By now, you should know I have mixed feelings about anonymity. While beneficial in certain situations (therapy, support groups, etc.), it also creates an environment that encourages people to become their worst passive aggressive selves.

After reading “Deindividuation“, a post on the “You Are Not So Smart” blog, I’m convinced it’s the root of all evil (mild hyperbole). The post contains anecdotes about people who were contemplating suicide (from the top of a building) and who made that fatal jump after being encouraged to do so by a crowd. Very disturbing. Who in their right mind would do something like that? Answer: You and me.

According to the author:

The risk of a spontaneous cheering section goading a person into killing themselves is high when people in a group feel anonymous and are annoyed or angry. It only takes one person to get the crowd going. Those are the three ingredients – anonymity, group size and arousal. If you lose your sense of self, feel the power of a crowd and then get slammed by a powerful cue from the environment – your individuality may evaporate.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the streets and takes place online as well. You’re probably familiar with the story of the girl who offed herself after being taunted by online bullies.

The more anonymity a user is allowed, the more powerful the effect of being protected by the group. (…) your identity can spring a leak in the presence of others, and the more others there are, the more you dissolve into the collective will of the group. Looting, rioting, lynchings, beating, war, chasing a monster with torches – the switch is always there, and it doesn’t take much to flip it.

Very depressing.

The post does give a small glimmer of hope though: all this energy could potentially be harnessed for the greater good by making people feel “safe from judgment” and by providing “prosocial cues”. I’d really like to know what a prosocial cue looks like to begin with, especially in the online world. According to Wikipedia,

Prosocial behavior is caring about the welfare and rights of others, feeling concern and empathy for them, and acting in ways that benefit others.

That’s all fine and dandy but how does that stand a chance when online society is governed by incredibly strong forces such as Godwin’s Law?

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches. In other words, Godwin put forth the hyperbolic observation that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope— someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.

(If you don’t believe this statement, I suggest you go spend some time in the comments section of the Austin American Statesman.)

I really don’t mean to be a cynic. I just think that, unless you live in a country where freedom of speech is repressed (sorry ACLU activists, the United States is NOT China or Syria), you should own up to your thoughts and opinions.


2 Comments to “Anonymonsters”

  1. Hmm I fear I may have to take a contrary view here, to a small degree… While I agree that anonymity can bring out the worst in people, I think that a greater distinction needs to be drawn between between the dehumanizing effects of “mob mentality” and anonymous speech. While both are displays of anonymous behaviour, they are two different things.

    People do things they wouldn’t ordinarily under the cloak of anonymity. This applies to mob behaviour and to speech. But while our individuality is (willfully) forgotten when we steal candy or encourage someone to commit suicide, that same individuality can be protected and asserted when someone invokes their right (in a society, such as the US, which allows it) to anonymous speech. Anonymous speech allows the individual to assert themselves *in spite of* possibly overwhelming mob mentality to conform to a particular point of view, offering some protection against reprisal, or in the political arena, charges of corruption or favoritism.

    In addition, technology is quickly increasing the importance of anonymous speech. We live in a world where prospective employers will google one’s name and make judgments based on an ill-thought status update or a photograph of a candidate drunk at a party 5 years ago, or even their political beliefs, religion, or sexual orientation (yes, they’re not suppose to, but it’s so much easier to do in the internet era). We live in a world where our every communication is being archived and increasingly available for anyone to retrieve (and retrieve, even worse, anonymously!) Anonymity, in this sense, is perhaps our last defense against this trend.

    For sure people will, and do, abuse anonymous speech. (See, e.g., IRC… and God knows I’m guilty on that charge.) But I think of it like a tool – capable of abuse or irresponsible (or just stupid) use, but also necessary for those who would use it wisely, or for the right reasons. It is a tool that grants power, and naturally this tends to bring out the worst in people – but it also gives power to those who would otherwise have none: the politically unpopular and oppressed.

    I completely agree that, by and large, in a free society people should own up to their opinions – but at the same time, the option should exist for people to put their ideas “out there” to be judged entirely on their own merits, and not on the identity of the speaker.

  2. I agree with Mr Pane, and would also add a few things.

    On “cyber-bullies”, lack of anonymity is no guarantee of a lack of bullying; in fact most bullies in school act clearly in the open. What we could worry about is whether those who were unlikely to bully – i.e., those individuals who are too afraid or too lacking in confidence to bully in the open, now can do it online. So, is the Internet providing an incremental increase in bullying from these quarters? That’s plausible. But just as anonymity favors the cowardly, it should also enable the weak, right? If the school cafeteria and playground are places hard to stand up for oneself because of physical/cultural/racial differences from the dominant clique – then at least the anonymity of the Web allows such differences to be erased. It’s hard for me to see that only cyberbullies are benefited from anonymity; ‘cybervictims’ must benefit too, at least initially.

    I think the two examples you cited – of online audiences egging on certain self-harming behaviors, and of all speech in comment threads degenerating as per Godwin’s Law – are examples of more universal human failings, rather than particulars of the Internet, or of Internet-produced anonymity. Mr Pane alludes to ‘mob violence’. Disindividuation can happen in many places and times, and one doesn’t need the web to produce the blurring of identity that allows one to exceed one’s own moral standard. That this can occur on the Web is deplorable, but one can’t blame the medium for the poor quality of the message.

    Ideal dialogue won’t disintegrate into hyperbole or name-calling; but we are far from such ideals even in fully identified settings, like a country’s parliament where a sitting President can be likened alternately to a Nazi and then to a Communist, with wilful disregard for ideology. I think Godwin’s Law is just an entertaining observation rather than sociology.

    Rather than anonymonsters, we actually have a situation today where anonymity is our real defence against the monsters that afflict our society: of unequal and grossly misshapen power structures, of corporatist interests manipulating ‘public opinion’, and where libel laws are overinterpreted to prevent questioning. I’m reminded that the Internet activist group ‘Anonymous’ recently DOS-attacked the Koch Brothers website. Perhaps sometimes Anonymity pays.

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