Why people are annoyed by very strong opinions in online forums.

Recently I’ve been getting more and more active in the BoardGameGeek.com community for Android:Netrunner, since I’m so active in the development of the OCTGN game definition for it, as well as liking the game itself quite a lot. And yesterday a usual event occured that gave me an insight into forum culture.

As is common with geek culture in online communities, some people tend to form strong opinions about various aspects of their hobby and want to share those opinions with others. But sometimes we get to see things heat up a little too much. Apparently randomly, one person will reply rudely to someone known for strong opinions suddenly there’s an outpouring of negativity against the opinionated player coming from all directions.

Someone reacts badly to a strong opinion

Someone reacts badly to a strong opinion

The opinionated person is usually taken aback from such hostility as they don’t understand where it’s coming from.

Reaction to negativity

I’ve seen this reaction occur quite frequently, but it usually happens in hobbyist discussions, such as the ones revolving around games. This is because those tend to have a low-impact consequence to a change within them being bad, which makes most moderate people not bother as much with online discussions about them, unless those people are opinionated or bored.

This however means that someone who does react strongly about changes that they perceive to be important, tends to stick out like a sore thumb. Why does someone gets constantly flustered about something as insignificant (in the large scale of things) as a game? And why do people get annoyed at such common reactions?

This hadn’t actually click for me until today, as I was reading the above exchange and I was also considering that I also felt annoyed every time I saw such strong opinions being posted by the same people. But I couldn’t put a finger as to why. Why was I irritated about someone taking a card game too seriously?

And then it dawned on me, that I wasn’t getting annoyed by the opinion itself. I wasn’t even annoyed by the opinion being put forth as a fact. It was rather the situation that the same people would post the same kind of “the sky is falling” commentary every time and then, predictably, others would reply aggressively in to point out why they are completely wrong, which would trigger a discussion that took over most of the thread from that point on.

In short, those posting strong opinions ended up almost always focusing the whole topic on their ideas, “heating up” the thread and making the whole discussion revolve around them. It’s an attention grab! And it’s this constant attention-seeking that is annoying the people around them, possibly without them realizing the true reason. And thus ending up with random lash-outs like the above screenshot.

I suspect that the people behaving this way do not realize why they are doing it. For them, this is a hobby that they really love and they have strong opinions because they’d hate to see it ruined by bad decisions. So it’s understandable that they post those opinions on every relevant discussion and make threads about them, isn’t it?

It just so happens that this behaviour makes them the superstar of every discussion. Sometimes negatively, sometimes positively, depending on how much they reflect the popular sentiment, but almost always there will be one or more people with an equally strong opinion on the other side who’ll be annoyed enough at the arrogance or stubbornness to reply likewise, and thus a heated discussion will begin, centering around their comments. And given that humans are social creatures, this is addictive.

It’s addictive to always be the center of attention, as long as that attention is not overly hostile. So any behaviour that brings about this state of affairs is going to be repeated as long as the reward is reinforced. And given that most people, on both sides, don’t realize what is going on, is is going to be reinforced every time.

And then people in the community are going to start getting annoyed, because it turns out that any thread where particular people comment on (in their usual style), immediately takes a few steps towards flamewar status, and it just so happens that everyone will be discussing those comments for the next few pages, and every other interesting comment will be ignored as those most inflamed by the arguments are going to focus on just that.

So you see this kind of comments, and you grind your teeth, mutter “Oh it’s this person again? What horribly wrong opinion do they have to present now?”. And after months of the same procedure, someone else tells them to “STFU because nobody cares” or something, and you think “Fuck yeah” and pile on at the opportunity to put them in their place, until the whole thing escalates and feelings are hurt.

I think this whole thing can be quickly de-escalated if people realize the true reason why such comments create a negative attitude. The attention seekers need to stop trying to make the kind of inflammatory comment that will make them the center of discussion, and I believe the way to achieve that is not in random hostility, which is likely not to achieve anything as it’s vague and misdirected, but to call those people out explicitly for their attention seeking and how that negatively affects the community around them.

  • Gary

    If I view a post where there is obvious tension, I stay out of it, but then again, I’m not a very strongly opinionated person. Even about my favorite game. I may disagree about an opinion, but if there is sizzle in the thread, I don’t bother posting.
    I think you’re correct about attention seeking. It seems to me a waste of time when they could be playing and having fun! :)

  • nipsio

    This is why I unsubscribed from the A:NR forum on BGG. It is the most contentious BGG forum that I have ever used, and the some of the regulars can be so condescending.