The Angel of the iPhone: Part 5, Anonymity

Any attempt at trying to "discern the spirits" of Web 2.0 needs to wrestle with anonymity and its effects upon the self and relationality.

To start, there is a public good to pseudonymity and anonymity. Particularly in repressive cultures that lack a free press or where speaking truth is likely to be met with reprisals. So it is good that the Internet allows social critics in places like Iran or China to remain anonymous.

In addition, certain forms of social disclosure are easier in anonymous situations, like with the Catholic confessional. Research I've done with my students on PostSecret has suggested that the anonymous nature of PostSecret sharing gives people the courage to begin the process of difficult self-disclosure.

So there are good things about anonymity on the Web. But there are some concerns as well. Here is Stanley Fish in a piece entitled Anonymity and the Dark Side of the Internet:

The practice of withholding the identity of the speaker is strategic, and one purpose of the strategy (this is the second problem with anonymity) is to avoid responsibility and accountability for what one is saying. Anonymity, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago observes, allows Internet bloggers “to create for themselves a shame-free zone in which they can inflict shame on others.” The power of the bloggers, she continues, “depends on their ability to insulate their Internet selves from responsibility in the real world, while ensuring real-world consequences” for those they injure.
This is an extreme example, but it gets at the underlying issue: We behave badly on the Internet, particularly when we are anonymous.

Humans are social creatures. Consequently, much of our behavior is regulated by social norms and social approbation. So when these social controls are removed, when out actions cannot be connected to our identity, we find it easier to behave badly.

Internet pornography comes to mind. Back in the day you had to have a social interaction to get access to pornography. You had to purchase a magazine or a video from a clerk. And there was just enough social shame in this interaction, along with an associated fear of someone you knew walking in the store, that helped people fight the temptation to purchase pornography. If not consistently, at least from time to time.

And so, as most people know, the Internet was the greatest thing that ever happened to the porn industry. Largely because of the anonymity. The few social controls that existed are now gone.

But it goes further than porn. If you're a blogger, blog reader, or blog commenter you are very familiar with how people treat each other online. And the bad behavior is largely due to the anonymity Web 2.0 provides. We treat each other differently when we are face to face. Even if we disagree. But online, where we are communicating through an impersonal medium via pseudonymity, the social controls are missing and, thus, the nastiness comes out. Some have called this the online disinhibition effect (or, more profanely, the GIFT theory where, yes, the F stands for that f-word; see here for pictorial depiction of GIFT).

This nastiness causes a lot of people to give up on Web 2.0. Either that or we change try to avoid the nastiness as best we can. For example, a friend of ours writes a popular blog and whenever he writes on a hot-button topic related to the Churches of Christ the comments tend to blow up. So much so that my wife now only reads the posts and refuses to read the comments. She knows reading the comments will make her angry and depressed. It's just not spiritually healthy to get too deep into some comment threads.

I think this is why a lot of people seek to limit their participation with Web 2.0. They find face to face interactions more civil, humanizing, and uplifting. And, if they do use Web 2.0, they try to step around the nastiness, limiting their exposure to certain comment threads, blogs, or even Facebook friends who post too much nasty stuff, politically or religiously.

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8 thoughts on “The Angel of the iPhone: Part 5, Anonymity”

  1. To continue your thought process, I think, on the other side of the coin is our tendency to put distance between ourselves and any criticism or "nastiness" (death, animal reminder, etc). This has its use in that it can be an effective defense mechanism in order to sustain the well-being of the self. Yet, if taken to an extreme, this aversion to all things critical and "nastiness" has users assuming and employing an overly-positive and rose-colored conception of reality. This also speaks to our tendency to paint and gravitate towards upbeat and unrealistically beautiful conceptions of our own lives as we post and proclaim them to the virtual world. It seems to me, though I have no research to validate this assumption, that there also a gravitation towards an unrealistically positive outlook on life at the expense of the reality of life. This is typically lived out in our relationships through such things as desiring to spend time with those who are constantly upbeat and outwardly happy, by remaining in contact and connection with those who affirm this overly-positive outlook while at the same time putting distance between oneself and those who threaten that positivity with either a realistic outlook or a negative one. While this may be an evolutionary defense mechanism to sustain the self, this tendency makes it difficult for a person to "mourn with those who mourn" unless they are themselves already in mourning. Which, I do not think is the point or purpose of that passage. To connect with a person means to delve into their world, see things as they see them, and to understand (as much as possible) their worldview - to empathize entirely. 

    Anyway, there is an aversion to everything correlated to negativity as well as a preference for overly happy and jovial positivity regarding reality. Both of these tendencies are most likely used as a defense mechanism against existential and relational threats. Thoughts? 

  2. Totally agree. I think picking and choosing our way around reality to avoid any existential unpleasantness can be very pathological. I'm thinking of my work on The Thomas Kinkade Effect as just one example.

  3. This puts me in mind of both Zimbardo and Milgram, how pretty much all of us will do bad things if we feel there are no consequences, or if in a uniform (or if someone else is taking the blame). We have poorly developed intrinsic motivation. (In restorative justice we learn this is in large part due to our criminal justice system of deterrents and retribution - which are of course also present in many Christian approaches to faith.)

  4. I've definitely borne the brunt of internet comment cruelty from time to time, and I have to admit that I've dished it out, as well - usually when it's late at night and I'm tired and something in real life has been bugging me.

    It's way easier to express uncomfortable emotions through anger directed at a stranger than it is to dig into myself and seek to discover the source and a way to speak them free. 

    The way I avoid this is, yes, to ignore comment threads. I have also taken to using my full name online, and to posting enough personal information that anyone who wanted to kill me could track me down with ease. In doing this, I force myself to remember that even online, I am a person, speaking with other persons. Doing unto others, and all that. It (usually) seems to work, as you probably know, Dr. Richard Beck, professor at Abilene University in Abilene, Texas :)

  5. That's an interesting observation. I wonder if it could be studied, psychologically speaking.

    For example, one reason I use a picture of my smiling face as my profile pic is to humanize, intentionally so, my presence in the comment thread. I wonder if something like that helps the interactions?

  6.  This is my first visit here. I found some really interesting stuff in your blog especially this discussion. Keep up the good work.

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