Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.
Dealing with narcissists on the Internet
Published on November 22, 2003 By Draginol In Blogging

If you spend enough time in a net community you will run into all kinds of people. If you run a net community you have to make some tough decisions very quickly about what to do with some of these kinds of people. Some people, let's face it, are just bad apples. If you met them in person they might be perfectly reasonable, even normal people. But on-line something happens to them. They become aggressive, totally devoid of empathy, manipulative, emotionally needy to the point of demanding attention at all times.

What do you do with these anti-social people? Or actually, more to the point, these disruptive people? When I started WinCustomize, my instinct was firmly to go by the "freedom of speech" principle.  But as the site became more popular, the number of disruptive people increased. And these people would drive away the kinds of people that a net community really needs.

Eventually I was able to find out specifically what type of person really goes nuts when on-line: Narcisist.  Here are the primary symptoms:

  • Requires excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation - or, failing that, wishes to be feared and to be notorious (Narcissistic Supply);
  • Feels entitled. Demands automatic and full compliance with his or her unreasonable expectations for special and favourable priority treatment;
  • Is "interpersonally exploitative", i.e., uses others to achieve his or her own ends;
  • Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with, acknowledge, or accept the feelings, needs, preferences, priorities, and choices of others;
  • Constantly envious of others and seeks to hurt or destroy the objects of his or her frustration. Suffers from persecutory (paranoid) delusions as he or she believes that they feel the same about him or her and are likely to act similarly;

These kinds of people probably function fine in normal society because they do not have the ability (or means at least) to constantly be seen by hundreds, even thousands of people at once.  But on-line, they become monsters. And as bastardly as it may sound, over the years I've become increasingly intolerant of them. They tend to have the same patterns of behavior. But I still kept myself from removing these people in all but the most extreme cases.

But then something on another site happened. Over time, our site had become the most popular skin site in the world. Such popularity tends to breed resentment with some people and someone commented, wrongly, that we "Exile" people for simply disagreeing with us.  I argued passionately about how we do not do that. We only exile those who make personal attacks (after sufficient warning) or promote warez. But it became clear that there was a consensus that we remove people simply because they tick us off.

Which was a really freeing moment. Because we had wanted to remove disruptive people for a very long time but didn't because we were trying to be nice guys and we didn't want people elsewhere to see us as some sort of totalitarian regime. But heck, if we were already getting falsely accused of it, then why were we worrying about how people already hostile to us thought.

That was about 3 months ago and since then we have been able to clean up our net community with great effectiveness.  Now, if someone is a jerk or just plain pisses us off, they're gone. We exercise restraint still but essentially we just don't want to have jerks hanging out on our forums on WinCustomize.  And we mean jerks in the sense that these would be people that most people would find to be jerks.  If they go on and start flaming people or hijacking topics or being obnoxious, we'll look at what they've contributed to the community versus what they are currently doing. If they have contributed to the community we'll drop them an email asking them to watch their language or behavior. But if they've never done anything for the net community, zap. Just a click and they're history.  If it's a borderline case at all, we'll discuss it privately in our admin forum first before deciding. 

Not that it happens often. Maybe once a month or so. But what a difference it makes. Instead of having tempers running high because some jerk is trying to make life unpleasant for others, that jerk is now gone. Of course, those people can still go off to other sites and flame us. But at least it's not happening on our site.

The worst narcissists on-line tend to be women. I have no idea why that is except that males tend to enable them. I've seen textbook narcissists behaving in ways that if it were a male they would, at the very least, be criticized. But if it's a female, they'll get sympathy for behavior that no one would ever tolerate outside the Internet. Anyone who has spent even a few months on-line has almost certainly seen this.  But whether male or female they are equally disruptive to a community because both try to turn every forum, every topic, into being about them. Those who don't fall into line become targets.

I had an incident this past week where a narcissist type user who had long since been banned from our site for her behavior took her grievance to another site and began "Standard persecution post #226" about some other user. But subsequently she apparently could not control her anger and began lashing out at her usual target list of frustrations (such as me even though I wasn't even remotely involved on the issue she was upset about).  Such posts never resolve anything (particularly when on other sites that aren't even tangentially involved). All they do is create strive and ill feelings within a community.

That is why any administrator running a large net community will learn, as we eventually did, that you have to identify narcissists and remove them. Net communities (especially blogs) attract narcissists. Most bloggers, myself included, will exhibit some narcissistic traits. Identifying it in yourself or in others is crucial to being successful, long term, in a net community. But most of all, removing those who are unable to control their narcissism will go a long way to creating a healthier, happier net community.


on Nov 22, 2003
"They become aggressive, totally devoid of empathy, manipulative, emotionally needy to the point of demanding attention at all times."

people get aggressive online because they know no one can punch them in the face online.

the main online forum i go to is moderated well: the mods give users plenty of chances but if they consistently bait or attack people they are gone. people who are disagree but not abusively so are still kept around.
on Nov 22, 2003
Disagreement is a good thing in debating and such. But when people get into, as you say, baiting, thread hijacking, or just plain trying to tick people off for the sake of being mean, those people are poison.
on Nov 22, 2003
"And as bastardly as it may sound, over the years I've become increasingly intolerant of them."

From what I've seen from people like myself and others who have been around online for ages (I still remembering dialing up BBSes with our expensive 300 baud modem on our German apple clone,) is that your attitude isn't the exception to things. It seems to be how must people who've been online for 'a long time' seem to feel.

"people get aggressive online because they know no one can punch them in the face online. "

It goes deeper than that though.

"People get aggressive because it -gets them attention.-" is probably the best way to put it. Quite often the aggressive ones are the same ones who turn around and whine and complain and try to get sympathy when they notice that their aggression is no longer getting them the attention they crave.

It's not so unlike 'real life' really. It's just... more-so.
on Nov 22, 2003
LOL, I'm amazed I am still around. *ducks*

on Nov 22, 2003
kthxbye: Couldn't say it better myself. Some people crave attention. To get that attention, even negative attention, they will create a crisis. The incident that inspired me to write this was a typical mole hill made into a mountain by a couple who went onto multiple message forums, emails, etc. to attack people both involved and not involved with the issue they were concerned about.

It's all about the attention. Once you identify those kinds of people, it's best to simply remove them from the board.
on Nov 22, 2003
Bakerstreet - you're many things but a narcissist you are not.
on Nov 23, 2003
Heh - I've said it before: Every now and then when I say something, I say something 'right'. Just don't get -too- used to it. ^_~

In this case, it just comes from many, many years of 'people watching' as a hobby. Friends used to call my a wanna-be psychologist - not because of any great amount of profundity or knowledge, just from the little things I'd learned to pick up from just watching and listening over the years.

Of course, it's one of those things I can /never/ use when I actually need to!

There are many ways of dealing with (or getting rid of, or whatever you want to do,) with people like this - but, unfortunately, for every one you do manage to take care of (get rid of, get to see the error of their ways... rare, but possible,) there's always one or two waiting to take up their banner.

This is why I like not being a moderator anywhere... I can simply ignore people/things quite easily.
on Nov 23, 2003
I know this type of person well. I used to be a floor manager for one of the largest chat sites on the internet. I had to deal with this kind of person every single day, and there are thousands of them! I couldn't believe it, you give someone a little anonymity and they turn into completely disgusting people.

As part of my duties I'd take down they're handle, IP address, floor and room etc. then ban them from the site. My luck though most of them were on dialup and they'd actually disconnect, reconnect and get a different IP and come back! I couldn't believe they're determination to make life difficult for other people.

