The Diet Police in Online Communities

 As January 1, the official Starting Day of Diets approaches, I notice lots of people online getting a head start.  The forums and Facebook groups are expanding rapidly after Thanksgiving. I have a love-hate relationships with these groups.  They provide great support and friendship opportunities.  On the down side, they can sometimes be full of Guerrilla Marketers–and worst of all, there are the Diet Police. Diet police love to pick on newbies.  Here’s the low-down on what’s going on. 

The Seekers and the Sought

People approach a new way of eating, especially LCHF and keto, in “seeker” mode. Many are tentative and fearful, full of body shame.  Admitting one’s relationship with food is unhealthy is difficult. Some people have been in denial, others have known but put off really facing the problem of –let’s use the horrible word — obesity.  This can set people up for an unhealthy relationship with their SUPPORT group. 

I was on Weight Watchers for several years (which helped me gain at least twenty pounds! Yay points!–[note to self: design sarcasm font].) but I found the bullying and sneering and general incivility on their forum to be fairly relentless and unchecked.  At one point, a bunch of us  created our own group on Facebook to escape from that horrid den of cattiness. It was small, warm, and friendly group.  And within 18 months, it was dead. None of us were able to lose weight on that program. A few of us went on to other eating styles but mostly we’re all still overweight.  And gods, we tried. The group was warm and very supportive.  And we all honestly really wanted to follow the program and lose.   But we were past the “seeker” stage, those first uncertain steps when no one is sure what they’re doing. WW makes sure that EVERYONE can get super-informed — and the forums are just echo chambers for rules and regulations. 

The Diet Police: Cadet Squad

Moving from the position of  “seeker of wisdom” to “giver of wisdom” is a heady step.  Many people enjoy that rush of “I know this!” and like moving from the position of newbie know-little to Experienced! Successful! –and they form one kind of “Diet Police.”  I think of them as “Diet Police–Junior Cadet Squad.” 

They delight in giving the newbies the usual, everyday knowledge that most people have.  Most of them are delightful (not always spot on accurate, but delightful. ) Honest, happy, a little jubilant over their initial success, they joyfully share the wealth.  

There are Others, however, who enjoy their authority too much.  They revel in their knowledge and use it to punish people.  These are the Diet Police: Troll Division — and they are everywhere.  Worse, their attitudes often trickle down into the Cadet Division, creating a new generation of bad attitude cops, getting high off of belittling, mocking and attacking others. 

The Diet Police: Troll Division

I discovered trolling back in 1988, when I was in a new parents usenet group.   Some idiots came into the group seeking to spark fear and terror into young parents about — you guessed it — vaccination.   The anti-vaxxers are a weird, persistent group that had been with us for at least that long.  As a social scientist, I was fascinated and appalled.  I spent my free time studying this situation which quickly drew me into the new world of “flame wars” and “trolling.”   

Rather than boring you with 20 years worth of research (okay, more, I’m old)– let me cut to the chase.  Trolls are out for ATTENTION.  They just want to be the center of a cult.   Most of the time, they have only  a half-hearted allegiance to the point of view they espouse (some have NO dog in the fight, they just love trolling.)   The role of Diet Police: Troll Division suits them very well. 

Some of the most uncivil, ruthless and vicious people on diet forums are,  well, let me put it out there: experience and research in trolling would suggest that many of these Troll police are MEN who hate women and enjoy controlling them.  Diet groups are a great way to pretend to be a woman and set the cat among the pigeons (stir up trouble).  It’s a fantasy role for them, a bit of online cross-dressing.   When the Junior Cadets begin to idealize them and emulate their behavior, the fantasy is complete.  On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.  And no one knows you’re not a guy. 

Many groups tolerate (and thus encourage) trolling of newbie members, either light trolling (smug comments, belittling behavior, minor catfights about Doctrine) or  full-on hectoring lectures. The seekers are in a terrible position. They earnestly want salvation–and their self esteem is damaged. They are exactly what controlling, vicious trolls are looking for in terms of “fresh meat.”  

Does this get you angry?  I hope it does. Ladies, let us unite against incivility in diet communities. Vote with your feet, complain to the moderator, demand that the tone of humiliation and trolling cease and desist.  Toxic communities are everywhere and they grow, newbie by newbie. 

Online Groups as Video Games

In my research into online communities, I find that there are five kinds of participants, just like in video games  ( I stole these categories from video game research). There are Achievers, who want to rack up the most followers, make the most points.  There are Socializers, who are there for the social contacts.  There are explorers — these guys are great, they run all over the Internet for interesting things to bring back to the group.  There are the more rare “content creators” (or Builders) — people who make recipes or resources and share them.  And then there are Dominators.  Dominators are not having fun in a video game unless they win AGAINST PEOPLE.  It’s not good enough to win against artificial intelligent fake bad-guys.  They need to beat their friends. 

When a video game fails to control dominators, the numbers of dominators in the environment grow.  

If dominators begin to outnumber other kinds of participants, then the group (or the video game) begins to degrade.  Online groups, like video games, will have to rely on having a fresh supply of newbies all the time, so one REALLY has to be wary of groups that are slated as “for beginners.”  

The problem is: if there are NO dominators present in a video game, if their activities are TOO controlled, the video game tends to die because it is totally “no fun.”  Everyone has a little bit of dominator in them, it turns out.   Let’s face it, we can all be a bit smug and smart-alecky.   We all enjoy the feeling of “winning”–  we enjoy being right, being knowledgable.  Moderators have to tolerate some degree of discord, cattiness and know-it-all posts or people feel their freedom of expression is being denied.  Moderation is a tough task.  So be good to moderators. They have pretty thankless tasks and daily headaches.  But don’t be afraid to call out bad behavior–or at the very least, vote with your feet and get out of there. 

In my next Blogmas post, I’m going to cover What To Look For in Online Groups. 

Author: Lola

Recovering academic, real-life, honest to cornflakes anthropologist (Ph.D. and fieldwork and everything), tech-head and social media researcher.

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