Do You Have an Abusive Online Persona?

Over the weekend, I’ve been observing a long-standing website implode with inner squabbling, and in reading along I’ve identified what a friend once dubbed “the emotional regression of people online.” Her feeling was that, because of anonymity, people tend to regress emotionally online to the age of about 14 or 15, especially when there is conflict.

Photograph courtesy of Stan Abrams of

The ability to respond literally at the touch of a button with the first thing that pops into your mind is often the catalyst for online behavior that in real life would make many people cringe. People say things online that they would NEVER say to a person’s face. Twitter has allowed people to become accustomed to posting their every waking thought without thinking. How many of you have read Twitter Wars where for the most part, mature intelligent people abandon meaningful communication and resort to name calling and cheap shots? The popularity of blogging established a new medium, where a person could create a space on the internet where they could memorialize their ideas and feelings for all the world to see.  Some of these same people would then log onto other people’s spaces and forget that it isn’t their own. Used to expressing their ideas and opinions without censor and doing so quickly, people come into a medium like an online forum or community and forget simple rules of etiquette and respect. The results are often disastrous. I am continually appalled and amazed at how often people regress emotionally and resort to using abusive behaviors to get their ideas/feelings across.

In a group setting online, when conversations are brought up that are triggering to others, we often see the most popular coping mechanisms. The idea is to derail/divert the topic of the conversation so that it can’t be spoken about.
Rationalizing (here is the good reason why . . .)
Intellectualizing (in actuality, this is what is really going on . . .)
Minimizing (it’s really not that bad . . .)
Withdrawing (I’m not really feeling well enough to talk about this now . . .) **Why come to a post or thread and announce that you don’t want to talk about it?
Joking/Laughing (Ha, ha, this reminds me of . . .)
Changing the Subject (That reminds me, did you hear about . . .)
Generalizing (Well it’s like that all over the world, in fact in ’75 Europeans were. . . )

While these behaviors frustrate attempts at open, honest dialogue, they are not in and of themselves abusive. A person segues into abusive behavior when they start to employ these tactics:

Defiance (I am NOT going to talk about this now and you shouldn’t either!)
Blaming (You’re the reason why . . .)
Comparing (Well, you do it, too . . .)
Justifying (If you were in my/their position, you’d do it too . . .)
Projecting (I’m not the . . . . that you are)
Arguing/Explaining (I have always been/found/experienced . . . that’s your opinion – who’s to say . . .)

These behaviors are abusive because they almost always attempt to invalidate what another person is saying with the goal of, in short, silencing them. When a conversation begins (online, in real time; doesn’t matter) and a person responds in this way to an idea which differs from their own, what they are doing is behaving with intolerance. Intolerance is abusive.

Intolerance is defined as:

in·tol·er·ance n. The quality or condition of being intolerant; lack of tolerance.

So to fully grasp its meaning, we must look to the definition of tolerance:

tol·er·ance n. The capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others.

By definition, intolerance is the inability to practice a recognition or respect for the beliefs or practices of others. Listen, there are times when it is appropriate to be intolerant of the practices and beliefs of others. Racism comes to mind. However, there are also times when intolerance is unwarranted. Only we can personally decide whether we are being intolerant when we are expressing opinions or whether another person is being intolerant to us when we are on the receiving end of the opinions that they are expressing. Hopefully we are mature enough and honest enough to do so. Often, especially online, I find that is not the case.  Have you ever been triggered online, regressed emotionally and found yourself behaving with abusive intolerance? Have you ever been on the receiving end of that type of behavior?

Having a difference of opinion in and of itself is no crime. However, it is the reaction to a stated opinion, the name-calling, the attempt to denigrate and demean and the intense need to silence through acts of hostility, whether covert or overt, that triggers my own personal red flag.

As a victim of child abuse I know that abuse runs a spectrum. A person can be plenty emotionally abusive at work and not at all at home, where they feel powerless or visa versa. A person can be verbally abusive but not physically and only to some people and not all. A person can be withholding, where they withdraw their favor, their presence and time from a person to punish them for something they feel that they’ve done wrong.  Negative, “othering” behavior done consistently and over time is abusive. The message being sent by abusive behavior is ALWAYS: You behave (say, do and think the way I want you to) and then I’ll be your “friend” again.

