The dark side of anonymity

Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted your opinion on a message board.

Based on today’s title, some of you might have thought I was going to ramble about the online dating phenomenon.  Certainly that has its share of dangers due to the potential misrepresentations that can occur.  But I don’t have first-hand experience with that and my hearsay info is mostly negative, so I don’t think I can give a balanced opinion (although, why should that stop me in my own blog, eh?).

What I would like to chat about today is the dismayingly boorish behavior by many posters to online discussion boards.  This is far different than someone commenting on their facebook page, where they are (for the most part) identified for the public to see.  I’m speaking more of the general comment areas that are a fixture of pretty much anything on the net, from news stories to formal discussion boards.

The empowering effect of anonymity has been obvious since the earliest days of online communities.  I remember back when AOL was “the” place for chat and the various general and self-created chat rooms were filled with people typing as swiftly as possible (while also perhaps having IM’s popping up all over the screen).

The bulk of the conversations I was involved in back then were fun, engaging and informative.  It was a given, though, that any conversation not in a private room would at some point have at least one “pretender” show up.  These could be people pretending to be older, younger, a different sex or just wanting to create disruption (like the class clown).  The difference with the internet is the freedom from decency it allows, not just in language but in tone.  Even the most wimpy or insecure person could “bully” others through their un-locatable screen persona.

Today, the comment area is everywhere, though not always instantaneous.  While the position of moderator had to be created to delete the most disgusting posts, the timing and judgment of the moderation still allows significantly bad behavior to exist.

I find it fascinating that comments and intent that would be absolutely unacceptable face-to-face is considered allowable, simply because it is written rather than spoken.  Granted, some of this is nothing more than immature people calling each other names, but even that strikes me as behavior a “respectable” discussion board would prefer to discourage.  Is there a fear that without that back and forth insulting that the comment sections would be underused (or perhaps even unused)?  Doesn’t that suggest there is no need for a comment area at all?  What purpose can possibly be served just to allow posters to call each other or other people (such as athletes or entertainment people) names, insult their families or cast what would otherwise be litigious comments?

I’ve had good fun reading many comment areas and participated in some spirited debates.  Not surprisingly, I’ve managed to do this without mentioning anyone’s mother or recommending anatomically impossible actions.  In the same way, those sharing the discussion also seem to be able to refrain from incredible, unsupported generalizations about my upbringing or breeding habits.  Not everyone, mind you, but the vast majority.

Beyond the general rudeness and thoughtlessness about other people’s feelings, the other part that disturbs me about many comment areas is the anger with which many of the posters reflect in their comments.  I would be a little nervous meeting these people in public.

I respect passion.  I love to see people have strong confidence in their opinions.  I strongly believe the heady freedom that comes with anonymity tends to exaggerate the negative qualities while doing little to emphasize the positive ones.  A person who is polite and respectful is likely to be the same way in person or online.   A person who is not so pleasant, but in regular life must adhere to at least a modicum of courtesy, can find “release” of all that pent-up bad behavior in the untraceable world of online comment.

That’s human nature, to an extent.  I don’t see that changing.  But it’s not someone you would want to have lunch with and it puzzles me why so much of that behavior is deemed “acceptable” online when it would clearly be turned away from in “real” life.

I wouldn’t view limiting that behavior as censorship.  I would look at it as a public service for me and hopefully a learning opportunity for the thoughtless poster.

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