The issue of how to handle abusive online comments has come up often and has raised broader issues of speech and anonymity online.

This post from IGN, a popular gaming and entertainment site owned by Ziff Davis, reminded me that such issues are good to debate from time to time.

So there’s this problem with IGN. A lot of the comments lately have been terrible.

Horrifying is probably more like it.

While most IGN comments are respectful and productive, we’ve let the abusive comments get to a point where they dominate our discussions. When even just one hostile comment is enough to ruin an entire thread, we’ve got to take our job as curators of our site more seriously. The best way to create an appetite is to feed it and, by letting these abusive comments live on IGN, we’ve been encouraging more of the same. It’s long past time for that to stop.

Some of what we’re dealing with is an extension of the trash-talking that’s part of a competitive gaming culture. Some of it is just the bold lack of empathy that the facelessness of the internet allows. Some of it is just the natural tendency of some people to find happiness in making other people miserable. The excitement over next-gen consoles and the increasing popularity of games in general means that we’re seeing more new users on the site each and every day. When you add all those factors together, it’s clear we need to pay more attention to our interactions with each other.

I think this accurately depicts the larger state of online society today.  It’s not limited to the gaming culture, not by a longshot.

I cover a lot of social media and technology stories, so I am always looking at studies that analyze how social media and the internet in general have affected our culture, in both good and bad ways.

Many are quick to blame social media and the internet itself for the negative sides of people’s behavior online (I’m guilty of it myself sometimes and have to catch myself).  But the truth is, such tools are merely vehicles through which people express already existing traits online.  In other words, it’s the person, not the tool they use.

A recent study found that boredom and feelings of power are primary causes for trolling behavior online.  Another found that rudeness and throwing insults are cutting short friendships – online and in real life.  Juxtapose those with another study that found social media is a cause of anxiety and insecurity for many users.

There are a multitude of other studies out there that anyone can pull to fit their purpose, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there are simply a lot of people online who simply enjoy being jerks.  While it may be useful to psychologists and marketers alike, I myself don’t particularly care why jerks are jerks.  They just are.

Many often suggest passing laws to regulate comments and postings that are more damaging and dangerous, especially given the more extreme reports of cyberbullying in the media.

Personally, I don’t think that this is necessarily a viable solution.  First, it’s not addressing the problem, which is the people posting such information, who are going to find a way to do so regardless of what laws may be proposed.  Second, many laws already exist to deal with the more extreme cases, whether they be criminal or civil matters.  Lastly, there’s the concept that more speech, not less, is the better alternative.

Other suggestions often include doing away with anonymous commenters altogether.  While many abuse anonymity to simply be jerks, to others, the security of anonymity is a life and death need, especially in countries where freedom of speech is not a cherished human right.  It’s a difficult balance, but one that I think is best left to individual online communities to manage in a way they believe best suits their needs.

Much of the problem lies in the culture today.  Just as IGN points out, it’s more a matter of paying attention to our interactions with one another in our online communities, and calling out the bad behavior when we see it (though I don’t think giving them national coverage on CNN necessarily helps!).

Even this has its own challenges however, especially for blog and website owners.  Differentiating between what’s trolling, what’s bad behavior and what’s simply disagreement can walk a fine line.  While some of the clearly abusive comments that serve no purpose other than to disrupt and insult are easy to set apart, others aren’t so clear.

These issues come up often and always leave me wondering about where the proper balance lies and how social media and blogs will work all this out over time.

But you have to start somewhere.  Perhaps managing ourselves and our own online communities, and trying to insure a comfortable place while allowing civil disagreement is the place the start.  Maybe other blog owners have some thoughts on this.

In the meantime, there are a few tips on spotting and handling blog trolls in this post over at TheOtherMcCain.