Okay, I’m fed up. Every morning I open up my mailbox just to find rabid hate mail from people. Not spam, just people who don’t like what I write on various discussion forums or on mailing lists. WTF? I can understand disagreeing with people and even getting upset, but why can’t people focus on what I’m saying rather than attacking me? And, finally, what’s your advice: should I “flame on” and attack them back or just delete their messages and grumble to myself about it?
That’s a very good question and one that seems to get to the heart of the positive and negative of the Internet as a community. I’ve been online for more years than I want to think about and throughout that time I have seen cranky, hostile and sometimes downright scary and aggressive messages show up in my mailbox. Sometimes from my best friends (just kidding about that part).
Years ago, I’d just go on the attack and give as good as I got, which of course just spiraled into this terrible scene where I wondered every time there was a knock on the door. Trust me, there have always been weird psychos on the ‘net and it’s awful hard to differentiate between a 15yo boy who pretends he’s in his mid 20’s from the bored 38yo testosterone laden guy who might just get in the car and drive 300 miles, on “low burn” the entire time, to confront you when you least expect it.
Life’s just too short.
Nowadays I either just delete hostile messages or actually respond by asking them why they’re communicating in that fashion and whether we couldn’t communicate in a more civil voice so we can try to resolve the situation. Not to get too “crystals and tarot cards” on you, but I do believe that positive intention can do a lot to improve the world.
As it happens, I have a splendid (albeit long) example of just this type of interaction and I encourage you to read through and see how my gentle response diffused an aggressive mailer and created rather an interesting dialog.
To start, you need to know what we’re talking about this previous article on the site: Can I downgrade my Sony PSP firmware? (which I updated in response to the message, but I’m getting ahead of myself).
Now, you can imagine I wasn’t too thrilled when I got the following message in my inbox on an otherwise peaceful evening:
I recently read on another “Ask X” website where you warned PSP users against downgrading their firmware because the downgraders were viruses in disguise. I wanted to let you know that this information is partially incorrect. There are working downgraders that are available through trusted sites. The working downgraders, however, only currently work to downgrade from v2.0 to v1.5.
Your “research” was apparently nothing more than downloading an archive containing the downgrader, opening it and being told by Norton that the file contained a “Trojac.PSPBrick” virus, or whatever it is that that sorry piece of software reports it as. What an incredibly deep bit of research that was. If that’s the extent of your investigations, you have no place offering any kind of assistance to anyone.
As this message may well get deleted or even looked over as an angered homebrew user sending in complaints about your abilities, I’ll close with something along those lines. Please step out into traffic with a total disregard for your life.
Nice, eh? Further, the sender’s email address was “death’s angel” so it would indeed have been easy to delete a message from someone who wished me physical harm, but instead I let it sit in my mailbox for an hour or two, then separated out what was being said from how it was being said and recognized that he did have a valid point. My original article was too black and white regarding Sony PSP downgraders, as it happened.
So here’s what I sent in response:
You are misrepresenting what I said, and then giving me an oddly hostile message. I think that “trusted sites” means different things to different people, and it’s hard to believe your credibility when your email address is “deaths angel” too.
Good luck to you.
Then I decided that I might as well go ahead and modify the article, which I did by adding the “Update” material that you can see for yourself if you read the article in question.
And sent this:
Okay, I thought about what you were saying and have significantly amended my article to reflect that there might well be legit downloaders too. Have a look, see what you think now:
Feel free to add a (non-hostile) comment too, if you’re so inspired.
I really had no idea what what happen and half-expected to get an even more vitriolic flame in response to my message. Sometimes you just can’t win.
But I was wrong.
Here’s what I got back this morning (the name has been changed to protect the author’s privacy, but otherwise this is exactly as received):
I looked at the revised article, but I will get to that in a moment.
First, I would like to apologize for the hostility contained within my previously submitted information. I’ve look across several sections of your web site, and will admit that you are an extremely educated and informed person. To explain the hostility, there’s a little bit of background information to be aware of. Since I realize that you are most likely a very busy man (no sarcasm intended), I’ll contain the background information below between the lines of asterisks. If you so wish to skip the information, that is fine as well. I am merely providing it to add a little more understanding to the situation here.
