Friday, January 30, 2009

The mask of anonymity

Anonymity does funny things to people.

This is the blessing and the curse of the internet, I suppose. There is a lot of good that has been done by allowing people to explore areas of themselves, with no identifying information or bread crumbs following them. I think of online support groups for individuals with eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, suffering from trauma. I think of gay teens in small towns trying to figure out their sexuality while keeping it undercover.

And then I read the comments on YouTube videos, news sites, Craigslist-- and I swear, I almost lose faith in humanity.

Give someone a screen name and no link to their actual identity, and the stuff they spew out is foul. Misogynistic, racist, homophobic, insulting, and just plain cruel. It is almost as though they are bursting at the seams with this hatred, after having to conceal it in their day-to-day life, such that they are willing to fling it at the first target as soon as they've put their masks on. It is as though the id runs rampant the second they are hidden from view.

The reality is, of course, that the average person doesn't even bother creating this moniker. They check out the video clip or skim through the article without the need to comment. It is all too easy to ignore the thought provoking comments, or even just the plain neutral ones, when there are bolded racial slurs surrounding them.

My main research interest is ethnic discrimination, and you have no idea how many cliched comments I receive about how racism is no longer a problem. While racism is certainly generally regarded as socially unacceptable, these leakages of such hatred online show that these sentiments are still residing in people. Perhaps they know better than to say such things out loud in public locations, but one can hardly argue that having these attitudes simmering below the surface doesn't affect how they interact with minority group members.

(FYI-- Research does say that even the most implicit forms of discrimination, much more implicit than these anonymous comments, do have negative impacts on interpersonal interactions).

In some ways, I am surprised how far these fierce comments extend. This post was brought about by my accidental scrolling through reader's opinions on a local news site's article, in which they berated a woman who had nearly died due to the mislabeling of a Starbucks product (it said there were no nuts in the product when there in fact were)-- the insults were flying about the woman's morality and status as a single mother, as though her anaphylactic shock was a motivated move by a shameless woman.

Then, in other ways, I am surprised where they don't extend to. While I know that a number of my fellow bloggers have received rude and aggressive comments, in my two years of writing, I have never received a comment that I found personally insulting (knock on wood...). Sure, there have been a few that disagreed with my take on things, and one or two that may have stung a little, but nothing ever directly meant to jab at my feelings. In some ways, I think that speaks to bloggers as a whole, that we take our online presence relatively seriously, and try to be genuine in our expressions of it.

Fitting with this, I think of the fact that despite my own cloak of anonymity, it has never occurred to me to abuse it. Sure, now my life is more intertwined with those of you with whom I have started real personal relationships with, but at the beginning, I could have very well been more nefarious. It surprises me sometimes that it has never occurred to me to lie on this blog-- even when to do so would have made for more exciting posts, or a more flattering depiction of me. For some reason, though, presenting myself as genuinely as I can is important. That is why I still appreciate the fact that upon meeting me, I have been told that I match my words well-- despite the fact that I hide these words from those in my day-to-day life. I guess that, despite the opportunity to communicate in a more consequence-free manner (and you know very well that we have all read a post or two that we just want to call people out on), I still find it important to hold the online me to the same ethical standards as the real me. Or maybe it is just that I don't have nearly as much unbridled hatred below the surface...

28 comments:

Mandy said...

This is a great post. It saddens me to read hateful, ignorant, or rude comments. Some people have no problem unleashing vile things while hiding their identiy. Like yourself, I'm not one of them.

insomniaclolita said...

yeah i got upset too at times seeing people blatantly comments just because they're anonymous. It's insulting, degrading and simply not acceptable..

brandy said...

Well said. I think you really nailed it, being anonymous can be as good or as horrible as you allow it to be.

tmamone said...

Yeah, I don't know what it is about the Internet that brings out so much hatred in people. And I have to confess, a few times I've spewed hatred on people's websites. Nothing racist or homophobic or anything like that; more like general name calling like "douche bag."

Fortunately I haven't received anything too negative either. I did recently delete a comment about "President Hussein" and some other crap Rush Limbaugh would say. But so far no one has called me a "fag" or anything like that.

Daisy said...

You're spot on, it is unbelievable the things people will write, even on national news websites- I think it's the ease of it; if they had to sit down and type up a formal letter to the editor they would never say the things they say on the spur of the moment.

S. said...

Mean, angry, and miserable people trying to bring others down. It's just sad.

Can't we all just get along?!

Laura said...

