The following is a column from 1994 that ran in Boardwatch Magazine describing the pitfalls of the online world as they were emerging in the early pre-web era.


On-line Lies and the Split Personality or
Unreality Strikes Again

by John C. Dvorak

It was the April issue of PC/Computing where I wrote an April Fools column that would get the attention of the Washington Post, a few US Senators and the Internet Community. I wrote a fiction about a dubious bill (the bill number was 040194 — April Fools day) that would prohibit “drunk driving” on the Information Highway. To make it even more ridiculous I told about how Congress was going to enact legislation to prevent computer sex chatting too.

This exercise in April Fools buffoonery proved two things: 1) that this ludicrous notion was actually believable. This is a pathetic commentary on our attitude toward our government. To think that they are such idiots. But is also proved 2) that we, the users, are gullible.

The on-line community, in particular, accepts far too much on-line gossip and blatant lies as truth. A cock and bull story on any bulletin board, Compuserve, AOL or the Internet are all to often redistributed as fact. Most of what comes over the wire are lies propaganda or just urban folklore. The fact that the source originates in a high tech world seems to make information passed over the modem to be more credible than it often is. And our reactions to it are too often wrong.

I recently wrote an analysis of the Microsoft Munchkin phenomenon for Marketing Computers Magazine. I’ve always believed that Microsoft has a corporate policy to send “muchkins” into the online world to promote the company and rag on the competition. There was a recent situation on Will Zachmann’s CIS forum where the disruption caused Zachmann to go ballistic. I noted that on-line personalities take on a life of their own and people seem to slip into a gullible mode when dealing with the online world.

The most unbelievable situation occurred about 10 years ago when a woman calling herself Dee Dub was arrested for a variety of things mostly drug related in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her real name was Diane Worthington. She was deeply involved in a forum on the now defunct SOURCE called Parti or Participate. She somehow got a message posted telling of her unfortunate plight with the evil police. Within hours of her arrest the online community involved in Parti went into a massive debate about why this poor innocent woman — whom none of them had ever seen and nobody really knew — could have this terrible injustice done to her. Within a few short days this large group was up in arms about the injustice of it all and what could they do to help their online friend. To read these messages was a more frightening experience than my school age encounter with George Orwell’s Animal Farm or any of the horrible Utopia gone bad tomes that were a fiction mainstay decades back. It was just incredible to see people going off the deep end acting as if this fictional Dee Dub was their sibling. One fellow come on who apparently had some knowledge of the case and tried to explain some of the facts and he was vilified by the crowd. Everyone was in a dream world. They all were convinced that they “knew” this woman — Dee Dub. And, in some odd way they did know her — but it wasn’t Diane Worthington. It was a persona created, made real for the unreal world of on-line.

Anyway as more and more truths about the real situation were revealed the society that was built up in support of Dee Dub decayed in a cynical way with some people acting depressed and vowing never to get involved in any online activities. It was really strange, let me tell you. The group eventually dissolved, many embittered by the whole experience.

This unreality of online communication encourages this kind of nonsense. Anyone who goes online a lot has created offbeat personnas. AT some point you have to wonder how healthy this is? While a little role-playing is always educational are we not voluntarily making ourselves schizoid? We think it’s weird that Roseanne Barr (Arnold) claims to have a variety of personalities that she had to create to protect herself from the onslaught of demands and sexual aggression. But then we go off and do it to ourselves. The split personality seems to be a part of society nowadays. It used to be an oddity, but now is becoming mainstream. Are online addicts creating a potential personality problem by making themselves into different people? Is the person on CB or on a chat BBS who claims to be into bestiality or some weird oddball sex slowly changing their own nature by this activity? It’s possible.

This is worsened by the ludicrous level of tolerance expressed by other participants. If someone came up to you at the store and as part of the conversation they said that they wanted to have sex with dogs, you’d give them some negative feedback. Wouldn’t you? AT least you’d take a step back or show concern for the animals. But when someone online says this, the response is neutral if not actually encouraging. “Oh, dogs? That’s interesting. When did you start getting these desires? Have you always felt this way?” It’s like you’re having a sane conversation with a lunatic. This isn’t normal or behavior that should be tolerated and encouraged.

