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The Annoying Sibling Theory of the Internet

Many of you are well aware of the joys and perils of growing up with a brother or sister. They can be our best friends, that companion and confidante to help us navigate the wide world of adolescence. But as anyone with a sibling knows, that love can temporarily transform into annoyance, or dare I say a moment of hate. Siblings know us too well. They know what buttons to push: how to make us go from annoyed to furious in a split second. They know how to play the game, to get under our skin.

The internet turns many into that annoying, button-pushing sibling. The brother who pokes and prods until you blow up and then runs to mom to get you in trouble. You don’t have to spend too much time on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to see this occur. Look at the comments on any post or tweet. They tend to be a quick descent into intentional annoyance, trying to inflame or provoke. Just like your little brother or sister growing up, the poster or commenter gets a thrill out of the provocation. And if you respond, or show any hint of contempt or anger, the provocateur gets a hit of feel-good neurochemicals, prompting them to poke and prod more. Your sibling takes it as a sign to keep pushing. The internet trolls see the same signal.

That’s why I try to subscribe to what I call the sibling theory of responding on the internet. Growing up, my brother was the type who would poke and prod, to try to get a rise out of me. If I responded and showed anger, he’d see it as a sign to keep going, that he was on the right track. If I ignored him or just walked away, he’d initially amplify his attempts, before eventually giving up. The same rule applies to the world of the internet. If I see someone acting like an annoying sibling, poking and prodding instead of engaging in a good faith argument or dialogue, they get ignored.

The internet turns a large portion of people into that annoying brother or sister, unfortunately minus the loving qualities. It transforms adults into fulfilling their childhood role of annoying provocateur. It is easy to understand why: Just like that sibling was craving some sort of attention or to get you in trouble with your parents so that they could get approval or even just to quell a period of boredom, outrage on the internet does the same.

To deal with the online world, I give people the benefit of the doubt on their initial comment or ask. But once they show that they’re an annoying brother or sister, they’ve lost their privilege. It is then time to let them scream as much as they want, without the validating return. Let them cry it out. Maybe they’ll learn.

— Steve

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