The Internet Rewards Crazy

Crazy, overconfident; the opposite of the judicious, scientific, skeptical temperament.

Extreme opinions.



The opposite of thoughtful.

Changing your mind frequently, discarding what you were excited about last month and buying into something new today. Normal? Perhaps not. But typical of, for example, successful commercial bloggers who write about gadgets, electronics, photo equipment, etc.

Mass-market crazy — the opposite of Wretchard’s idea about people with rare perversions who find each other online. The crazy of promoters, attention whores and drama queens of both sexes, people who argue forcefully for provocative ideas and startling conclusions based on biased data sets. People with agendas that are not always obvious. People who cynically start quarrels to get attention.

Also real crazy, people with issues, people you would avoid in the physical world. The guy from the mail room who knows the specs of every WW2 German tank and has interesting conspiracy theories. On the Internet, if he writes confidently, he can be an authority on military history, at least for a while. People who are just plain disagreeable, who repeatedly make and alienate friends online. People who move from one enthusiasm to another, forgetting their last obsession as they focus on the next one. A few of these characters really do have unique, well developed ideas that deserve wide attention. For them, and for anyone who benefits from their work, the Internet is a boon. But most of these people are cranks. How can the reader know who is what?

In some cases crazies do well online in the short run because they believe their own bullshit and the Internet strips away many of the tells. It can take some time for reasonable people to realize what kind of person runs the website they have been reading, and then to start to reexamine what they’ve learned there. In the long run sites run by crazy people tend to accumulate crazy audiences. Crazy commenters tend to drive out the sane. We all know sites of this type. The worst of them encourage rather than buffer extreme behavior. And the same is true of the sites run by the hucksters and bombastic monomaniacs.

There is no formal remedy for any of this. It’s just how the Internet is. It’s driven in part by the online cost structure: information that used to come free in the form of accents and voice inflections and body language and local reputation is often no longer easily available. Crazy, devious and manipulative people exploit the void (not intentionally in all cases, it’s just that online we can’t filter them out as readily). And it’s driven in part by human nature. People tend to be attracted to strong opinions, confidently stated. Thus, as countermeasure, we need continually to remind ourselves about our cognitive biases. We need to be intellectually cautious. As we learned in the old world to be wary of salesmen, telephone solicitors and anyone who seemed to have all the answers, in the Internet world we learn to watch out for similar kinds of people, perhaps in different guises. There is nothing new under the sun, but once in a while we are forced to remap our old expectations and learned responses to a new environment.

10 thoughts on “The Internet Rewards Crazy”

  1. That’s a good theory. You ought to write a book. No joke.

    I think that the internet also allows people to focus very narrowly in a way that the world doesn’t typically support. If you are an expert at one thing you can build a following (whether or not you are actually an “expert” at all).

    The odd thing is that it is the complete opposite of traditional journalism, which encourages you to walk in with no opinion, do research, and then kick out a story.

    There also is something in the lack of editors and the fact that internet stuff comes out a lot, in tiny packets, at a high velocity. You might write a book (theoretically, I’ve never written one myself) and crank out a chapter but then you need to come back to it and run it by an editor. On the web that’s one blog post, out for everyone to see.

  2. I have really enjoyed this site. Plenty of history buffs – have learned Texas history that I did not know, Naval history in re: Adm King – I think the lack of cost of sending email with the relative anonymity (why do so many use “handles”?) – and foster some uncivil behavior. Can anyone imagine doing what we are doing – sending photos, text all over the world in seconds – for free – even 40 years ago?

  3. The internet is the marketplace on steroids. The babble of the crowd, the raised voices, the whole shebang of human experience vociferously shared.

    I love it, but you always need to remember it’s just opinion. Once you take everything people say, outside of verifiable facts “uh that’s a E9SZ5D022B and A for both sides”, it’s just what somebody thinks. Humans come in many shapes and forms and when you add in cultural influence, incredible variety.

    We are just staring to see the beginning of the Human melting pot. A race of tan in 200 years.

  4. My attention span is shortened by the net – I am afraid that as I moved from A&L to Instapundit, I may end up not able to concentrate longer than a series of tweets. I found it easy not to read the longer pieces here during the time I was more absorbed with other duties, but still glanced at Reynolds. That seems a different but similar problem. I love your phrase “strips away many of the tells” – and a lifetime of associating certain tics with the fascinating crazy or drama queen has helped us from being beguiled by their somewhat plausible theories. But sometimes I have lumped people into groups with those “tells” that are less thoughtful. And if I get caught up in the non-reflective, immediate response mode, I used even fewer critical skills.

  5. (why do so many use “handles”?)

    Alright, I’ll fess up – “Percy Dovetonsils” is not my real name. Yes, yes, I know, you are all shocked.

    But in an age where potential employers and customers can google my real name, I take care to make my online political musings anonymous. I always put in my real email address so that the site’s management can reach me. (However), my twitter account is in my real name, since that is used for my opinions, links, etc. regarding my line of business.

  6. Point taken Percy – I can understand that. Last time I used a handle was with a CP/M BBS in the 80s (naturally) – these days I don’t care what people think ;-)

    But to the question as it relates to craziness I think some people use handles as a curtain to allow obnoxious behavior (not you – just in general)

  7. Morality is the annihilation of private space. Otherwise:

    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

  8. There are probably one or two German tanks from WWII for which I don’t know some of the specs. I guess that means I’m still sane.

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