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Mote and beam

Posted by Peter Kenneally on July 22, 2009

I think in the circumstances it’s useful to have an overview: this from the excellent   http://www.contentious.com/

There’s much in this for us all to take note of: the links are a bit errant: it’s easier to use the search function at the site to find the section you want.

Contrary to popular opinion, the internet is not really about technology. It’s about people, specifically how people communicate.

Despite the best efforts of evolution and civilization, human beings still have a lot of rough edges – individually and collectively. We annoy, denigrate, and dismiss each other all the time. Sometimes this is intentional, often it is not.

The plain text which comprises most online communication makes our rough edges hard to miss. It strips away many of the subtle buffers and safeguards we’ve created to minimize the inherent emotional and psychological risks of communication. Also, online media presents a deeply weird juxtaposition of isolation and connectedness, anonymity and identity, parts and whole. In this baffling environment people can be unbelievably brash and vulnerable at the same time.

In this realm, the vermin of communication thrive. Recognizing them, and choosing to react appropriately, is the key to avoiding their damage…

In my time on the internet, I’ve encountered just about every kind of online vermin. At times, I admit, I’ve even participated in the pestilence. Over the years I’ve learned some useful strategies for handling conflicts with each of the major online pests. In this series, I’ll share these tips.


  • Porcupines: People who seem unable to write a sentence that lacks a barb. There’s a rude, condescending, dismissive, or insulting edge to nearly everything they say. Often these barbs are thinly disguised as humor, or as hyper-rationality. Believe it or not, most porcupines are not aware of how irritating or hurtful they can be. They believe it’s “just their personality,” or they transfer the problem to you. (”Can’t you take a joke?”) They believe they are concealing their vulnerabilities, when in fact barbs only make underlying insecurities more obvious. (How to handle an online porcupine…)
  • Trolls: These vermin want to provoke a reaction. They bait in order to get you to snap back, thus granting them perceived license to attack even more fiercely. They will set out to stir up conflict and push people’s emotional buttons. They enjoy polarizing communities and disrupting discourse. Combative aggressive, polarized TV shows like Crossfire showcase and glorify trolling behavior – even though they claim to offer debate. To a troll any attention is good, and the more intense the better. Negative attention tends to be especially intense online. They think they look insightful and strong when they tear others down, but the effect is more like watching a tantrum. (How to handle a troll…)
  • Zealots: These people confuse their opinions and perspectives with “the ultimate truth.” They can’t function well without clearly marked boundaries. They calm their deep fear of uncertainty by sparring with people who disagree with them. To zealots, any disagreement with their chosen truth (even if totally impersonal and unrelated to them) feels like a deeply personal affront which they must avenge and crush. Zealots are more comfortable with crusades than conversation. (How to handle a zealot…)
  • Skewers: These people routinely skew the words, actions, perspectives, or opinions of others. They believe that they know you better than you know yourself, so they’re better-equipped to explain who you are and what you’re doing. This misrepresentation usually indicates a lack of understanding. Sometimes that comes from a simple lack of information – but other times it demonstrates a profound inability or unwillingness to listen or understand. Rarely is this motivated by animosity. However, being skewed by a skewer can be exceptionally frustrating – kind of like identity theft. Skewers tend to get rigid, and find it almost impossible to admit they were wrong, even slightly. (How to handle a skewer…)
  • Leeches: Online media promotes a culture of sharing. However, some people approach the internet with an exagerrated sense of entitlement. If you share your knowledge or resources by answering one question or helping solve one problem, leeches slither close and expect you to answer every question and help solve every problem. They assume, they wheedle, they nag. They may get angry or resentful when you don’t realign your priorities to match their desires. They drain your energy and offer little or nothing in return. (How to handle a leech…)
  • Burns: These people take everything personally, in a negative way. Any contact is risky. Even the slightest touch of communication, the slightest possible hint of an insinuation, causes them to react with pain – anger, shame, guilt, despair, regret, self-pity, etc. And you’ll hear about it – loudly. (How to handle a burn…)


It’s easy to point fingers at other people who annoy, dismiss, or denigrate you online. However, in my experience nearly everyone has been guilty of these bad online communication practices at some point – usually unintentionally. As you read through this series, assume that you have played the role of each of these vermin at some point. You may or may not be able to recall specific instances. But it’s a safe assumption.

“Vermin” labels apply to behaviors, not to people. It’s an important distinction. When you encounter online vermin, don’t assume that their vermin-like qualities represent who they are. When people act like online vermin, that’s merely how they’re behaving at that time, in that situation. Don’t exaggerate these unpleasant encounters by overpersonalizing them.

We all behave badly sometimes, so leave room for compassion and face-saving. Generally this means not reacting strongly or at all to online vermin.

