The Internet Rewards Crazy (Rerun)

(This is a reposting of posts from two and seven years ago. Unhappily, this post’s themes are more relevant than ever. The Internet seems to be changing human social relations, business, politics and civil society in significant ways not all of which are clear. Perhaps the nature of what is happening will be better understood with time.)


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.

UPDATE: Social-media mobbing probably deserves its own category in this taxonomy.

UPDATE 2: In the comments, AVI (responding to this post before the above update) says: “I would narrow it even further and say that more than anything, social media leverages people with personality disorders.”

5 thoughts on “The Internet Rewards Crazy (Rerun)”

  1. 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.

    There is a lot that is useful. I watch YouTube videos on how to clean and field strip Colt 1911s

    and how to assemble tank models.

    Plus, of course, in politics the Rather-Mapes attempt to affect the 2004 election was exposed by a blogger in less than an hour.

    Lots of trash but some good stuff that would never have been available.

  2. > But most of these people are cranks. How can the reader know who is what?

    Let’s see… a degree conferring an MD or PhD? Nope, full of cranks there. An office with a title like “Judge” or “Senator”? Nope, plenty of cranks there, too. Membership in a professional society? Nope. Years of experience in the field without being imprisoned for malpractice or similar incompetence? Nope. Generation of academic papers for peer review? That’s pretty much junk now, too.

    In the end, you have to go with the one who puts on the best front, and keep watch for any signs that they’re wearing aluminum foil under their hairpiece…

  3. Someone was interviewing Julia Dreyfus, who played Elaine on the wonderful sitcom Seinfeld.

    They asked her if she’d like a reprise of the series.

    She replied that they couldn’t do it, because there would be no talkinkg in the restaurant scenes.

    Everyone would be on a smartphone.

  4. I’d say this is spot-on. Also, anyone can be anything on the Internet. I have a bit of cynicism; maybe too much. I will say with the Neptunus Lex group on Facebook, everybody gets along despite the occasional divergent opinion. We’ve even had national get-togethers meeting these people in “meatspace” (what a term).

    Maybe it was the kind of people his website attracted (the trolls would be culled eventually); maybe it is the demographic. Probably a little bit of both.

    Look at all the fraud (and sometimes murder) that has been done by people on the web upon victims who had no idea who they really were.

    In any event, even the founder of the www is disappointed in what it has become:

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