Internet Forum People: A Taxonomy

On November 14, 2007, in Web, by psu

Spend any time on the Interwebs these days and you will inevitably end up reading one kind of forum or another. These days there seems to be one of these for every normal human interest and probably the interests that aren’t all that normal. I have two observations to make about these forums, one short and one long.

First, for some reason, they all use the same sort of shitty PHP forum software. What’s up with this software anyway? Readers old enough to remember the original USENET will also remember a terminal-based message reader called “trn” which, while primitive did three basic things that all of these shitty forums do not:

(a) Keep track of what I have read and only show me new messages.
(2) Organize the messages into a nice threaded tree of messages and replies.
(c) Let me edit my own messages in an interface that does not blow.

Almost 20 years of web forums and almost none of them do even one of these things correctly. Let’s hear it for the march of technology.

Second, for the most part, they are populated by the same types of people.

Here then is my humble and no doubt incomplete taxonomy.

Smugly Superior

This guy is smarter than you, better read than you, knows more about food than you, and in general is just better than you in every way. Most importantly, he has better taste than you. Just ask him. He will pontificate in the most pompous and self-important way about any subject while at the same time steering the subject of the conversation to why his sense of taste is refined and erudite while your preferences are no better than the drunk homeless guy lying near that sewer grate across the street.


Very common in the forums, but is really native to the Xbox Live service. Never has anything interesting to say, but does have a large catalog of racial slurs, sexist attacks and generally just mean things to say. Would call his own mother a gay useless n00b without a clue about life if it would make him feel more like a man on the Internet.

Mr. Can’t Let Go

Here is the conversation that you will regularly have with this guy:

You: I like marbles.
MCLG: No way man, oranges!
You: What do oranges have to do with marbles?
MCLG: No way man! ORANGES
You: Ok. You win.

You get the idea. This guy is so on message that he can’t tell when people have given up listening to him anymore.

Too Much Information Guy

Posts to Internet forums for dating advice, or legal advice involving his divorce, or to rail against his idiot co-workers, or to come out as a moonlighting prostitute. You get the idea.

Knows it All

This person’s entire self-worth is tied up in a single activity: correcting factual errors, no matter how small, in any forum post on the entire planet. You used to need a fantastically huge library and a good memory to be able to do this, but these days all you really need is google.

Reflexive Contrarian

Constructs all of his opinions by simply reversing whatever the current consensus is. If the majority of people decided that the sun comes up every day, this guy would decide to be against that position just so he could avoid being lumped into the “mass market” bucket of dweebs and morons.

The Persecuted Idiot

Finally, the true inspiration for this catalog and the probably the single most common driving personality in your average active forum. Everyone is against this person. No matter what the subject, any discussion with him will eventually turn into an argument over how many times he has been abused, attacked, mischaracterized, patronized, misunderstood and in general, well, just persecuted.

The problem is that the guy will consistently make indefensible statements and then dig himself into a trench and defend them against all comers until the heat death of the universe. Of course, this just adds to his persecution complex.

Usually this person mixes parts of all the other personalities in the list into his overall “forum persona”. God help you if you get two of these guys at once talking to each other. I’m fairly sure that the known physical laws cannot yet model what would happen to the Internet if this happened.

Hopefully this guide will help you in your interactions with the various personalities in the Internet forums. It can get ugly, so be careful out there.


13 Responses to “Internet Forum People: A Taxonomy”

  1. Owen Jacobson says:

    If I didn’t know better I’d think you were reading the same forums I read. Alas, that last type is just as prevalent as the others; no forum’s persecuted idiot is particularly unique.

    There’s no technological fix for human nature,

  2. Chris says:

    Most forums do let you do (a), there’s usually a link on the first page called “View new posts” or something. Most will also have little buttons right in front of (or right behind) the thread titles that look like bullet points, but actually take you to the oldest unread post in that thread.
    The second one was a bit of a revelation to me a few months ago.

  3. knows-it-all says:

    That’s ‘douchebag’, n00b

  4. psu says:

    My spell checker has failed me. But I fixed it anyway.

    Also, the tiny little “go to the first new message” buttons do not count as a decent interface because they are usually teeny weeny and hard to hit.

    It’s obvious that the link to the thread should always just show me only new messages, and the tiny button should be for showing me all messages if I choose to later.

