Fighting talk turns web forums into intellectual punch-ups

March 26, 2004

The Times Higher reports from this week's British Sociological Association meeting

A culture of tribal aggression has taken over many web-based communities, leading academics to dub such groups "electronic fight clubs".

Otherwise sober individuals adopt aggressive pseudonyms, provoke arguments and fiercely defend their places in the informal hierarchies that can emerge within online forums, which have been named after the violently subversive movie Fight Club.

A few take on multiple personalities in a bid to defeat their opponents.

Gordon Fletcher, a lecturer in information systems at Salford University, revealed details of one such electronic fight club that dominates an online finance forum, in a study presented to the British Sociological Association annual conference this week.

He believes similar cultures exist within many other specialist communities, including those set up to enable scholars to discuss new ideas.

This contradicts the common portrayal of such web-based communities as typified by trust and sharing of information.

"The hallmark observation of this forum was the regularity with which conflict occurred among the members," Dr Fletcher said. "Everyone in the group appears to love to fight."

Up to 200 people, from professional stockbrokers to amateur enthusiasts, took part in the long-established forum, ostensibly to share tips and advice.

Using pseudonyms such as Moriarty and Xerxes, they frequently clashed, with much of the aggression flaring around exaggerated claims about particular stock and suspicions that some people were taking on more than one online identity in order to spread misinformation.

A hierarchy of respect evolved within the group, whose senior members sometimes stepped in to stop fights while still provoking them on other occasions.

"These people are coming together because they have a common interest but that doesn't necessarily mean they want to be friends with one another," Dr Fletcher said.

He added that much of the online aggressive behaviour was little different to that which smoulders within offices or in pubs after work.

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