Some people become abusive online. They reserve all of their venom and angst for their online dialogues. It is as if online communication has come to serve as a sort of venting/dumping ground for their lives. Online they become verbal bullies with no regard for the feelings of others because the “others” are just a name and an avatar on a computer screen, an object, depersonalized and objectified.

The surefire way to know that you are dealing with an abusive online personality is to ask the person who has behaved in the ways that I’ve described above to stop what they are doing. A person behaving abusively will not only NOT stop, they’ll do it more, just to prove that you were wrong to ask them to stop in the first place. Do you have an abusive online persona?  Have you seen it online as well? If you observed it, did the people in charge DO anything about it?

The website that I’ve watched coming apart at the seams didn’t bother to address their abusive personas. When I see that this kind of behavior is roaming unchecked in any space, real time or online, and it is not being addressed or stopped, I RUN the other way. It’s just too dangerous for my peace of mind and too triggering for me to participate in a space where abusive personalities are allowed to run rampant.  When I see that the people in authority are quick to respond, citing rules for behavior, enforcing them and exerting consequences for those who won’t follow them, I let out a deep sigh of relief. I know that I’m in a safe place.

10 replies on “Do You Have an Abusive Online Persona?”

Your posts are always thought-provoking Sabine. Love it!

I’m pretty sure I have never descended into name-calling, but I am probably guilty of intellectualizing or withdrawing. I never really thought of it as abusive ( and I never posted that I wasn’t going to talk about this!) but I’ll be thinking about this for a while.

Sorry, I know this post is really confused but I am caffeine deprived right now.

Thanks Molly!!! I get you! You know, on line, communication with words is all we got. Communication is funky even when you’re in person, but take away the inflection, facial expressions and tones, and what do you have then? So it’s all about being an effectual communicator.

and I never posted that I wasn’t going to talk about this!)

Lol! People will come on a thread and say, Why are you guys talking about this; I’m so tired of this dumb subject; this subject is dead . . .

O-O And then anyone else who has thoughts doesn’t want to say anything anymore.
I’m glad to be thought provoking and psyched that you will be thinking about it!! Yay!!!

Yeah, certainly, but not me, though. By definition, that’s what it is:
1. characterized by insulting or coarse language
2. characterized by maltreatment
3. incorrectly used; corrupt
4. Causing anger or annoyance; “offensive remarks”
5 Characterized by physical or psychological maltreatment;

I’m not being anal about it, it just is what it is, you know?

This is great, Sabine!

One of my hardest jobs as an admin around here is knowing when to step in and when to let things unfold for a spell. I think being too quick with moderation can be as tricky as being too slow. We have lots of opinions around here, and they’re going to bump up against each other – which is fine as long as we’re adults about it.

I think one of the things we’re losing as we go deeper and deeper into our online worlds is our ability to get along with -and even be friends with- people who are a lot different than we are. It’s too easy to find a space where everyone thinks the same thoughts about the same things. Being an internet tool is an extension of that, because just like fans of Kara Thrace’s kidnapped ovary and cake farting fetishists can find and embolden each other, so can tools and jackweasels.

This is long and muddled, and it’s getting away from me, but really nice job, Sabine.

One of my hardest jobs as an admin around here is knowing when to step in and when to let things unfold for a spell. I think being too quick with moderation can be as tricky as being too slow.

Absolutely, you have a tough job and you need to be commended for doing it well.

I’m always finding commonality in the obscure, and its amazing to me that Olivia posts deals with apathy on a large scale, and here I am talking about it from another smaller perspective. The universe works in mysterious ways!

IMO, none of this happens in a vacuum. Bullying on line has become a big topic of discussion of late, and much of it focuses on children, but what about the adults? I mean those children learned that from somewhere! For abuse to occur in any place, everyone has to turn a blind eye, but most importantly the people in charge.

We have lots of opinions around here, and they’re going to bump up against each other – which is fine as long as we’re adults about it.

Absolutely! That site I spoke of in the piece, it was the moderators and the owner of the site that got into it if you can believe it! Moderating a site/forum is a BIG job and much like walking a tight rope. I bet (moderators being human) sometimes feel like just joining into the fracas and shouting: EVERYONE STFU!!!

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