Nerds of prey

How reading the wild ramblings of everyday people on blogs is the cheapest way to get a doctorate in psychology

Although thankfully my regular jottings here have escaped the attention of folk who like to disrupt other people’s ramblings in blogs and newsletters, this is something of a rarity.

A friend of mine who writes a regular blog is endlessly being attacked when he talks about, well, most things.  Football, politics, leaving the EU, cats, religion… anything in fact.

In view of some of the really awful things that are said back to him, I asked him why he keeps at it.

“In fact,” he told me, “writing a blog on contentious subjects has become the simplest way of doing a doctorate in psychology.  If I write a little piece about why Jeremy Corbyn is like a blast of fresh air, then I get this torrent of abuse.  If I write a piece about why it is a good thing that Mrs May should continue to run the country, I get a torrent of abuse.  If I write something about why the Liverpool manager should retain his job, I get a torrent of abuse.  If I write about the need for stronger legislation on sugar, I get a torrent of abuse.  If…”

I managed to stop him at this point fearing he might go on for months with the same theme, and instead interjected a question.

“Don’t you find this all a bit depressing?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he replied.  “It gives me access to the inner workings of these people’s minds which would otherwise take me years to obtain through interviews and even then I would have to get everyone’s permission to use them in my thesis.  But when someone posts something openly on an internet forum such as a blog under a pseudonym, as most of them do, they are effectively giving everyone else the right to quote their words.”

Now I must admit I do follow a few blogs and have seen the sort of febrile rubbish that my friend is referring to, but I still didn’t quite get where he was going with this.   “What on earth do you learn from these rants?” I asked.

“It gives a real insight into these people’s minds,” he said.   “They are revealing their real selves in a way that most people never do in an interview.  Gather enough examples and clear patterns start to emerge.”

I asked for some examples.

“First off, what becomes clear is that for these people, opinion is everything and evidence is nothing.  When a person says that Politician X is a total idiot, that is all there is: opinion.   I have challenged a few bloggers to give me evidence to support their views and the reply (when it comes at all) is ‘the evidence of my own eyes.’

“That is to say, in their world, there is no notion of independent analysis or the gathering of data.  One hears a politician say one thing, or a footballer make a mistake and that is that.  A total judgement can be made.

“One can also of course make judgements based on the way these people write.  For example, as I believe Terry Pratchett once said, ‘Five exclamation marks at the end of a sentence is a sure sign of an unstable mind’.”

“So these people have no understanding of the notion of evidence,” I said, “but that seems a bit harsh as a way of making judgements on their psychological well being.”

“But that is only the start,” my friend said.  “These people lurk on the internet all day and night.  They will read an article that might be quite an erudite exposition of an issue over maybe 1000 words and then reply, ‘Sadly the writer seems to have no understanding of this issue.  ’.

“When I first spotted this sort of phrase I thought that maybe the writer had actually read the piece and really thought it was a second rate work, but then by chance I found him positing this self-same comment all over the internet, no matter what the subject.

“And all this is before we get to those people who get angry with the fact that the article was written at all.  These are the ones who start out by saying, ‘Not another idiotic pro-Corbyn article’, (or whatever the subject matter is) and then say what a total waste of time reading the article was.”

“So why do these people keep reading the article?” I asked.

“Exactly the point.  If you meet someone who watches a TV programme that they don’t like, and then instead of turning the TV off, or changing channels, they start shouting at the TV set, you might wonder about them.   These people on the internet are doing the same thing only to an audience who often shout back.”

“And what do you call these people?” I asked.

“Nerds of prey,” he said.  “Sadly I didn’t think of that phrase, but it is what they are called.”

“And you are analysing their rantings to get your PhD?” I checked.

“That’s right.  The thesis goes in next week.”

Which means, I suppose, a lot of people who have been ranting on line are going to find their words examined by psychologists and used as a basis for considering the way certain minds work.  I wonder what they’ll make of that.

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