Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

Comment Harpies

Every so often I moderate a comment, and the commenter objects: “You’re censoring me!” (Most of the time I just nuke it, and that’s the last I hear.) Granted, it isn’t often, though it’s happening more and more over time. I’m discussing it today because of an interesting phenomenon that other bloggers may have seen, one I call comment harpies. It works like this: Some whackjob swoops in and tries to post a nasty comment on Contra, generally to an entry that happened months or even years ago. I’ve never seen the poster before. The comment is invariably angry, often insulting, and sometimes obscene. The general impression I get, however, is one of out-of-control desperation.

I picture a person awash in cortisol sitting at a machine, googling topics that the harpy’s tribe disagrees with, plowing through long lists of blog hits with shaking hands and attempting to post condemnations anywhere the blogs will let them. This is the terminal state of the “someone, somewhere on the Internet is wrong” psychology. Disagreement used to be a learning opportunity. Then it became insult. Now it appears to be declaration of total war.

Sad, sad.

I moderate all comments from newcomers, and I pay attention to everything said by everyone. I began moderation to throttle comment spam, which tries to come in five or six times a day, sometimes more. You’ve probably seen these slightly surreal cookie-cutter posts on unmoderated blogs, invariably accompanied by one or more links:

“It is of nothing enjoyed to be better apart than reading insights of distinction sourced with your sight. Links are of to be permitted, yes? I make a mind out to return of oftener.”

Links are of to be permitted, no. Lost, get apart now forever and my sight out of.

The harpies are different. The English is good, and the posts generally pertain to whatever topic the target entry discusses. There’s rarely any link. Though usually short, there’s an occasional multi-hundred-word rant. As a general policy I delete them immediately. Now and then the indignant harpy emails me and demands an explanation. When asked, I answer: “I don’t allow angry/abusive/obscene comments.” End of story, usually. Sometimes the cortisol-tripper reponds again, claiming that I’m engaging in censorship. At that point, their having crossed the bright line into delusional, I delete and forget them.

Some comments fall into a gray area. A year or two ago, when I began talking about my research into ice ages for my caveman novel, I got a one-liner:

“Don’t be an idiot. There will never be another ice age.”

This is less angry than most, and I’ve certainly been called worse. With faint hope that he/she might have something interesting to say, I wrote back and suggested a politer comment with factual content, links permitted. The email address (which was qwertygargle and suspicious to begin with) turned out to be fake.

So what can we make of this? Some of my friends have suggested that posts like these are paid compaigns intended to discredit the blogger or the topic the blogger is discussing. That seems unlikely to me. Anger and insult won’t change anybody’s mind except perhaps in the direction opposite the harpy’s intent. And when someone calls you a “Foux News watcher,” what else can you do but giggle? I wonder if these people have any least idea how utterly pathetic they make themselves and their ideologies look.

Are they bored? Unemployed? Crazy? Are they crawling with toxoplasma gondii? As with all manifestations of tribal fury, the comment harpy phenomenon probably has deep roots in our primate past, where the addled tribal footsoldiers throw poop at each other while their alphas live the good life at their expense. If you have any better explanations, I’ll certainly hear them.


  1. Mike Weasner says:

    Sometimes jerks are just, well, jerks. They won’t go away, so best to just ignore them.

  2. Tom Roderick says:

    Jeff, I think your next to last sentence really nailed it. The Internet has become a place where the primates that use it, and don’t want to bother to think, just like to throw poop for their tribal leaders.

  3. TRX says:

    Someday someone is going to get a Ph.D thesis out of archived YouTube comments, which quickly run from non-relevant to outright insane…

    Some people blame this sort of behavior on “anonymity”, but that doesn’t really seem to be a factor. Back before blogs and the web, the same sort of crazies infested usenet. In the pre-ISP days anonymous accounts weren’t that common.

    And before that, people made fools of themselves in the write-in sections of magazines and newspapers.

    Oddly, I don’t remember that sort of behavior on BBS systems or the online services I subscribed to (BIX and CIS). Hmm… it was trivially easy for sysops to wield the banhammer, and perhaps the crazies weren’t interested in paying $24/hr to illuminate our thinking… I’ll have to think about that some more.

    James Lileks once wrote an article about how he thought that the internet would be a broadening experience, where people could be exposed to many different viewpoints. Instead, people tended to congregate in closed groups, always reinforced by their chosen norm, with no irritating badthink.

    1. Usenet, egad. There were nutcases aplenty in 1981, and although I lacked access for eight or ten years, once I got back on in 1994 the nutcases were still there, and remain to this day.

      The catch with midlate 80s BBS systems, I think, is that there were a great many, all were fairly small, and people tended to log into only one or two. Disk capacity limited what you could post, and like Usenet, the posts would expire over time. I think that kept a lid on it.

      Many indie publishers hoped that the Internet would democratize publishing, but it really hasn’t. (It may still; the issue is very much in play.) There’s a “channel capture” effect that concentrates both attention and sales on relatively few winners, with everybody else fighting over the scraps. That’s a separate issue that I watch closely. Print’s in trouble, but the mechanism that replaces it remains unclear.

      I’ve been saddened to see people I’ve known for over thirty years vanish into their private echo chambers, and when I gently challenge the local shibboleths, I get jumped on and as often as not shown the door. This is a huge part of what Facebook has become, and why I use Facebook less than I might otherwise.

      All of this falls on the growing evidence pile that tribalism is present, primal, and and probably ineradicable. Some people just can’t help it. I doubt there’s much to be done.

