Monday, July 25, 2011

Grow A Pair

In an earlier post, I described an incident that occurred on the writers’ section of a popular online forum. One of the participants e-mailed me with the observation it “provided excellent grist for the mill in terms of a psych profile.”  That started me thinking: why would presumably decent, ordinary individuals become heinous jackasses online? These are probably the same people we see every day at the supermarket who smile or even stop for a polite chat. What is it about online forums that brings out their dark and twisted natures?

Chalk it up, in part, to Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility – the anonymity offered by the Internet. Psychologists have a term for it: “deindividuation” – the result when social norms are withdrawn because identities are concealed. A faceless crowd combined with personal anonymity leads individuals to violate social norms they would otherwise not breach.

Cloaked in an alias or an avatar on a blog or online forum and surrounded by virtual strangers, the anonymous bully sinks to lowest-common-denominator humanity. The Internet has developed its own terminology for this behavior, dubbing it flaming and those who start such flame wars, trolls.

Offline, the bully may be the reasonable, friendly neighbor or co-worker; but once the modem is plugged in and the invisibility cloak is activated, morality, civility, and common sense are banished from the lexicon. The less the chance of identification, the more uninhibited individuals become.

What is lacking is accountability. Blogs and forums allow anonymity because they realize many discussions would dry up if individuals were required to write under their own names instead of screen names or pseudonyms. Many fear family, friends, or future employers might stumble across their words (the Google axiom: the Internet is forever). One solution is to grow a pair: stand behind your name. When an individual signs his name, his words carry more weight because he is taking responsibility and accountability for them.

As I noted, anonymity is only part of the cause of such behavior. Another psychological phenomenon, like the situation I described in my earlier post, is the tendency for anonymous or pseudonymous posters to develop a pack mentality, turning into a collective, ongoing flash mob that piles on once a troll or bully has attacked the initial poster. It becomes an anonymous hive mind and while some forums employ moderators to reign in the trolls, they are often co-opted when the bullies are frequent posters and thus recognized members of the insular online community, which they do not wish to offend.

This leads to a no-win situation for the initial poster. First,  arguments on the Internet are never over. Someone will always post a reply in an attempt to have the elusive last word. Second, if the moderator has been co-opted, he or she may prevent the initial poster’s replies by ending the discussion (by locking the thread), or edit or delete comments by or in support of the initial poster. Never debate in a forum where someone biased or co-opted owns the microphone.

It is reminiscent of themes worthy of Lord of the Flies: the conflict of civilization (existing in tranquility and concordance according to a set of rules) versus the need or desire of a bully to dominate others; individuality versus Orwellian groupthink; and rational discourse versus emotional outbursts.

As Tim Adams wrote in his piece in The Observer, “The utopian tendency is to believe that social media pluralizes and diversifies opinion; most of the evidence suggests that it is just as likely, when combined with anonymity, to reinforce groupthink and extremism.”

It is food for thought.

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