It Takes a Village Idiot: The Jerks of Online Forums

Discussion forums are magnets for some of the jerkiest people on the 'Interwebs'. We profile a dozen of the most common and annoying forum jerks--from 'The Antagonist' to 'The Conspiracy Theorist'.

Who ARE these people?

Online comment forums create ample opportunity for behavior of such extreme jerkitude that it can drive even the most patient Netizens batty. You know what I'm talking about: The know-it-alls, fight-starters, and doctrinaire zealots who seem to frequent every message board on the entire 'Interwebs', using any and every topic as a springboard for their sociopathic gratification. We've sifted through pages of forum messages to find the most absolutely asinine tactics. So get ready to cringe: On the pages that follow you'll meet our nominees for the 12 biggest jerks of the Web's online forums.

For additional coverage of the jerky and embarrassing demimonde of the Web, check out these stories:

• "Jerks of the Web" by Erin Biba

• "Top 10 Tech Embarrassments You'll Want to Avoid" by Dan Tynan

• "The 13 Most Embarrassing Web Moments" by Christopher Null

1. The FIRST! Guy

Maybe we should have saved this character for last, but our first offender is the FIRST! Guy--the mental marsupial whose contribution to the great discussions of our online times is to post the first response to any given topic, consisting of the comment "FIRST!" Clever? No. Original? No. Ironically self-mocking in a postmodern deconstructionist kind of way? Uh, no. Puerile? Now you're getting close. And yet there seem to be multiple FIRST! Guy clones lurking around every forum, ready to share a very important message. Here's hoping that all of these Net nuisances find another source of personal pride by their 15th birthday.

2. The Self-Promoter

The Self-Promoter is a message board classic: This bore meanders across the Web, leaving thinly disguised comments designed to pimp his own project. Sometimes, he'll take a stab at making the promotion look incidental: "Man, that new iPhone software does look rad! You should check out my blog about Windows Mobile here!" But just as often, he'll ditch the preamble and launch straight into the link without even trying to tie it to the subject at hand.

Shameless self-promotion really is the worst--especially when the shill has to stretch like Elastic Girl to come up with a semi-plausible segue into the promo reference. The only thing that irks me more is behavioral ad targeting, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago here.

3. The Sermonator

A close relative to the Self-Promoter, the Sermonator trolls various comment forums to find some way to divert the conversation to his favorite subject--most often something related to morals, religion, or a particular political view. No discussion is too interesting and no community too engaged for the Sermonator to subvert into a tedious homily on his topic of choice. Let's head out to the showroom for some real-world examples:

• Example #1: The author of a blog posting about an asteroid that came close to Earth stated that the incident was "like God threw a snowball at us and missed, but just barely." From this, a handful of commenters began a discussion that degenerated into a three-page debate over whether historical evidence could prove that Jesus was God.

• Example #2: A recent story of mine raised some privacy concerns about Google Latitude, the company's new mobile location tracking service. After concluding that my apprehensions stemmed from a general problem of dishonesty, one forum user took to the pulpit and lectured at great length about why the entire forum community should stop uttering even the littlest white lies. I would tell you that everyone found his contributions thought-provoking and useful, but that would be a not-so-little white lie.

4. Mr. Credentials

"As someone who has managed Windows-based systems for 15 years," Mr. Credentials weighs in with a predictable approach. First he encourages everyone to focus on his superior CV, rather than on the objective reasonableness of his views. Then he'll launch into a 500-word essay designed to show just how well-versed he is on the subject at hand (or whatever subject he wants to talk about), overwhelming all resistance with the sheer force and volume of his hot air.

And in case his own credentials might be called into question at some point when he has paused to breathe, Mr. Credentials likes to cite his authorities by the bushel--quoting them at length, and often adding further excerpts detailing his authorities' authorities. In fact, his messages are frequently more heavily weighted toward text from famous figures, user manuals, or Wikipedia entries than toward his own original thoughts or opinions.

5. The Antagonizer

Comment forums are made for divergent viewpoints and intelligent, spirited debate. The Antagonizer, though, takes things to another, more primitive level, resorting to personal attacks and insults in what may be a nostalgic flashback to carefree bygone days as a third-grade bully.

"Do I even have to explain how stupid of a name Stefan is for a man?" one such person wrote on a popular tech blog's story about Apple's touchscreens. He went on to close his remarks with this jab: "I bet you shave your armpits." That's about as clever as the repartee gets in Antagonizer Land; more often the insights run along the lines of "You bleep!" "Bleep you!" "Bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep!" Proof positive that, online, it isn't difficult for a person to be both loud and boring.

6. The Moderator

Taking a slightly subtler approach to making visitors feel unwelcome, the Moderator maintains an air of superiority as he bunkers down each day on a particular site's comment section or message board for another 16-hour stint as archivist-in-residence. He's the cool kid--the site vet who's been around for a long time and knows what's what. Leave a message that repeats something someone else said 16 months ago, and he'll let you know about it within minutes.

"Um, yeah, Newbie0314, we talked about that back when NeverTouchedAWoman24 brought the subject up last May. But thanks for contributing, lol."

Treating the forum as his own private gated community, the (self-appointed) Moderator seems to have adopted as his personal philosophy the Pythonesque commandment "Every thread is precious." To keep each discussion safe and pure, he will treat any commenter who has fewer than 200 messages to his name as an undocumented invader who doesn't deserve a spot on his beloved forum. All of this, we assume, from the comfort of his parents' basement.

