Thanks to the Internet, we now have a host of new ways to offend, enrage, misinterpret, creep out, or alienate people. In the Tangled Web, we field your questions about how to be a decent human online. Have a question? Ask email@example.com.
An online acquaintance has learned that flattering others is a great way to influence them into thinking (or at least saying) how great he is. What I find troubling is that his flattery is superfluous and nonsensical, and he is fake and manipulative. I have nothing to gain or lose from this person, but it bothers me to see others snowed by his online antics. There doesn't seem to be any appropriate way to call out the behavior, so instead I choose to ignore it. Is there any other way to handle this situation or is it just not worth it?
Yeah, this is one you probably just have to let go. It’s always frustrating to watch people fall for a transparent social con, but they’re grownups, and you can’t really force them to be savvier or do it on their behalf. Plus, you don’t really know their motivations—some of them may be taken in by his brown-nosing, but others may just find that simpering back at him and then walking away is the best way to give him the smallest possible amount of mental energy.
Besides, is he really doing any harm (to anyone but you, since it’s so rage-making to watch him Smithers it up)? He gets to be the kind of person who can be counted on for a compliment, however insincere you feel it may be. Your friends get compliments, which apparently are sincere enough for their purposes since they aren’t putting up a fight. It’s a pretty gross symbiotic relationship to look upon—less like those birds that sit on rhinos, more like those parasites that live inside a fish’s mouth and replace its tongue. But everyone except the observer is getting something they apparently want.
Of course, if you feel people are being genuinely taken advantage of—if, for instance, he’s smarming them out of money or favors—then you have a responsibility to speak up. If he’s just grossing you out, though, let it lie. You can’t make people know better.
What’s great, though, is because this is an online acquaintance, you don’t actually have to listen to his BS anymore. If this sycophant were hanging around with your friends in real life, you’d be obligated to either physically dodge out of the room when you saw him coming or stand around wishing you could dig forks into your eyes every time he opened his mouth. But whatever grudge we may nurse against Facebook and Twitter for the way they bring annoying people into the forefront of our consciousness, you have to admit: They clearly know they’re doing it, and they give you the tools to make it stop.
So unless you have to interact with him for work or something else non-optional, block or hide him on social media. Even on threads where you both participate, you simply won’t see his contributions, and you can blissfully pretend that your friends don’t see it either. (And in fact, maybe they don’t. That’s another plausible explanation for why some of them haven’t called it out—maybe they’re a step ahead of you, and they don’t even see his comments anymore.)
Jess Zimmerman has been making social blunders on the Internet since 1994. Most of her current interpersonal drama takes place on Twitter (@j_zimms).
Illustration by Jason Reed