That said, temper compassion with practicality. Maintain your boundaries, especially with strangers. You are not responsible for correcting or curing online vermin.


Some vermin take a very long time to improve their online communication style, or they may even prefer to behave badly online (and elsewhere). In these cases, more direct measures are required. The most important principle of responding to vermin is to never try to attack or trap them.

Simplistic countermeasures only attract more vermin, like a swarm of wasps stirred to frenzy by the scent of a swatted member of their hive. Successful countermeasures require pausing to look at the big picture, then choosing actions that negate or undermine the vermin’s impact. This deters vermin by removing the perceived rewards for bad online behavior, or by denying them access to your environment.

In the vast majority of cases, countermeasures are not needed at all. Most online vermin tend to undermine and negate themselves pretty immediately and thoroughly. Most of the time, the best approach is simply to recognize and ignore the vermin. If the vermin persists, a calm, positive, nonpersonal, respectful response which reframes the context of the interaction can quell the vermin. Only if the vermin persists beyond that are specific deterence strategies required.


13 Responses to “Mote and beam”

  1. princessxxx said

    ok betty, i haven’t even read this yet but it was exactly what i was thinking, i made my last comment on bedtime story.
    i suppose it is much like fishing.

    my sister commented, people shouldn’t talk down to people. and i said, ‘you’ve either been reading tolle’s “new earth” or you have had a couple of ‘cocktails’.
    turns out she had both.

    i admit, i enjoy jerking my friends around…a lot. they likewise. oh, yeah, even the str8 redneck republicans that i have to hang out with when i really want to party hardy, if you know what i mean. 😉

    now i am going to go fix myself a cocktail and get ‘hammered’ as they say. (poor orton) then read your post,


  2. If you are going to toss the caber, try not to do it with those with Scottish ancestors.


  3. princessxxx said

    oh and betty, it has a lot to do with my tone and pitch.
    my voice is slooooowwww southern accent, and anyone can tell when i am attempting irony.

    an added plus, i can lift my right eyebrow, that can be very sexy and is a sure signal that i am just %@&*ng with someone. it’s all about glamour really, glamour and convenience.


  4. You sound like my mother, in terms of accent. She did not lift her right eyebrow, but I do.


  5. princessxxx said

    john, do you like tennessee williams?

    anyway, ADKOB does have a fight club, which is meant just for carrying on.


    it’s my site even though enkill eridos inspired me.
    so you can say whatever you d*mned well please there.
    be as nasty as you want to be. because i confess, i do get a kick out of it.
    the rest, and this is just my opinion, i don’t think they are into it as much as i.

    i enjoy listening to all arguments. i admit, i’m more interested in opinions than i am facts.
    (by the way, i find hors service a very interesting read)

    anyway, i recommend a good read, truman capote’s “answered prayers”, it was never a book, just a series of features in vanity fair or esquire or some such publication. i used to read it at nite when i was young in bed by flashlite.
    call it my mein kampf if you will.
    i suppose we have all had our own

    anyway, anything anyone needs to know about why homosexuals are extra swishy is explained in this tale, and it’s not for shock value.
    it’s to stave off boredom.


  6. I think I am experiencing liberal guilt: did I do wrong?


  7. princessxxx said

    what the heck is liberal guilt?

    here in US, innocent until proven guilty. (unless you are conservative, then it’s guilt no matter what) that’s a joke kay.

    if you’re refering to this article, i’m keeping this link in my fave places in case someone starts jerking around again. and as a reminder to myself when i start getting all whacked out.


  8. princessxxx said

    betty, this is just between you and i.

    so i came to bash keller, and to me, kay was keller, i couldn’t seperate the two.
    then of course, i developed a huge crush on dorian. so i stuck around for him. just to flirt.
    then you let me know ‘what is what’, and you were very adult about it. it seems you know how to deal with children.
    well, to make a long story short.
    after i saw your picture, it was like….dorian who?



  9. dorian said

    fickle princess. after i rescued you from the tower and gave you absinthe you develop a crush on our professor. that’s okay, i share everything i love.
    i have a crush on the writer of the troll tale myself. her words are succinct yet sonorous. and this
    makes me want to propose. i did, at least for permission to link her site to ours.


  10. princessxxx said

    let’s amend the constitution so we can all get married.
    see how much money the mormon church invests in trying to stop that from happening.

    i do hope stephanie accepts your proposal. i think she is super groovy.


  11. Ok I won’t tell anyone. Isn’t the air fresh and clear now?


  12. dorian said

    it feels like spring.


  13. princesspretendingtobeanonymous said

    yeah, except for all that tobacco smoke, but you guys can’t smell it.
    the flowers are beautiful today.


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