I loved this. Especially because it drives me crazy when people (white people) say dialogue on racism is no longer neccessary. Just yesterday I saw a woman calling our black bus driver a stupid bitch and the n-word. She seemed slightly deranged, but so long as people are going to pass judgement on you based on your skin colour, clearly this dialogue is still neccessary. Also, people passing judgement on single moms is sickening to, who isn't sexually active these days? Its kind of a "there but for the grace of God would I go" thing. If anything judgement should be passed on the absentee fathers. GAH! Lets talk about something happy now, butterflies, unicorns fettucine alfredo!

Bye!

SoMi's Nilsa said...

Love this post. Could talk about it for days. But, I'll leave you with two observations instead.

(1) When I was in training to volunteer at a domestic violence shelter, we learned whites can only be racists ... essentially, the group in the majority is the only group who can be racists, thus whites. So, my question to you is whether the people who say racism no longer exists are white? Because, my guess is if you ask an ethnic minority, they'll tell you otherwise!

(2) Overall, I agree with your positive impression of the blogging community and how we leave comments for other bloggers. I have received comments that disagree with my point of view (bring them on) and sometimes sting (I have thick skin), but both I encourage. What I can't stand is a commenter who comments under anonymity in order to be rude and thoughtless. I have received a few of those in my blogging lifetime and I find it utterly cowardly!

Crushed said...

I agree to some degree.

Yes, I think one of the problems this medium faces is generally bad behaviour. Trolls and their ilk.

Nevertheless, I do think preserving anonymity should be paramount. But then I guess there's a difference between anonymous comments and pseudonymous blogging.

Interestingly, I actually do now have a kind of crossover point, which is my Facebook page. I'm actually on FB, not as me, but as Crushed. So the people I allow on there are people I don't mind knowing hat the other side exists. I have both bloggers and RL friends on there. Kind of an inner sanctum :) But it also keeps my blog honest as well, because RL mates know it.

One of the problema trolling created for me in exposing my RL identity, albeit in a limted way was that my Mum discovered my blog. Not good. Though to be fair it hasn't changed much as regards the blog. Just makes dinner with my Mum mkore uncomfortable.

Sarah said...

i work for a tv station website and some of the comments posted on articles are appalling and disgusting. doesn't matter what it's about, they will find a way to post something racist or attack another user. i can guarantee they would never have put their name on those comments. sometimes people get confused when making an account and enter their full name as their username, post terrible comments and then freak out that it has their name on it. no matter how much it happens i'm still amazed that people think it's ok behavior. i would never post something online if i wouldn't say it in person.

Your Ill-fitting Overcoat said...

Interestingly, the only person who's ever posted "trollish" comments on my blog was someone posting under his own full name-- in fact, he may be the only person who has EVER posted a comment on my blog under his own full name.

I have to admit that I respect that on some level. I don't respect writing hateful, pointless comments that have nothing to do with my post, but if you're going to do it, at least do it with own your own name attached to it. That way I can at least have the satisfaction of knowing you look like an idiot when people google you.

I don't read comments on YouTube videos at all. Same for most major blogs and news sites. I just can't bear to read that much pointless negativity. I'm all for healthy debate and the expression of a differing viewpoint, but when you're just being controversial for the sake of shocking people? Frankly, it bores me.

I read an article once about dealing with trolls and it suggested that the sites that get the most hateful commenters are the ones who spew the most hate themselves. I think people have no reason to write ugly things on your blog, because you're not spreading anything ugly.

Katelin said...

love this post. and i feel the same way about people that hide behind anonymity to attack other people, it's just rude, immature and inconsiderate, among other things.

Stacie Hays said...

As a blogger, or even just a person who hangs out on the internet, and it really irritates me how nasty people a can be when they have the computer to hide behind. Emotional terrrorism is lame. I've been a victim of it repeatedly... Its like if people don't agree with what you have to say, the attack you on the lowest, scummiest levels. Or sometimes, they do it just to be mean, no other reason. How sad is that?

Your post is excellent and well written, and you hit the proverbial nail on the head. GREAT POST!!!

Therapeutic Ramblings said...

Implicit discrimination is definitely still an issue. As for Internet Anonymity....a bunch of tough guys/girls out there!

kacijohanna said...

It's really saddening to see how horrible people can be when they don't have to take any responsibility for their words.

If anything, I'm LESS honest because I'm not anonymous as a blogger. It's not that I lie, I just don't divulge the whole truth or go as in-depth as I might if I were anonymous. Meh, so it goes.