The feedback mechanism online is deplorable. If users aren’t encouraging odd sex behavior, then they go off the deep end with flames. Flaming should not be tolerated. I know the following concept is going to make a lot of people angry but I think someone needs to be sued big time for slander or libel because of a posting. That would put a stop to it. Even if the posting is anonymous, a court order could track down most subscribers to almost any system. Yes, it would be possible to do a truly anonymous posting once in a while and not get caught, but most flames are from known people who can be tracked down by the courts. I’d advise people to be careful about flaming because it’s ripe for a lawsuit and if you haven’t noticed, our legal system encourages this kind of legal action. But that’s a side issue. The point I want to make is that the online community largely encourages and tolerates the worst kind of flaming. Sure a soul or two will claim that the flame isn’t good and that they personally “like” the person being flamed. That’s about as far as it goes. Most people think the flaming is amusing. A sick form of entertainment. Hahaha. Gee, I always wanted to say THAT to someone. Repressed hostility — another on line theme along with the need to be schizoidal.

So let’s see some of the attributes rising like cream to the surface of online use. Gullibility, schizoid behavior, personality change, repressed hostility. Charming, huh? I didn’t even mention the addictive aspect to online chatting.

Now it’s not as though I have a suggestion as to how online computing would be more mentally healthy than I’m indicating that it is. The trend to go online is getting up a head of steam with new services, Internet mania and the GUI making its way into the online world. More and more people are wasting more and more time online for whatever reason. There are no signs that this growth will even slow down let alone end.

One interesting aspect of all this that might be a positive sign is the online etiquette that has evolved over the years. While flames rule the roost in newsgroups and on conference message systems, they are not accepted during real-time conferenceing or chatting. There is a certain politeness which I feel is the same unfortunate mechanism that doesn’t allow us to criticize the person who wants to have sex with a dog. So what you have is an interesting extreme. On the one hand flames and intense criticism runs rampant. On the other hand a ridiculous level of politeness and tolerance is the norm. There is no middle ground. It’s reflective of a split personality too, isn’t it? This split personality seems to be a theme here if you haven’t noticed.

I have no suggestions for curing it. Neither do I. And I don’t either. Ahhhhh!

All I know is that it might be a problem. And I agree. Me too.

—end




  1. KD Martin says:

    And after listening to No Agenda, who is the real Adam Curry and who is the real John C. Dvorak? Does this essay’s main theme cover the world of ‘net casting as well?

    I don’t think so in this case, John and Adam seem quite honest about their opinions, but others, you just can’t tell. Who’s just playing?

  2. SparkyOne says:

    John,
    This was a nice read until I got to the mention of Roseanne Barr. It has been a few years since that terrible day, July 25, 1990 when she “sang” our national anthem here in San Diego. I have not been to a sporting event since.

    Guess I’ll go stand naked in the rain with a bar of Lava soap and see if I can get clean again by tomorrow.

  3. MikeN says:

    Nothing but net.

    I still remember the comments on another site when the Duke lacrosse rape case hit the news. So many people were quick to attack the guys and wondering why no one else cared about it. But how did this guy know all the facts from another country?

  4. ECA says:

    JD,
    Good points.

    As to the Schizoids, Its the other side of the net that police/cops and others use, to capture Child molesters and others.
    But, weeding out the Wanabes, and the could bes, from those that DO, is the fun part. As 60 minutes(?) did with capturing teenage molesters, and FEW of the cases ever went to court.

    The comments about flaming are fun. I always wonder about those that DONT try to kill someones idea, but to AIM at the person is stupid, and shows your own intelligence level. If you cant fight his comment either shutup or find MORE info to comabat his idea/comment.

    As to BS on the net. I find as in real life, 99% is BULL(most time) and 1% has some truth.
    Best lies are 1/2 truth
    The only truth, has 2 sides.
    It would really amaze me if 1/2 the conspiracies in the world were true. It would astound me if 1/2 the truths, were correct.

  5. danijel says:

    I think the reason is the written media. Put a person in front of a camera or at least a microphone and you’ll never get such behavior. At least not from most people.

  6. Ah_Yea says:

    My little two cents.

    We have all seen those forwarded emails which simply could not be true. I find them pretty amusing. Sometimes it’s fun to point out the silliness of the email. Snopes is my friend. But on a more serious note, I hope I am doing the forwarder a service by helping them not be so naive.

    Gullibility doesn’t seem to be a huge problem on this particular blog, though. I like this blog because some of the bloggers won’t let even an iota of untruthfulness slip by without calling you out.

