I’ve spent a lot of time on the internet. I mean a lot. If I were to write my autobiography, it would be called “Growing up on the Internet” and it would be a documentary for internet-virgin parents trying to understand what their connected 24/7 teenagers are experiencing.
So yeah, I’ve witnessed a lot of “fuckwads”. Ordinary people who, when getting online and finding an audience, lose all their social skills (/euphemism).
Penny Arcade’s “John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory” definitely strikes a chord with me (as well as with anyone who’s ever come within smelling distance of the bowels of the internet). It’s also struck a chord with John Suler, an American psychologist who’s written about what he calls (unfortunately scientists and cartoonists aren’t allowed to share vocabulary) the “Online Disinhibition Effect“.
But while it struck a chord, I’ve always felt that something wasn’t quite right. I thought and thought and thought about it. After some discussion in the comment section of a past post of mine (which I would link to if I had the motivation to scan through all my posts until I find it, but I don’t), it dawned on me: the Audience is anonymous too.
Now, I’m not refuting any theories here. Especially not the one written by the guy who actually did research and who uses much fancier words than me. I’ve got no data more scientific than my own observations. All I’m bringing here is a dimension that seems to have been left out from (or at least, not highlighted enough in) the theories and their subsequent discussions.
Lord of the Flies
The Fuckwad Theory and Online Disinhibition Effect both suggest a very Lord of the Flies view of the Internet Nation.
“No, no“, you say, “the theories specify Normal Person.”
Normal person. Thing is, to me, if you don’t care about the effects your actions have on others, then you don’t care about the effects your actions have on others. It doesn’t matter if others know who you are, or if you’ll be punished. You won’t act if you can be punished, but what’s holding you back is the effect your actions have on you, not the effect they have on others.
And thus, the “normal person” in the theory is actually always an asshole and the lack of sanctions on the internet simply removes the chains.
I know I probably have too much of an idealistic view of the world, but it seems that the Lord of the Flies theory takes it too far. Yeah, there are a lot of horrible people in the world (What are the statistics for sexual assault again? It makes me nauseous just to think about how many animals who parade as humans are among us.), but is every douchebag on the internet a sociopathic monster?
What if some of these rotten apples of the internet are capable of empathy, but don’t sense the effect of their behaviours because they can’t grasp the reality of the audience?
If you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
The feedback given by an internet audience is always a reaction. Sometimes a good reaction, sometimes a bad reaction. But an ethereal crowd expressing offense and hurt doesn’t transmit the same poignant message as the human face on the human being in front of you.
Taking into consideration the anonymity of the audience thus encompasses “normal person” to not only total empathy lacking sociopaths, but also more average individuals who simply don’t anticipate the effects of their actions when there’s no clear feedback.
You’re Not Anonymous on the Internet, but Everyone Else Is
Sometimes you’re a little anonymous. When you first join a group or community, you can pick whatever name you want and make up whatever story you want about yourself.
Sometimes you feel a little anonymous. I’m just as shy on the internet as I am in real life, but I’ve been told by real-life bashful friends that they’re more outgoing on the internet because no one knows who they are.
But if you’re around the same group long enough, you’ll build an identity for yourself. While this identity might be real or fake, you still have it. The local assholes are known as the local assholes.
You can build a fake identity for yourself in real life too. I could join, say, a yoga group in the city, and pretend to be, um, a musician from, I dunno, Hawaii. The internet allows wackier identities, but it isn’t all that more anonymous than in real life.
The people around you though, you don’t know who they are. Pretty much all of Suler’s factor’s come into play. “Invisibility“, because it’s easy to assume that everyone around you is lying about who they are, or “Solipsistic Introjection” because you can make assumptions about then using your imagination, “Minimizing Authority” because social ranks are attributed differently on the internet.
And thus, I find that the anonymity of the audience is just as important (if not more) than the anonymity of the person when it comes to explaining bizarre internet behaviors.
There’s an old episode of the Instance where Randy points out that the meanest behaviour he’d witnessed actually took place on Facebook. Facebook. The place on the internet where you’re given the least privacy.
So I went and checked it out for myself. Followed a few fan pages, read some discussions. Yep, a lot of trolls. You’d think the trolls would be the ones with pseudonyms and cartoon pictures, but no. Everything seems genuine. Interestingly, the meanest people I encountered on Facebook (though that might just have to do with the type of pages I was looking at) were middle aged women. I could click on their profiles, see where they work, look at pictures of their kids and check their friends lists. Not so anonymous. However, they have no clue who’s reading their messages and being creepy. Generally, their hate was directed at celebrities. Celebrities who probably never read their fan pages. Celebrities whom we don’t know personally. Celebrities who are too busy making money and being flattered in award ceremonies to be touched by what idiots on the internet are writing. In other words, celebrities who are kind of anonymous.
Again, it’s all about the anonymity of the audience.
One on One VS One on Many
In my early internet days, one of the phenomenons I found most remarkable was that our resident message board douchebags were usually super nice when you talked to them privately.
Penny Arcade’s theory highlights the need for there to be an audience present for the fuckwad to be released and, clearly, the audience of a whole forum is far more exciting than the audience of a single person. But I think it goes beyond that. The single person audience is far less anonymous than the mass of 1000 message board posters. When talking to me, our trolls were speaking to someone they perceived as a real person, with real feelings and a real life. When talking in front of the forum, they weren’t addressing anyone in particular, just throwing out whatever words would give them the most amusing reaction from the ethereal masses.
Kind of like actors, comedians and singers who are real goofballs on stage (where the audience is vague, nondescript) but admit to actually being quite shy when not in the spotlight, I think a lot of net nerds use the anonymous audience to enjoy attention they normally couldn’t handle. Except that, unlike talent artists, most internet trolls aren’t very entertaining and don’t have the social skills to realize it (or, at least, care).
Conclusion: Don’t Underestimate the Anonymity of the Audience
I don’t discredit personal anonymity on the internet, however I find that in discussions about inappropriate or bizarre internet behaviour, the role of the anonymous audience is neglected. Yet, if those trying to make the internet a better place want to succeed, taking away the anonymity of the audience is what will make a difference.
This why sensitization discussions do have some effect. Take attacks on the unemployed, for example. I once witnessed a thread of complaints and mockery of unemployed gamers. Someone started another thread, explaining that she was an unemployed gamer who, yes, lived with her parents. She hadn’t always been in the situation and she was making concrete actions toward getting herself out the situation.
By making that post, she took away the anonymity of the audience. The sociopaths still laughed. I won’t deny that punishment-free environments allow those who live a Lord-of-the-Flies life to harm others on a whim. But those in the middle, who were cruel because they didn’t anticipate that their words would touch real people, once they decided that she was being sincere (note that it’s very easy to assume that someone is lying or exaggerating on the internet) they moved on to being idiots about something else.