  4. Jeff Rice says:

    As if tribal partisans with excrement bazookas weren’t enough to worry about, now there’s cat poo as well. That article about T. gondii is one of the most astonishing what-the-heck things I’ve read in a while. And by golly, I read a lot. Looks like I’ll have to start shooing away the neighborhood disease vectors that congregate in my yard, sun themselves on my porch, and hunt for mice under the porch. I appreciate the free rodent control, but I can do without the toxosomethings. Anyone got a schematic for a feline repeller?

  5. TRX says:

    You might enjoy Scott Westerfeld’s “Peeps”, which has a *lot* of parasites in it, including toxo-wossname. It’s a “young adult” novel, but it reads just fine. I’ve found myself reading a lot of YA lately, as I’ve gotten tired of nihilism and angst in my light entertainment…

    Back to Jeff’s subject, a lot of people, including some I’ve met “in real life” and who should know better, have problems dealing with disagreement.

    They don’t just refuse to disengage, they view anything less than wholehearted support as a personal attack and react accordingly. To me it seems silly, but they’ll work themselves up into “impending stroke” levels over it.

    I mentioned magazine-letter squabbles earlier, but I just remembered reading about proceedings of the Royal Society in England, which sometimes devolved into ungentlemanly acrimony. And that was in the 1600s…

  6. For people who thought I was exaggerating about the spam comment text, or even making it up, well…no. This one came in a few minutes ago, and maintains the proud tradition of spam doubletalk:

    “If you happen to won’t would like to seem fat, you’ll be able to go for prolonged plus mid extensive along apparel when it clipping out has got the influence for creating products shape, they may be printed along with packets.”

    I don’t think I could make up stuff like that.

    1. Tom Roderick says:

      Yup, Looks like Chinglenglish to me! I think the old, “The vodka was strong, but the meat is rotten.” English to Russian to English machines did better in the 1970’s!

      1. I don’t think it makes sense even expressed in another language. My hunch is that it’s something cleverer: A sentence randomizer, to keep spam filters from storing and filtering on the precise text. Why they don’t just do random strings of words is an interesting question. I wonder if filters like Akismet have some way of detecting completely unrelated strings of words and tagging them as spam.

        I went and looked at the Akismet spam queue, and it’s notable that none of the comment text blocks were even remotely similar. If anybody knows more about this than I do, please comment.

        1. Alex Dillard says:

          I don’t know more about it than you do, but these folks might:

  7. TRX says:

    That looks like sales spam computer-translated from Chinese to English.

  8. Lee Hart says:

    I’m an electric car advocate. Once in a while, I get an article published in some magazine. In cases where the magazine makes it available online and allows reader comments, I have gotten some amazingly outrageous responses. There would be long, semi-coherent diatribes, posted within minutes of the article going up. I wondered how they could even write this stuff so quickly?

    I happened to talk to my state representative about an electric car bill being considered. He said, “Oh, those responses are from sock puppets. These are automated responses from a program. It has a database of phrases, which it assembles into semi-coherent messages. Lobbyists use them all the time to send me fake “voter” feedback.

    Apparently, all you have to do is mention some “hot button” topic, and some sock puppet program is likely to find it and post vigorous (and befuddled) rebuttals. I wonder if some of the responses you get are from sock puppet programs?

    1. I’m almost certain that the spam comments (which exist solely to post links) are machine-generated somehow. However, I think the comment harpies are real people because their comments, while rude and driven by emotion, make grammatical sense and in some cases are even well-written. Besides, about half of the ones in the last year or two have responded to my emails. They’re not especially prompt, and in some cases the entries responded to are three or four years old.

      I’ve not heard of sock puppet software but I have time enough before supper to research it a little. It sounded bizarre at first but the more I think about it the less bizarre it seems.

  9. Marie says:

    I pop back here every once in awhile to read and follow links, and have commented a couple times. Maybe I haven’t read thoroughly enough, but I’m not sure what on this blog would draw an emotional and conflict-ridden response from even the oddest gal, that’s weird. Are they mad that you eat fatty foods?

    I see a lot of extreme emotion in the blogs and forums I wander around, the female-dominated ones can get absolutely out of control (although that outlier that claims he’s a guy on the gal sites can be the worst of all). I find myself that I run through periods of time when I post comments more often, and more stridently, and I think it’s related to what’s going on in my own life and not really to the site — the site might be instigating, but it will likely not be any more instigating than it was the week I wasn’t drawn to comment.

    I think anxiety disorders create a lot of compulsive behavior. Check the comments you see, is there almost a hint of panic about them? I still maintain that our place and time is one of the most despair-triggering ever, folks have such an incredible degree of stressful and often sin-ridden interactions and many have almost no traditional belief systems that can help them cope. Best they’ve got is a political affiliation or an anti-depressant. I don’t think they’ve even really got tribes — they just want a tribe (maybe that’s what the tattoos are all about, faking a tribal membership). But there is so little community these days.

    1. My goal in writing Contrapositive Diary isn’t to get people upset. I’m trying to offer insights when they occur to me, along with pointers to interesting things.

      People get annoyed about lots of different things, and there’s no way to avoid that completely. Anger may be inevitable with certain psychologies. What I’m trying to do is enforce a certain minimum level of civility. I avoid certain topics (climate is the biggie right now) that make people apoplectic. I can’t even talk about the physics of ice ages without some tribal nutcase trying to make a scene.

      The tone in some of these attempted comments definitely borders on panic. I think some of the commenters simply cannot abide the notion that someone, somewhere, disagrees with their tribes–even if those tribes are largely imaginary. (Some are; this business of doubt vs science is very sparsely distributed, and several of my very liberal friends have loudly disowned it.)

      Very glad that you stop by.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *