This is a guest post by Donovan Colbert, a regular contributor to TechRepublic.
Before words like flame-war and troll were really around, it became obvious that there was a clear point when online arguments "jumped the shark." In fact, that phrase is an example of how there is a tendency to take a discussion into the patently ridiculous. The end of any reasonable online discussion was when someone played "The Hitler Card." You don't see that happen too much anymore -- it seems like we've learned "if you want to destroy your credibility in any discussion, just compare your opponent to Hitler."
But for every one thing we learn, it seems that five more appear -- so here is my list of five online behaviors that are overused and misapplied:
1: Claiming a person is a troll.
Here is the problem with the designation of a "troll" -- too often it is applied to suggest, "You've come to this forum only to engage in a debate that you know will make the regulars angry." We already know that social networking and search engines track and weigh our opinions to better suit our interests and that this creates a "positive-feedback loop" where we hear only what affirms our beliefs. It is possible that trolls serve a pretty important service to society. Without "trolls," we're approaching a point where we might never even realize that not everyone agrees with us. There are exceptions. Going into an Apple forum to pick fights over Android is trolling. Debating the two on a technology forum probably isn't. Know the difference.
2: Referring to unwanted attention as "creeping."
I responded on a coworker's Facebook wall to a post his girlfriend made. She replied to her boyfriend, "Who is this creeper, and what is he doing on my wall?" as if I were stalking her. I suppose it is understandable that women are cautious with strangers online, but there is something narcissistic in assuming that any man who posts a response has sinister intentions.
I put this together only after this same coworker ended up in an unrelated debate with a different woman and she called him a creeper, too. Since then I've seen this happen several times. We understand that there are creepers out there, ladies -- so don't throw this around lightly. Every time you get in an argument with some stranger over Pink Paste or GMO corn and resort to calling him a "creeper," you not only lose credibility, but you make us start to tune out when a real creeper is actually stalking your profile.
3: Accusing bloggers of being paid to write a positive article.
Write a positive story about anything to do with Apple and someone is going to accuse you of getting kickbacks. The same goes for Microsoft or Google.
The truth is that sometimes a writer will take a press release from a company and regurgitate its agenda without doing any research -- a thinly disguised PR piece masquerading as tech journalism. I've seen recent examples. But even in those examples, the journalist isn't getting any kind of kickback from the company. In fact, media outlets will immediately terminate a writer caught taking any sort of special consideration in return for running a story.
Writers have favorites, they have biases, they have opinions, but they're not going to jeopardize their career for a little extra cash, which leads to...
4: Accusing bloggers or articles of "linkbaiting."
There are a couple of things going on here.
First, if the headline doesn't really match the tone of the article, don't blame the author. The odds are very high that he or she didn't pick the headline, the editor did. It seems some sites intend you to read headlines with a grain of salt. It is a headline; it is designed to grab your attention. Try to focus on content.
Second, a piece on hot-button topics may generate tons of hits for months. If I write about other topics, I'm lucky to get a few thousand hits and the article may be dead after a week or two. I am paying attention to that, and to some degree it will influence what I write about. I don't want to write about things you don't want to read. So before you throw a stone at me, you might want to pelt yourself with a few, too. I'm still going to focus on things I am interested in and things I know, but I've learned that some of those aren't important to readers, so why waste our time? If you're unhappy that Windows Phone doesn't get more coverage, understand that I have a limited number of words and if most readers are interested in iOS and Android, Windows Phone will get cut.
5: Being "that guy."
You know the post where someone accuses a writer or forum poster of being wrong, not knowing how to do something, and then doesn't actually provide any information on what to do. Don't be that guy. If you're going to take the time to show your tech superiority by pointing out what a writer didn't tell the readers, take the time to explain yourself. If you don't have time or can't, don't post.
Agree or disagree? Any that I missed, let us hear your opinion in the forum.
Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his professional role is as a Linux support engineer for a fast-growing Linux/FOSS consultancy group. You can follow him @dcolbert on Twitter or his personal blog, located at http://donovancolbert.blogspot.com.