Online Role-Playing: Remember, It's a Reality Show

Don Tennant

The compulsion of some people to say things online that they would never dream of saying in a physical setting gets more mystifying by the day, especially given that the practice can have very serious consequences. How serious? Just ask Paul Chambers.


Chambers, a 26-year-old U.K. man who describes himself as "the most mild-mannered guy you can imagine," has been suspended from his job, banned for life from Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, and had his iPhone, laptop and home computer confiscated. He'll find out on Feb. 11 whether life as he knows it will change forever. The reason: an online post of fewer than 140 characters.


According to a report yesterday on, Chambers was arrested following a tip that he had posted this little gem on Twitter:

"Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Chambers was reportedly annoyed by the fact that the airport was closed due to heavy snow, which messed up his plans to fly to Ireland. His imprudent Tweet resulted in his arrest and seven hours of questioning. He's now out of the slammer on bail, counting the days till Feb. 11, when he'll find out whether he'll be charged with conspiring to create a bomb hoax.


Psychologists are probably having a field day exploring what was going through Chambers' mind as he was composing that Tweet. He probably really is as mild-mannered as he says he is, at least in his everyday, corporeal life. But online, he can be Rambo, James Bond and the Terminator, all rolled into one. The experience is one big role-playing game.


The Chambers story is reminiscent of the online death threats that were directed at Web developer and blogger Kathy Sierra in 2007. The contention that those threats were harmless was sweeping the blogosphere at the time, and I wrote about the phenomenon that yielded that disturbing mind set:

The harm lies in the notion that the online world is separate from and independent of the physical world and that there is an inherently distinct standard of civility and acceptable behavior associated with it. To some extent, there's a subconscious element to the separation that's evident even in e-mail. I get my share of vitriol in the form of venomous comments from readers on some of the views I express here. I respond directly to as many of them as I can, and it's not uncommon at all for me to get a far more cordial, sometimes apologetic, reply from those readers. There's often surprise, or even shock, that I had actually read what they had written. That there's a real human being on the other end of the "send" click often seems to be something of a revelation.

Whether it's Tweeting one's intent to blow up an airport or subjecting another person to anything from defamation to death threats, we need to keep in mind that this stuff is occurring in the real world, not in some make-believe realm where we aren't held accountable for our actions. A keyboard and mouse are real-world tools, not fantasy-world weapons. Failure to understand that might mean "game over" for a mild-mannered guy in the U.K., and the rest of us would be well advised to learn from his blunder.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jan 26, 2010 8:36 AM Drunken Economist Drunken Economist  says:

sigh No, Don, "online role playing" is NOT a reality show, if you want to see one of those refer to Gawker, Twitter and the whole Tila Tequila thing. You're just a tad out of touch.

It is a game, in the John Nash sense. And since you need some more schooling I refer you to Wikipedia for the following two terms:

"Anonymous", the group versus the Church of Scientology, and the term "Griefing." If your article had contained THAT I would be more impressed.

But no, you took the easy way out. I guess the "terrorists" win.

-Drunken Economist


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