Psychology & Social Media (Part III)

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Our hearts raced.

Our friend picked up the phone.

anon“You smell bad!” we said in unison, masking our voices in creepy falsetto. Then we slammed down the phone and laughed.

I was a tween in a time before the ubiquity of Caller ID/Display and prank calls were in vogue. I was slightly ashamed of what we were doing, and yet we made the calls, and our ability to do this ugly, passive-aggressiveness and hurtful thing was facilitated by one critical factor: anonymity.

Without this cloak we were kind to our friend with whom we, clearly, had some issues. There were certainly more effective and decidedly more respectable ways to address our problems. Did we have the emotional maturity to do so? Clearly not. And the lack of identity gave us free reign to express our feelings honestly – and distastefully.

The benefit of online anonymity is often provided in the extreme. It enables users to offer information or perspective without fear of retribution or recrimination (e.g. whistleblowing, expressing political points of view under repressive regimes). Stigma is also a consideration: a person might be hesitant to attach their name because the revelations might lead them face discrimination (e.g. at their workplace for certain points of view or for their sexual orientation) and someone, for instance, who experienced sexual abuse or is dealing with depression might want to comment on a blog post or forum to express solidarity – but not if it meant revealing their identity to everyone.

Of course many anonymous remarks don’t fall under these categories. And while online anonymity, which has long been a contentious issue, allows for the expression of honest points of view, it is also an appropriate shelter from which to fire off damaging or defamatory remarks. It is theorized that “Good Lamps Are the Best Police” and anonymity – and even the illusion of anonymity – provides a cloak under which to operate, and is an excellent sanctuary for those wishing to use the internet for hateful comments, intimidation and character assassinations.

Recent occurrences have once again thrown this issue into the spotlight. There are, as just a few examples, a court case which requests the unveiling of anonymous posters who made defamatory comments, a newspaper which revealed their discovery that the anonymous comments on their site which were “disparaging a local lawyer, were made using the e-mail address of a judge who was presiding over some of that lawyer’s cases”, Anonymously authored blogs exist, as do as skewed Amazon reviews made under a pseudonym and social sites or applications that encourage anonymous feedback.

The sad truth is that people sometimes comport themselves differently when their identity is not known. Even those comments which express honest dissenting opinion frequently lack respect when posted anonymously. The anonymity adds yet another layer of distance from the other party: without the person in front of you, you can avoid considering his/her emotions and possible reactions, but now that you that your identity is also concealed, it is easy to dispense with any civility at all.

Take for instance a comment on a blog that remarks something such as:

“This post makes it clear you are a complete moron. I would be embarrassed to be you.”

How? Why?

With anonymity the opportunity is presented to phrase even one’s legitimate opinions in an inconsiderate and scathing way. Were there an obligation to attach one’s name – and all the reputation that may go with it – the user might be more inclined to take into account the other party’s humanity and feelings and rather than release vitriolic comments, perhaps provide constructive criticism.

Scott Rosenberg of Salon.com makes the argument that moderation rather than “real names” would help to encourage responsible discourse. This makes good sense with respect to online conversations not descending into “barroom brawls” but does not address the difficulty in distinguishing between true and untrue statements made online. And, without attaching identity, there is also no way of gauging the perspective/conflict of interest of the party.

Writes Randy Cohen: “’Says who?’ is not a trivial question. It deepens the reader’s understanding to know who is speaking, from what perspective, with what (nutty?) history, and with what personal stake in the matter.

Certainly, anonymous posters aren’t the only ones who write distastefully or choose to grind their axe online. But this allowance does grant a great deal of power without responsibility. Power on its own can be a dangerous intoxicant. Without repercussions it becomes even more worrisome.

Recall the question: “Would you kill someone if no one would ever know you did it?” Replace “kill” with “defame” and you have a fair concern for the internet age.

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Note: If would like to recommend articles or books, please feel free to suggest in the comments, or contact me through my blog or on Twitter.

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