Thankfully I'm no longer in charge of the team that dealt with those people. I don't moderate anything anymore and like kthxbye said, it's quite nice.
on Nov 23, 2003
I am a member of several communities, online and otherwise. When a person joins a community, that person makes a contract. They agree to accept certain responsibilities in exchange for benefits. Often those responsibilities include a code of conduct. The reason that this transaction makes sense is that the community is bigger than the individual. The narcissist wants the benefits without the responsibility. They are more important than the community, in their view.

on Nov 23, 2003
Judging from the list of behavioral indicators, I actually fall into this categorization of narcissist. The list is neatly and diligently compiled into a sensible list of patient manifestations, that is how I was able to identify.
on Nov 23, 2003
"But on-line something happens to them. They become aggressive, totally devoid of empathy, manipulative, emotionally needy...."

I think it is similar to the way some people become rabidly evil drivers on the roads: the social mechanisms that keep people from being idiots (or abusive) seems to disappear in the anonymity of both online communities and freeways. If you find one of the trolls or bad drivers, and ask them why, they will come up with a large collection of reasons, which all boil down to "because I can."

"Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with, acknowledge, or accept the feelings, needs, preferences, priorities, and choices of others; "
Yes, and I think the tribalism is not just on the net, but in the real world, and is getting worse. The code words people are using are designed to prevent people from being able to see their "opponents" as real people with real issues, or even from considering alternative positions. Lakoff's book, Moral Politics, seems to give some insight into this.

There are also a number of trolls out there who are convinced and determined to keep the others "honest." Do these fit into the narcissist continuum? Or are they a separate unit of measurement in trollspace?

"Mommy, why is it that the ^*)%@s only go driving when daddy does?"
on Nov 24, 2003
"Judging from the list of behavioral indicators, I actually fall into this categorization of narcissist. The list is neatly and diligently compiled into a sensible list of patient manifestations, that is how I was able to identify."

Anthony - I fully admit that when I saw that list, you were one of the first people I thought of, but there's still one /big/ difference. You can still post comments and say things in a civil manner, so I'm afraid you've still got some work to do. ^_~
on Nov 24, 2003
The narcissists are a problem, to be sure. They can cause any community to seem dreary. The behavior that causes some of the greatest problems, IMO, are their penchant for creating alter-egos. At least overt behavior is displayed, and one by one people eventually get it. Even the enablers. The covert behavior is harder to confront. One might wonder why a narcissist would want another personality, or two, or ten. They are there to keep the primary personality on top of the heap, squeeze competing personalities out of the contention, back up the narcissist in a losing argument, provide cohort support in the formation of a 'gang mentality', even to gain sympathy by 'attacking' the primary personality and thereby inciting protective behaviors among flagging supporters.

Throw away email accounts make it easy for a personality to clone themselves and make it hard to control the situation. But it seems important to uncover this behavior, and probably even expose it, since a community under siege from such apparitions begins to implode as doubts are cast amongst one another concerning the veracity of any given personality. A community of faltering trust is in danger of failing.

I can't really come up with a good solution for this problem. It seems to be a common thing accross all types of forums.
on Nov 26, 2003
Actually Anthony I wouldn't have considered you a Narcissist at all.

From any threads I've posted in you don't meet any of the five pointers. You don't seem to require excessive admiration (you post about topics, not yourself), you don't seem to require or demand special treatment, you don't seem to use others, you're not devoid of empathy (disagreeing with peoples opinions is NOT the same as devoid of empathy) and I didn't think you sufferered from a persecution complex.

You've always argued your points with passion and belief. I may often disagree but would never think your were posting just to cause trouble and disrupt the community.

As for your post Draginol, very interesting.

I've always considered you more than fair on you community forums in giving people plenty of chances to apologise, calm down or just shut up. You're far more tolerant of the irate customer posting a fairly stupid "I hate this product because ..." post than many of the other users on the forums.

on Aug 21, 2004
I recently discovered NPD exists because of my wife's sister having it (we figured it out by reading some online materials, it was spot on). I also have been an active message board participant for years and I will say I think you are completely spot on about recognizing and banning narcissists. I also agree the women are the worst, and for the reasons you state. It's amazing how many guys are complete patsies to them.
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