  5. peterb says:

    Man, I miss trn.

    (Ironically, though, I don’t miss Usenet.)

  6. todd underwood says:

    i think you mispelled “intertubes”. :-)

    i used to love trn. so sad that usenet is now just a way to distribute mostly copywritten, mostly porn video content.

  7. Joshua Jaobsen says:

    I’ve programmed blogs and message bases for a social networking site (which basically failed, because there are already tons of them, and mine wasn’t particularly compelling). When I was developing it, I was really unhappy with the message board issues you describe. If you show the threading, it’s hard to display the chronology of messages, and if you show chronology, the threading is irrevocably lost.

    I was trying to deal with organization, heirarchy, chronology, and automatically “ranking” (filtering / censoring) a poster’s content depending on what a fuck-head he is, but… it all gets data heavy very quick and requires a lot of user tools and participation. In the end, I failed, then gave up and went to a flat chronological view.

    I intend to try harder next time, but… I agree with you. As a developer of such things, however, I haven’t figured out how to solve the various message board problems. I also haven’t seen a good implementation of a message board online. My exposure to usenet has always been through web sites that expose it (like google groups). Maybe I need to dig up tm and get some inspiration from the older tools.

  8. Adam says:

    I can’t believe you forgot the type of person who, despite managing to be an American adult, gets every single possible rule of grammar wrong and has yet to spell a single word correctly. The more illegible they are, the more frequently they post, too.

  9. psu says:

    trn could do what it did because had perfect local state on what the user had actually read and not read in the message feed. This is admittedly more difficult to pull off in the web world, but the servers that are running the forum software are also 10,000 times more powerful than what we had in the 80s, so it seems like it ought to be possible.

  10. peterb says:

    > I can’t believe you forgot the type of person who, despite managing to be an
    > American adult, gets every single possible rule of grammar wrong and has yet to
    > spell a single word correctly. The more illegible they are, the more frequently
    > they post, too.

    The problem with mocking those people is that Murphy guarantees that in your paragraph mocking them, you will inadvertently misspell a word. It’s a law of the universe.

  11. Will says:

    Here are a couple of other types that I think constitute a smaller, but real, sub-section of intertubery.

    1. The American Remonstrator – This person, usually, but not always, a non-American. He is greatly annoyed and offended by America, Americans and everything about the USA and its citizens.

    Sometimes he has a real beef, or a valid point, but that is really secondary to his main aim, which is to assert his own superiority by constantly deriding others. The USA as a powerful, and at the moment, violently inept county, is a perfectly safe target. Most non-Americans and a goodly number of Americans will agree either enthusiastically or ruefully, with whatever attack the American Remonstrator makes.

    The Remonstrator often belongs to the “Know It All” category. Which you would have known if you hadn’t gotten such an inferior education in the American school system.

    2. Captain America – This USA patriot actor violently disagrees with The American Remonstrator. He’s prolific, tireless, verbose and insane. Any criticism, no matter how well-grounded, is in the end met with “We saved your ass, you craven surrender monkey.” or “Shut up! We could SO nuke you.”

    Captain America makes it impossible for others to respond to the American Remonstrator in a calm and rational way, since Cpt. America proves the Remonstrator’s point for him most of the time.

    Cpt. America is usually a subset of “Persecuted Idiot” or “Can’t Let Go”.

    3. The Loveless Misogynist/The Braggart Misogynist – Crowbars vile descriptions, epithets and unlikely sexual acts and conquests into any conversation. This person is usually a teen covering their abject fear of females with truly repulsive porn-informed language. Sometimes, though, you get a sense that some aren’t, in fact, lonely porn-obsessed teens, but lonely porn-obsessed adults. These people are sort of scary and best avoided.

    He’s also usually a douchebag.

    4. The Troll – The troll doesn’t really have any opinions. He just wants to wind people up and get them upset. He loves flame wars and people leaving in a huff. He’ll say anything at all to achieve that, often changing his position to insure maximum unpleasantness.

  12. pvg[knows it all] says:

    I’m surprised the exhaustive prior art hasn’t come up yet -

  13. Jukka says:

    And then there are the Finns who gingerly post something and immediately think, “I wonder what they think of me now?”.