Thoughts on communication #6 (escalation)

Online communication* tends to foster certain, ahem, negative behaviour which make it often a rather bruising experience. My current online hangout is the members’ forum of the Green Party and even that bunch of mild-mannered people has given rise to a couple of barroom brawls in the short time I’ve been watching it (one of the brawls prompted this post).

I know only too well why people behave the way they do online – in Jaron Lanier’s phrase, I have met my Inner Troll. Therefore I’m mainly interested in the question: what can I personally do about the things I’m complaining about? One thing I can do is the be aware of the inbuilt tendency towards unintentional escalation and try to make allowances for it.


Online disputation in which there are two clear “sides” can result in both sides claiming that the other side is bullying them – and both sides seeming to be right in that claim.  There’s a very interesting article by the social psychologist Daniel Gilbert about this – basically that we try to give an equally-weighted response to any perceived ‘attack’ but that we are rubbish at judging this accurately and end up responding with an escalated attack, to which our opponent tries to respond equally, but in fact misjudges and escalates … it’s worth reading (despite the bad formatting) because it refers to actual experiments.


*and I’ve been watching it for longer than most: first e-mail lists, then webpages, then blog comments, then forums and now, from a distance, through binoculars, the sheer ghastliness that is twitter.