On a completely unrelated note, would you mind horribly changing my link on your sidebar there? I'm over at kacijohanna.wordpress.com now :) Thanks!

Tasha said...

So true.

S'Mat said...

i nodded my whole way through your blog, but i'm gonna be forthright (seems to be the theme)

i'd front this: singular anonymity. how is that different from hiding within an entire group of bigots? ie. to feel like what you say/do is ok due to one's membership of a group. in fact, one's likely not even to be aware that it might be perceived as otherwise. this phenomenon is very large. very real. right now. with me. with you. always. we're all so discriminatory (don't balk, calm, it's not necessarily a bad thing)

vile things are ok to say if they're true, but truth is not measured by weight of opinion. if persecution might happen for saying said vile things, then common sense would dictate: stay anonymous (i've seen way too many PC witch-hunts).

we gotta get real here. skin colour discrimination is ridiculous. what it's supposed to somehow indicate is a class differential. a class of wealth. of crime. of labour. of power. skin colour is readily proving that this is really not a factor. however, abstract association with skin colour IS.

but the only thing that should be judged is choices made. and those should be compared against choices available.

[i went on and on here, but deleted it, as i have waaay too much to say while sipping white wine at 3 in the morning]

gonna stop now so i can have a smoke. got a problem with that?

S'Mat said...

sorry for my drunken (and anonymous) soapbox ramble everybody!! i should've learned by now...

Rachel said...

It seems a lot of bloggers think it's important to keep an "open forum" with blog comments, which is something I've always struggled with, because if I get something intentionally mean, CLICK -- GONE.

benjibopper said...

i just got a fairly rude anon comment today - first one in a long time, and over a pretty innocuous post about my fav books of last year. always bugs me, never know how to handle. why make random anon comments, things you'd never say in person? strange.

the denial of racism irks me too. got into a debate with a blogger calling himself 'fairleft' about it, criticizing "the left's" race analysis, saying japanese society is racist but american society isn't. wha?!?? we exchanged a few emails about it but eventually i dropped it - there was no chance of changing his mind without making it my life's work, which i didn't wanna do. but i'm glad you're making it your work to explore that, it's very important knowledge. would love to know what you find out and what conclusions you draw.

Jacqueline said...

What a great post.

Racism is alive and well, and it often leaves me shaking my head in disbelief. Part of why I stopped writing anonymously on my blog was because I wanted people to know that I was brave enough to stand behind my words (not that I was writing anything racist, or even offensive, for that matter).

Like you, I am highly offended by the behavior of others when they aren't held accountable for their words. I fear it's only going to get worse with time. I think forums such as YouTube and newspaper websites need to do a better job of moderating comments.

sequined said...

The anonymity of the internet brings out a lot of douche bags. But here in bloggy land and on certain websites, you can find a safe haven I think.

Princess Extraordinaire said...

Anonymoty does interestign and sometimes hateful things...and it's always interesting to me that those who love to share thier most venomous opinions do so under a cloak of ambiguity.....

Psychgrad said...

I always lose a little faith in humanity when reading the comments under a news article. I agree, it does come off as though people are bursting at the seams with hatred. More "subtle" racism just doesn't let them get it off their chest.

I also wonder how much of that is just a desire to be a shit disturber. I think some people might feel a great sense of power to know how riled up they can get others to be.

Daisy said...

I'm glad you are genuine!! I'm with you on not abusing the anonymity. I struggle with those who do abuse it. It makes me wonder what type of person they REALLY are - and it makes me sad to think there are so many people with those mean feelings under the surface.

I also don't lie on my blog - it never occurred to me either. I just tell it like it is.

Surfergrrl said...

I've seen this a lot too and it's a shame. Even on that old blog we used to hang out at together, I was surprised at how mean people got to each other, as if it's ok because they will never meet face to face. I guess karma maybe catches up to you?

sonrie said...

my local newspaper's online edition allows comments...and some, ahem, I mean, most are shameful: racist, reactionary, sexist, well just about every -ist that there is, plus more. It's like they (the commenter) is perfect, has never done anything wrong, lives in the best neighborhood, etc. and the rest of the city or world is what's wrong with humanity. Always a bunch of debbie downers and rarely "keep it up you're doing great" comments. If there are those, they're shot down.

Wow. I feel better now. You're doing a great job!

magda said...

I loved reading this post. No matter our cloaks, online or otherwise, we have to remember that our voices are powerful. Writing is an outlet, but it's also a gift, and it must be treated responsibly. Very well said, all of this!