7. Peacekeeper

Another long-standing character common to forums is the Peacekeeper. This guy has been a regular at a particular site as long as the proprietor, but his goal as a participant has somehow devolved from saying something interesting to keeping the peace--and he has no problem peppering every thread with his efforts to intervene as Mr. Manners.

"Hey now, that's not appropriate," he may say. Or, "Let's watch the language, okay?"

Though the Peacekeeper's intentions are good, his actions end up clogging the forum with pages of useless and often long-winded discussions of propriety that are every bit as annoying as the attacks themselves. Worse, unlike the Antagonizer's antics, the Peacekeeper's contributions can be virtually impossible to silence, even if you're the site's moderator. After all, how do you tactfully tell a guy to stop pacifying?

8. Smarty Pants

If the Peacekeeper is on a search-and-destroy mission against offensive content, the Smarty Pants' goal is to find and expose inaccuracies--no matter how insignificant--solely as a means to demonstrate his intellectual superiority. A Smarty Pants constantly runs a fine-toothed comb through both a site's original articles and its comments in search of nits to pick: factual errors, grammatical errors, typos--it doesn't matter. The instant he finds one, he pounces on the offending poster, thrashing him with the wet capellini of his erudition.

Some of these hair-splitters will spend their days doing the spadework necessary to prove a minor mistake in someone else's words. The most obnoxious--and yet most grimly satisfying--kind of Smarty Pants, though, is the one who bases his corrections on his own "infallible" knowledge base. He might, for example, summon his Univac-like powers of recall to dispute an author's mention of when a particular piece of software came out.

"DOS 3.0 was not around in 1985," an actual comment from Digg reads, referring to a story that mentioned various points of computer history. "I bought my Tandy 1000 in 1987 and it came with DOS 2.11."

DOS 3.0 actually came out in 1984. This gomer, it would seem, simply got ripped off late-80s style. But as you introduce a Smarty Pants to his richly deserved comeuppance, you can't help noticing that you have just increased the online population of this particular scourge by one.

9. Fanboy

The Fanboy defends a particular product under any circumstances, no matter what the scenario. He is fervently aware that the Ford Pinto was an excellent car as long you avoided rear-end collisions in it. He also assumes that anyone who fails to praise said product to the skies must be engaged in an irrational vendetta against it--in effect, he sees everyone who isn't a Fanboy as an Anti-Fanboy.

The most common Fanboy tendency is to worship either something (or everything) Apple-related or something (or everything) Microsoft-related. One unmistakable sign that you're dealing with a Fanboy of this kind--and not with just an enthusiast--is that, even though the object of his veneration is ultimately a product for sale, he somehow manages to subordinate technological and monetary considerations to moral imperatives.

10. The Conspiracy Theorist

This edgy fellow detects conspiracies (or the shadows of conspiracies) in everything he reads, and he has no compunction about publicly sharing his off-kilter suspicions. The Conspiracy Theorist is often convinced that he's under constant surveillance by the government--for some reason they've singled him out (and even more mysteriously, they haven't bothered to terminate him yet, despite his constant blabbing)--and he sees signs of schemes in the strangest places. A story about iPhones might inspire him to share how Apple is using "Q-waves" to trace his thought patterns. A blog on the best browsers could trigger a rant about the time he opened Internet Explorer and saw a toxic waste symbol on his home page.

I don't pretend to understand how this quirky character's brain works. I can only hope that the tin-foil hat he presumably wears most of the time (though not shown here) helps prevent all those weird waves from escaping his head as well as from entering it.

11. The Signature Dork

The Signature Dork appends a 14-line signature to the bottom of each of his posts to the forum or comments section. The boilerplate often consists of the dork's name and titles, followed by a (lengthy) quotable quote, system specs, possibly a grocery list, more quotes (usually from Einstein or Isaac Asimov), followed by a straggling line of crappy-looking, home-made animated GIFs.

This makes a brisk back-and-forth dialogue of Twitter-length comments between the Signature Dork and anyone else look like a series of fortune-cookie fortunes interspersed with a series of fortune-cookie fortunes attached to bricks.

12. Johnny One-Word

This character seems to hate everything about the publication whose forum he frequents, and yet he seemingly never misses a chance to read and comment on a story. (He gets his name because of his tendency to express his dismay in comments of a single word: "Lame." "Whatever." "Wrong." "Fail.")

It's sad, really: Here's Johnny One-Word trapped by his own loneliness and real-world social ineptitude in an online community dedicated to reviewing and discussing content that he consistently despises. It's like a guy who hates water but spends all his time fishing because it's the only place where he knows he can find other people.

Your Favorite Forum Jerks

The list of jerks could go on forever. Our list, however, ends here. Now it’s your turn: Jump into the comments section, if you dare, and call out the jerkiest move you've seen in an online forum. What message board behavior drives you the farthest up a wall? Just be sure to change the names to protect the guilty.

By the way, for any would-be jerks out there thinking about firing off a "FIRST!" comment as an act of defiance, let me just leave you with a few choice words:





If your appetite for online jerks and fiascoes is still keen as a troll's incisor, check out these three literary ingots from our vaults:

• "Jerks of the Web" by Erin Biba

• "Top 10 Tech Embarrassments You'll Want to Avoid" by Dan Tynan

• "The 13 Most Embarrassing Web Moments" by Christopher Null

And if you're intrigued by the idea of meeting people in real life based on a shared online interest, read "From Tweet to Meet: Social Media Fans Get Together in the Real World," by Bonnie Ruberg. (I can scarcely imagine the social interactions likely to occur at FIRST!Camp.)

Connect with JR Raphael on Twitter (@jr_raphael)

15 Fake and Funny Twitter Accounts