    That to me is what’s best about blogging. It makes me think, and before I say something I had better be able to back it up!

    Concerning flaming. There is not much one can do about it except to let it slide. I find that if I treat someone who flames with reasonable courtesy, the flames die down. If the flame continues, then I know that the person on the other end is either a true crazy or immature. Either way, I don’t care to talk to them anymore.

    By and large, most bloggers I have had the pleasure of talking to follow these rules. It’s just that the flamers stand out.

  7. amodedoma says:

    Jack Rickard’s Boardwatch, interesting and informative, practically essential to SYSOP’s and later the budding internet industry. I was a subscriber back in 94, don’t remember the article but obviously some truths are timeless. Back in the day I had a BBS with 6 telephone lines and it had a chat room I used to monitor pretty closely cause these people were always getting on each other’s nerves. To the point where I lost some of my clients because of the behaiviour of others. The technology has changed a lot, people haven’t changed at all.

  8. AppleInvestor says:

    Did you know that the word gullible is not in the dictionary? Go ahead, look it up.

  9. Sister Mary Hand Grenade of Quiet Reflection says:

    It appears someone is taking this shit way too seriously. Could I suggest some wadless panties?

  10. bobbo says:

    “The on-line community, in particular, accepts far too much on-line gossip and blatant lies as truth.” //// As opposed to accepting what they/we hear on our mommy’s knee? As opposed to accepting what we first hear in grammar school?

    Its hard to think. Much easier to run with a pack or in fewer situations to form an opinion and stick with it.

    How do you know what you know, and how do you change your mind?

  11. bobbo says:

    #8–Apple==I saw that right off the bat, but looked anyway. Turns out you are right:

    http://urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=gullible

  12. JimR says:

    Religious isn’t in the dictionary either. Coincidence?

  13. soundwash says:

    offhand comment: *IF you want a solution..

    it’s the anonymity factor of the net that
    allows those purveyors of BS and flames to
    proliferate in the amounts that they do.

    solution: take away anonymity..the make all screen names link to the true undeniable identity of the poster. -personally, i think that would *suck*

    (identity theft being the least issue)

    -if only because of the lawsuit factor you suggested. -having the true identity available
    would allow for liable suits. (the likes of which we cant even imagine, to be sure.)

    it would result in either markedly reduced BS..or (more likely) make no difference except that liable lawyers would exploit the thin skinned “PC” factor currently infesting the USA (and the world) -and people would be suing each other over bullshit name calling.

    lastly-
    -if your so naive or gullible (and/or thin-skinned) as to take everything on the net at face value **without making any effort to verify the facts**, before spouting off about it..

    you don’t are neither mature enough nor
    deserve to be part of this community.

    (these will the main subset doing the suing, no doubt)

    -s

  14. ECA says:

    PART OF THE PROBLEM IS THAT PEOPLE pick ON EACH OTHER.
    Rather GIVE a decent comment, and maybe some proof, then to just call a PERSON an idiot, or other comment.
    DONT fight people, FIGHT the comment, and prove it wrong.
    Name calling is ignorant.

  15. FRAGaLOT says:

    #14

    I could make fun of your crazy use of CAPs, but that would be besides the point. 🙂

    Most people have never been educated in debate, moderating, negotiations, writing skills, let alone discussions… some lack in manors.

    So most people don’t know how to argue; just make personal attacks. Though as one grows older people usually develop a way to make a point across, with out looking like an asshole.

  16. Ah_Yea says:

    For the counterpoint, I’d like to hear from Fusion.

  17. Mr. Fusion says:

    #16, Ah_Yea,

    ha ha ha, nice lead in.

    I think you made a very good post above and basically agree.

    I would like to add that it doesn’t matter where you are, people tall lies. Sometimes they don’t realize it is wrong; they are just retelling what they were told. Other times, it is their own take on something truthful they are spouting; they are putting it in their own words. Many times it is their wishful thinking. And then there are those people who lie because they love to troll or just start a reaction.

    My personal history has led me to constantly verify information. Some minor bias is tolerable, but major distortions, to me, are just plain laziness or purposeful attempts to misinform.

    An example from a recent DU post.

    It wasn’t the conservatives that caused this financial mess but the shenanigans of people like Barney Frank, Chris Dodd, Nancy Pelosi, Franlin Raines and Maxine Waters. Hardly names that fall into the conservative category.

