minutes matching my username to my Twitter account and Facebook, which would give them anything they needed to know to find me in the future. I am not anonymous enough that I can shield myself from dealing with the consequences of what I say.
No, people are jerks on the internet because as far as your brain cells are concerned, no one else on the Internet is a real person.
The Internet is the trolley switch that keeps me from realizing that by taking this action, I will be murdering a human being. It’s the thin layer of implausibility which interferes with my brain’s ability to make the connection that by being a dick to this guy on a forum, I’m actually bullying him just as much as I would be if I called him an asshole to his face on the street. It’s the colorful set of pixels that keeps me from realizing that this gnome I’m griefing in World of Warcraft is a real person somewhere—somebody who had a hard day and just wants to relax by farming some leather, and now I’ve taken even that from him by camping his corpse for 45 minutes.
In order to effectively manage an online community, we need to realize that this is not simple “bad behavior” on the part of our users—it’s chemical. The decisions we make when interacting with people online are governed by an entirely different part of the brain than the decisions we make when interacting with people in person. Even fine, righteous, morally upstanding people behave differently when they’re dealing with people online, because suddenly interpersonal ethics are being governed by a part of the brain that was built for something else entirely.
If we want to be good community managers, we need to remember two important things:
- Every time we feel tempted to be rude, cruel, or judgmental towards someone else, we must forcibly remind ourselves that behind those pixels is a real person, with real feelings and real wishes that need to be addressed, and:
- Unless forcibly reminded, no one—no matter how good a person they may be—can be expected to consistently abide by #1.
For those who are interested, Jonah Lehrer maintains his own blog, called The Frontal Cortex, at http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/frontal-cortex/.