What constitutes an attack on the web and why does it happen?
One thing is certain, online communication may not parallel offline life. And it doesn’t always match the user’s “true self” or intent either.
A common rule of thumb in Computer-mediated-communication is that you view the other party as standing in front of you during the conversation. The inclination then is to be more careful, both in tone and in wording.
Psychologist John Suler refers to the online propensity towards the opposite as “The Online Disinhibition Effect” whereby people “act out more frequently or intensely than they would in person” (as well as self-disclose more).
The assumption with alcohol (which has a similar dis-inhibitory effect) is that we need help in loosening our tongue, and that the “true self” emerges under these conditions. Suler points out that that, in terms of online communication, this may not be the case:
“The self does not exist separate from the environment in which that self is expressed. If someone contains his aggression in face-to-face living, but expresses that aggression online, both behaviors reflect aspects of self: the self that acts non-aggressively under certain conditions, the self that acts aggressively under other conditions. When a person is shy in person while outgoing online, neither self-presentation is more true. They are two dimensions of that person, each revealed within a different situational context.”
Further, many consider making negative comments more acceptable and less severe than enacting such behaviors offline. One reason is that there are often no real world repercussions (especially when the commenter is anonymous) and for those wanting to bully it is a perfect vehicle.
I can't see you …
But not all intents are as malicious, sometimes there is simply a “lack of awareness” for the other party’s emotions. Additionally, offline,“[t]he self-conscious emotions of shame, guilt and embarrassment” are shown to “play an important role both in regulating our everyday interactions and also alleviating interactions that have been disrupted.” But online it is easy to post harsh words as “[t]ext communication offers abuilt-in opportunity to keep one’s eyes averted.”
Avoidance of attacks or negative judgments is why some people choose to not post (for instance, a YouTube video, or not to have a blog), or why some may even opt to shut down their online presence on a social site pursuant to an onslaught of negativity. To consider the impact that just one “bad apple" can have, think about the way one person’s presence in the offline world can lend negativity to an environment. Just as a workplace can be tainted by the behavior of one colleague so can one’s interest in participating in online discussions be dampened by interactions with one person. What was once a comfortable and positive haven can rapidly morph into a minefield, one where a user may question each decision to post or spend unnecessary time dealing with a fallout.
Insult is in the eye of the beholder.
In a Master’s Thesis which studied of concept of “flaming” on YouTube , the author, Peter J. Moor, pointed out that interpretation was key. Just as in email, lacking knowledge of the sender and/or his/her body language leads to interpretation of message other than was intended. While some comments were made to insult the party, in some instances miscommunication was also present. Referring in this case to those posting videos on YouTube, though it can well apply to other forms of online communication (e.g. blog post comments, twitter responses etc.):
“posters may think too often that comments are primarily aimed at them, and they may think that comments are intended to be offensive or provoking when they are not. Also, they may interpret comments different from their intended purposes …”
A telling example discussed in the paper played out as follows:
“Thompsen describes how some of his ideas in a philosophical discussion are met with disagreement. The sender of the reply, who is called “B” and is known to Thompsen in real life, expresses his disagreement and ends his message with “Sorry, but knowledge/experience/reality in any formulation shouldn’t be subjected to that sort of crap.” (p. 54). Thompsen is not sure about the intent of this reply especially because the word “crap” is used. He feels frustrated and offended, which he makes clear in a reply to B. When B responds, it appears that his first reply had no offensive intent at all. Also, the word “crap” was wrongly interpreted as such: “Of the "crap" line, well, I have been hearing that line used about the kind of work I do for a long time now from hard-core quantitative types and I guess it just rubs off. Don’t take it personally.” (p. 61).” 
Another part of the thesis examined appropriateness of the communication, in that what one group would consider offensive another would deem completely acceptable. Within these communities, logically, the insult wasn’t, in fact, an insult. Interestingly, once we cross communities in any sense, we encounter these difficulties. But what constitutes a community? Family dynamics have some bearing on a person’s communication style (e.g. confrontation, non-confrontation). And different social circles have various way of interacting. Think for a moment of your circle of friends. You wouldn’t dare mix some of your connections – who wants to risk the fallout that could occur when "Gentle Dave" is faced with “Evil Steve’s” remarks?
Similarly, I have a friend with whom our method of affection is to insult each other as viciously as possible. It’s a game, a form of improv – and we’re aware of it . But were we to deal with everyone in this capacity, we’d soon find ourselves without work, or friends. Different jokes for different folks, I think they say. Since, we don't know all folks and their different styles of communication, nor intent, what can we effectively surmise during online confrontations? And how do we instill an awareness of how things may be interpreted?
On to you.
[Part 3 will appear… soon]
Notes and Sources:
*For the purposes of these articles, let’s assume the term “online participation” and similar refers to "social media" (i.e. public and interactive communication), but mainly blogs, forums, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Ning etc.)
Note: If would like to recommend articles or books, please feel free to make suggestion in the comments, or contact me through my blog or on Twitter.
 "The Online Disinhibition Effect", John Suler (PDF)
 "The role of shame, guilt and embarrassment in online social dilemmas, Asima Vasalou, Adam Joinson, Jeremy Pitt (PDF)
 “The Online Disinhibition Effect”, Suler (as above)
 “Flaming on YouTube", Peter J. Moor (PDF)