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Do people overestimate the anonymity of the internet?

Sometimes the internet world is a great place – supportive, welcoming, informative and fun. 
Sometimes the internet world is a horrid place and I question why I am getting involved in it and with the people that inhabit it.

Years ago I was a member of an internet forum and it was great – it gave me somewhere to talk to people and I made several real life friends from people I met on there.  As I got more involved in blogging and twitter, and as various spats got carried away (and work clamped down on personal internet use) I stopped posting so much.  I did look at other forums but didn’t find anywhere that felt the same so moved on.

Today I’ve been back and read a thread that has made me question why I do things in the virtual world.

I’ve signed up to a couple of bloggers’ networks recently – I had a bit of time and in one case they asked me nicely and it seemed like a fairly easy thing for me to sign up to.  I have popped over to the sites (I’ve been members of both for years although not active) and dithered about whether to introduce myself but haven’t.  Something came up, I got distracted and well I didn’t say hello.

Turns out that there’s a whole host of unwritten rules about these places and you are damned if you don’t introduce yourself and damned if you do.
I’m not a prude and I’m fairly robust but the tsunami of abuse that greeted one introductory post struck me as totally over the top.  And the language made me feel uncomfortable.  I swear – I’ve worked in an investment bank and I can keep up with the big boys when it comes to using foul language.  But I don’t tend to type it for others to read, I don’t put things up on the internet that I would feel uncomfortable if my friends read.

I did wonder if perhaps the anonymity of these places, with their convoluted usernames and no photos, is perhaps part of the problem.  If we are writing something that can be linked right back to us and found by those we know and love, are we a little more careful of how we put ourselves out there (obviously not if you’re Rachel Johnson but that’s a different issue) but if we can hide behind another identity, in a place where being forthright is encouraged, is it easier to behave without as much of a veneer of civilisation?

Psychologists call it ‘deindividuation’ – that social norms can be withdrawn when identities are hidden. 

There have been experiments to back it up include one with American children at Halloween where trick or treaters were invited to take sweets left on a table which also had some money left on it.  When the children arrived on their own and without masks only 8% took the money.  When they arrived in larger groups, with their faces behind masks, that number increased to 80%.  Being a faceless member of the crowd and anonymous meant that they were willing to break rules that they normally would have abided by.

It’s the same thing that happens when people get into their car and feel that they can scream abuse at other drivers for minor misdemeanours, it’s what causes football supporters to chant racist or homophobic abuse. 

And on the internet it seems to be what allows people to use the cover of a username or avatar, surrounded by strangers, to say things that they almost certainly wouldn’t say if they met that person in real life, in a room of real people.

But surely the concept of standing by our good name and not doing something that would embarrass our Gran still stands?  The internet is a great big public place and everything we do leaves a virtual footprint that can be tracked and saved and ultimately linked back to us in our real lives.  I do wonder what the friends and relations of some of these people would feel if they read these posts and I do wonder if the posters realise that every single thing that they are writing is there for posterity and can (and probably will) be found.

Does the concept of standing by your name exist in the internet or are we all just hiding behind our online identity?
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3 comments to Do people overestimate the anonymity of the internet?

  • I think anonimity does make us behave in ways that we would not normally. However, I have my blog world where I hope and wish to be accepted for my actions rather than what I look or sound like therefore I hope I behave myself because I want people to like me for want of a better word. To look forward to my comments and tweets and to read my blog. I have been very fortunate inthat I have not met anyone horrid on line as yet. However, I am sure I will treat thjem in teh way O treat people who are horrid to me to my face or nat as the case maybe in the ‘real’ worl: with extreme politeness and after that a studied avoidance at all costs…

    • I think that we are a lot less anonymous than sone people think – a quick google search can reveal an awful lot of personal information and the imagine having the real world see those comments

      I’m always aware that someone could read what I’ve written

  • A tsunami of abuse and foul language? Wow, anonymous or not surely there’s no reason for that?! Pretty out of order. I do think anonymity makes us feel safer, but if you go around posting offensive things then your on line persona will get a bad name anyway!

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