To begin with, I live in a more rural area. The people I deal with on a day-to-day basis are the kinds of people with rather shallow intellects. This includes those who run computer repair & information “stores.”
I, myself, will not claim to be any sort of expert on any topic, but I do know enough about PCs to put even the “experts” around here to shame, save the networking engineers. That is a subject I am only slightly educated in, though it is an expanding area for me.
Lately I’ve been dealing with a lot of people who claim to be “really good with computers” and when I try to converse with them on the subject, I find myself speaking to complete morons. I recently went to WireDog, the one and only location within a range of 60 miles or so to inquire about some issues I have been having with Fedora Core 4.
The woman claimed she knew exactly what my problem was, how to fix it, how to prevent it from happening again, etc. After less than 5 minutes of her sitting behind my laptop, looking through settings and configurations that had absolutely nothing to do with my problem, I attempted to point her in the right direction. This only resulted in her telling me I didn’t know what I was doing, that she did, and that I should “let the experts do what they do.”
Things like this have been happening so frequently over the past week that I have grown completely tired of it, and refuse to acknowledge any sort of education these people may possibly claim. These experiences have also expanded to my online experience lately.
Dealings with Microsoft’s “support techs,” as well as other “support personnel” have resulted in my turning to e-mailing the one person I know that can help with my problems, and waiting several days for a response, due to his currently being away at college.
I currently reside in a bit of an over-frustrated state of mind.
I realize that even with these reasons, that comment is still far from appropriate, and that apologizing will not “make it all better” or compensate you for the frustration that I’m sure you felt. Honestly, if someone told me to walk into traffic with a total disregard for my life, I wouldn’t even come close to as calm a response as you gave.
Again, though it truly solves nothing, you do have my apologies, as well as my thanks for taking the time to calmly and courteously, though with a hint of subtle returned attitude which I did find in good taste, respond to my rant.
As for the actual responses, as far as “trusted sites” go, I was referring to those sites that have a massive collection of information, applications, and such, forum posters confirming validity of said content, and in the lowest tier of importance, a web site that looks and functions more professionally than a “fan site” which is really nothing more than a jumble of pages linked together with no true architecture.
Though overly riddled with advertisements, the web site “PSP Updates” (located at http://pspupdates.qj.net/) is a common, reliable source of information regarding the modifications of Sony’s PSP system.
In reference to my email address “deaths angel,” I also wanted to let you know that it is an address from long ago, from days of complete immaturity and lack of thought, that I have kept because, as stated in the background information above, most of those I interact with are too lazy or too ignorant to update their address books. I also provided a false name, since I honestly wasn’t expecting any kind of response. My name is XXX YYY, I’m a PC builder, upgrader, and oftentimes personal repairman for those I call friends, and an avid gamer, and my most commonly used email adress is firstname.lastname@example.org, an account for which I use a portable version of Mozilla’s Thunderbird client to compliment my personal suite of collected portable software, and my bbLean explorer shell replacement for my Windows experiences.
Once more, I thank you for your calm and collective attitude in dealing with my initial submission, as inappropriate as it may have been.
I have bookmarked your site, as I have, since the last visit, found quite a collection of useful information.
Take care, and blessed be,
— XXX YYY
Then, just a few minutes later, another message:
I cannot believe I completely forgot to add this to my previous apologetic email.
After reviewing the revised article on downgrading PSP systems, I found it to be much more appropriate for the question at hand.
I am obviously quite pleased with how this has worked out and find that it’s consistent with my experiences that putting out a positive intention and being polite, friendly and still unforgiving about a hostile tone can turn a bad interaction into a surprisingly good one.
Not to get too far onto my soapbox, but we live in a world of increasing intolerance and I do believe that anything we can do to improve even the relationship between two people can help us live in a nicer, more peaceful world.
At the least, deleting flames rather than responding with hostility can be a tiny step towards helping solve the problem rather than make it worse.