    Conservatives are guilty of staying quiet while all this was happening, but hardly where the bulk of the blame should fall.

    The author doesn’t say WHAT these named people did to facilitate the economic crises. Nor HOW they are implicated. Only that it is their fault and the author’s side is innocent of any wrong doing. Sure, it got several people to respond, but how much of it is true and how much of it was just to gain reaction (troll)? Should people just allow this to stand without questioning?

    *

  18. Mr. Fusion says:

    #4, ECA,

    Good post,

    As to BS on the net. I find as in real life, 99% is BULL(most time) and 1% has some truth.
    Best lies are 1/2 truth
    The only truth, has 2 sides.
    It would really amaze me if 1/2 the conspiracies in the world were true. It would astound me if 1/2 the truths, were correct.

    ha ha ha, I love that explanation 🙂

    One of the benefits of the ‘net is the easy ability to verify something. I seldom use my dictionary any more, the Free Dictionary is much faster and more complete. Wikipedia is a GREAT source to learn the basics of almost any subject, even when one understands that it might be politically biased. I can read several newspapers as I chose to learn the day’s events.

  19. Ah_Yea says:

    Good comments, Fusion.

    I enjoy our debates. Although I don’t agree half the time, the other half are points well taken…

    Which leads me to one important point.

    When you start off with:
    “Cow-Paddy, Ignorant Shit Talking Sociopath, Retired Mall Rent-A-Cop, Pretend Constitutional Scholar, Fake California Labor Law Expert, Pseudo Military Historian, Phony Climate Scientist, and Real Leading Troll Extraordinare,”

    It diminishes the quality of the debate and often any good comments you make are lost in the flame.

    If you actually met Paddy-O or Mike N personally, say at a corner 7-eleven, would you scream those very words to them face to face?

    If yes, then you are very troubled. If no, then why do you do it here?

    As DV says: “Most people think the flaming is amusing. A sick form of entertainment. Hahaha. Gee, I always wanted to say THAT to someone. Repressed hostility — another on line theme along with the need to be schizoidal.”

    You, Fusion, have earned my respect for your intellect. I hope to gain respect for your civility as well.

  20. Mr. Fusion says:

    #19, Ah Yea,

    Cow-Patty has earned that moniker. Maybe you think it childish but I don’t. A discussion or debate requires that there be some intellectual honesty. If you notice, those who have earned my contempt for failing to meet on those terms, have been ridiculed and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.

    I truly do not like using other’s comments or reactions to answer for me, BUT, most everyone with some brains on this blog has crossed words with him. He has been called a “troll” more an anyone else. For, in my opinion, very good reason.

    When he has made an intelligent comment I will not use the entire moniker. When he is being his stupid self, I will.

  21. Ah_Yea says:

    Fair enough.

  22. Special Ed says:

    Everyone, please heed:
    http://tinyurl.com/dzhxd9

  23. Mr. Fusion says:

    #22, Ed,

    The only thing common about Common Sense is that it is too common. Too often you will find that what sounds like common sense is actually wrong.

  24. bobbo says:

    #22–Special==”common sense” is that sense we share in common. There is by definition very little of it.

    Some people will allow “reasonable debate” to continue forever with their own witty rejoinders and repetitive self-reference. The only thing they somewhat understand is “STFU” or “Dolt” or other summarizing label.

    I can’t recall a single flame or name calling that followed any comment accompanied with a link. Links don’t mean you are correct, but atleast you didn’t find your shit up your own rectum. There must be some shitty links out there, but even that is better than plain self generator shit.

    Just remember, eventually, everything turns to shit.

  25. Special Ed says:

    Fusion, do you REALLY think that common sense is all that common? I only wish that stupidity was painful.

    Bobbo, I wear STFU like a badge of honor. We haven’t really seen the shit yet, give it a few more months.

  26. bobbo says:

    #25–special==we live in an ocean of shit. We take the shit we grew up with as “normal” but it is still shit.

    You are right, there is more NEW shit coming, but it is only additional shit to the shit already here.

    Shit, shit, shit. Only thing it grows is “turdblossoms.”

  27. Special Ed says:

    #26 – No shit?

  28. hazza says:

    John, you are a no good side show hack that could not write about anything but child abuse because you have done so much of it.

    Now try and sue me in your American court, good luck with the extradition order from Australia.

    Dumb USA centric shithead, there are those outside the US that have electricity you know.


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