The Connection Between Anonymity and Nastiness in the Online World

After reading Jim’s announcement that Discover Magazine has opened its archives of completed issues back to 1992, I took a look around. I spotted a more recent article “Jaron’s World: Sex, Drugs and the Internet” (yes, even with 15 years of archives, I only managed to go back a whole week).

The article’s thesis, that “today’s outbreaks of nasty online behavior are directly linked to the history of the counterculture in America, and in particular to the war on drugs”, is meant to shock, and of course, makes more sense once you read the article. After thinking about my own recent post re: Digg, I particularly liked this paragraph.

People who can spontaneously invent a pseudonym in order to post a comment on a blog or on YouTube are often remarkably mean. Buyers and sellers on eBay are usually civil, despite occasional annoyances like fraud. Based on those data you could propose that transient anonymity coupled with a lack of consequences is what brings out online idiocy. With more data, the hypothesis can be refined. Participants in Second Life (a virtual online world) are not as mean to each other as people posting comments to Slashdot (a popular technology news site) or engaging in edit wars on Wikipedia, even though all use persistent pseudonyms. I think the difference is that on Second Life the pseudonymous personality itself is highly valuable and requires a lot of work to create. So a better portrait of the culprit is effortless, ­consequence-free, transient anonymity in the service of a goal, like promoting a point of view, that stands entirely apart from one’s identity or personality. Call it drive-by anonymity.

I’ve been talking about this concept in regards to academic integrity and plagiarism during some recent workshops. I brought up the idea of “(Inter)Net Circumstance”, the idea that a discontinuity of self raises certain problems for online behaviour such as plagiarism, (illegal) music downloading, software cracks, innappropriate commenting/flaming, sexual harassment … things that individuals would not do normally in face-to-face, “real” situations. From this, we discussed the idea of integrity as wholeness, a single sense of self across a wide-range of circumstances, including virtual circumstances.

The concept raised by this article, drive-by anonymity, is (in practice) familiar to many of us. However, I believe we all need to better understand this issue as it relates to integrity. Let’s raise the issue with our students and colleagues.

Update: Francois points to an interesting Globe and Mail article that covers this same topic. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “The Connection Between Anonymity and Nastiness in the Online World

  1. Alec,

    Thanks for the link and the article. My experience is that anonymity creates, for the user, a sense of power that the user would not have in a f2f encounter. Now, this can be both positive, as in it erases prejudice and allows people to communicate freely and negative, as you demonstrate a few times. My experience on the net is that the way it is used will depend on the location and the people who are there view others ideas. I’d prefer the first but I’ve seen way to much of the latter.
    You are correct about teaching and talking about this whole thing. Really, you are not anonymous especially with the ability to track IP addresses. However, that is something few people think about.

  2. Pingback: Le Web des cons : insultes et menaces de mort || Relief

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