Web Rage: Why It Happens, What It Costs You, How to Stop

There's a scientific reason why your coworker writes rude things in e-mail that he would never say to your face.

Two companies had formed a joint venture to develop a new telecommunications product. Engineers in both companies were hard at work, but the project itself was stalled.

The reason? A consultant we know diagnosed the problem this way: "Engineers on each side never saw each other," he told us, let alone coordinated their work on the project. "The two sides just e-mailed their irritations to each other. They were having a flame war."

Flaming, of course, refers to an e-mail message that comes across as rude or otherwise annoying, and a flame war happens when the recipient of such a message flames back, leading to an arms race of insult. Flaming is but one of numerous ways a lack of social intelligence can sabotage the use of technology, especially when it comes to working with others together online. Any IT manager takes a risk that a group's efforts will falter if he ignores the psychological dimension of social computing.

Flaming is a symptom of a larger malady-an epidemic failure of social restraint. The same syndrome seems at work in bloggers who take a perverse glee in attacks and threats (such as those recently against blogger Kathy Sierra), who somehow see Web rage as cool. In games like The Sims (an online role-playing environment), "griefers" are players whose goal is to ruin the experience for other players. In chat rooms and on Listserv discussions, "trolls" take pleasure in baiting people into pointless arguments that waste time and energy. And of course, no business environment would be complete without some opportunity for passive aggression, which may be expressed in a variety of ways, from answering a critical e-mail late (or never), or providing only partial or obtuse answers that force a questioner to re-ask her question in increasingly picayune detail.

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  Why People Are Rude Online

There is a technical name for this unsociable behavior in cyberspace: the online disinhibition effect. All cases of cyber-rudeness would be far less likely in face-to-face interaction, where subtle, mainly nonverbal cues help us govern our responses to others. Neuroscience diagnoses the mechanics behind flaming as a design flaw in the interface between the online world and the brain's circuits for reading and responding to another person.

When we talk in person, massive numbers of parallel neural circuits process emotional signals and let us decide instantly what to say or do. A crucial hub for this adaptive bit of empathy is the brain's orbitofrontal cortex, which both conducts this social scan and helps orchestrate our response so an interaction goes well. Patients with damage to this circuitry are unable to censor their unruly impulses—they will make mortifying gaffes or insult people. In essence, they flame while face-to-face.

For individuals with an orbitofrontal cortex that is operating normally, a fleeting frown or a lilt in tone of voice is the basis for "mind sight," which lets us sense what the other person feels and thinks. But short of a two-way webcam conversation, the online world lacks a channel for such in-the-moment cues from voice, facial expression and posture that the social brain needs to navigate well. Without those cues, we become "mind blind"—unable to sense what the other person thinks and feels—and thus more prone to send a response that seems "off."

The Costs of Mind Blindness

The cost of mind blindness isn't just measured in rude behavior—it also robs us of some of our most powerful tools for decision making. Consider asking a question in e-mail and getting back "No" as an answer. Does that No mean "My first answer is no, but I could be talked into it" or "Absolutely not"? Face-to-face, we are able to read all kinds of nuance into seemingly concrete answers—we know a "Yes" from a "Yeah, sorta," and we can tell a "Maybe" that means "I'm thinking about it" from a "Maybe" that is just a polite refusal. Online, No is merely No, and considerably less informative as a result.

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As with much about human social capability, the problem is magnified in group conversations. E-mail is a wonderful medium for distributed conversation but a terrible one for group decision making. Our mind blindness doesn't just deny us the ability to read the speaker, it takes away our ability to read other listeners as well. This creates challenges for IT organizations that are trying to implement distributed collaboration environments.

Consider a group trying to arrive at a major decision through e-mail. Were they together in a single room, the conversation would typically be accompanied by tiny head shakes and barely audible responses--the Ahs and Hmms and Nuhs that we are instinctively adept at reading. In this kind of environment, everyone would tacitly recognize when a consensus had been reached. Then someone would articulate that agreement to a medley of nods.

These moments are routine in meetings. But in virtual meetings such consensus can't be read. Lacking this signal to wrap up, an online discussion can be endless. Even worse, because the participants can't read the mood of the "room," the conversation ends up reflecting the interjections of the most frequent and forceful participants, rather than the overall judgment of the group, which is usually different from, and often better than, the judgment of the noisiest few.

There are, of course, ways we can add a bit of emotional nuance to our e-mail. Emoticons signal the emotion that goes with a written message; inserting bracketed question marks to indicate uncertainty might be another. But as yet there is no online convention that adds to e-mail anything near the full emotional undertones that a live voice or face offers. E-mail simply offers no substitute for the richness of a live encounter.

The solution to the telecom company engineers' flame war problem was to get them away from their computers and put them in one room for a couple of days.

Although claims that telecommunications will replace travel have persisted ever since AT&T proposed the videophone in 1964, technology is a complement, rather than a substitute, to meeting face-to-face. People communicate better when they are together, and they also communicate better online after they've spent some time one-on-one. The memory of what a person is like in the real world mitigates the mind blindness created by our online tools.

When the engineers gathered, they got to know each other as people. They were no longer faceless entities lurking behind an e-mail address. They were able to establish ground rules for a respectful and productive discussion, whether face-to-face or online. Whenever they had the urge to send a flaming e-mail, they agreed to call each other on the phone and talk the problem over.

And their joint venture was completed successfully.

Daniel Goleman codirects the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University. He can be reached at contact@danielgoleman.info. Clay Shirky is a consultant who also teaches in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program. Contact him at clay@shirky.com.

To hear Clay Shirky and Daniel Goleman discuss more about how understanding the brain's social circuits can help resolve issues in social computing, get the audio download.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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