Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Lurkers support us in email

I've been thinking about the Myspace suicide hounding and reading the discussion at Making Light. Oddly, no-one at ML knows of a similar case in the Nerd World.*

This is surprising, because the Nerd World *built* the Internet and includes most of the early adopters. The Nerd World went online earlier, spends more time here, and has a longer track record with most of the up- and down-sides.

And it's not because everyone in the Nerd World is so nice that they would never, ever do anything really horrible and nasty. Over the years Nerd historians have seen elaborate displays of sock-puppetry, emotional scamming, financial shenanigans, marriages being deliberately broken up, people's jobs being threatened or even lost, stalking both online and in the flesh, re-enactment of seventh grade only with more swear words, and every degree of drama, posturing, assholery, and sociopathology.

And it's not for lack of people who are emotionally vulnerable or clinically depressed, either. The rate of depression or psychiatric illness cannot be less in Nerd World than in the general population and may well be more, because Nerd World tilts toward people with unusual minds. Nerd World suicides are not common, but they do occur -- no-one is questioning that.

The question is, has anyone been hounded toward suicide? and if not, why not? What protective factors have operated in the Nerd World, and how can they be translated outside it?

I know of three suicides among online Nerd World inhabitants within the past 5 years (I'm sure the actual number is higher, these are just the people that I have some info about through word of pixel). It occurs to me that all these cases were pretty much the opposite of poor Megan Meier. Far from being hounded or isolated online, these people committed suicide despite considerable and even heroic efforts on the part of their online friends. This doesn't mean their efforts were pointless, just that there's a limit to how much you can help someone with life-threatening depression if you're not their doctor.

I think, then, that there's some evidence -- or at least a solid possibility -- that something in Nerd World culture is preventing the absolute worst sort of online bullying, or protecting people against it when it starts.

I can come up with a long list of factors, but I think the most important is: Lurkers support us in email. In Nerd World you're never totally cut off. Even if you're in the wrong, even if you're batshit insane, even if you're a plagiarist (though that one's really pushing it) there will be people on your side. And if you're hurt, if you're unhappy, if you've said something really stupid and don't know how to apologize, there will be people who will still communicate with you, who will tell you it's not the end of the world.

The other factors:

2. Separation from RL contacts & environments. The Nerd World tends to be organized by interest, not physical location, so it's easier to see that whatever part of your life is sucking right now isn't your whole life.

3. Pseudonymity. It's not just that the Nerd world has longer experience with RL/online conflcits and how useful a pseud can be, though there is that. It's also that one of the foundational elements in the Nerd World is *pretending*. This includes still loving to play dress-up -- the SCA is one of the older, core communities of the Nerd World.

4. Mixed-age. Compared to places like Facebook, and to many RL social groupings, the Nerd World is a place where teens, twenties, and older adults can interact freely. In my experience, this means that it's easier for a young, hormonally-challenged person to see that hir problems will not last forever. It's also easier for us crones & codgers to give advice that a kid will actually listen to, because we have no power over their lives.

Although the larger society is very concerned (even hysterical) about the possibility that youngsters will be seduced by creepy older people online, I haven't known that to happen in the Nerd World. This may be because --

5. Interactions tend to be many-to-many, so people monitor each other's behavior. I think this may be part of the reason Making Light is such a successful blog, and DailyKos such a powerful online community.

What do you think?


*For purposes of this discussion, the Nerd World is the set of people ranging (with much overlap) from mostly-male computer geeks through science fiction fandom to media fandom and mostly-female fanficdom.

Labels: , , ,


  • OT, but thanks for the tip on Cricket magazines. We'll definitely be stocking up, while also collecting canned goods and teaching the kid to shoot straight for when the church people come to drag him to camp.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:48 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home