Anonymity in cyberspace

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My friend Beth heard that I was blogging, and the first thing she asked was, “Do you have any enemies yet?”

“I don’t think so. But I’m sure it’s just a matter of time,” I laughed nervously, thinking about the article I had just read in the hotel newspaper about a woman who had to go into hiding after getting sexually explicit threats on her blog.

It is common, of course, to gain quick enemies on the web. I know a pastor who posts, and was shocked to look on his blog and find a comment calling him a pedophile. It was like crude graffiti painted across his site, but thankfully, it was much easier to erase.

Could the anonymity make the web a crueler place? Philip Zimbardo, the man who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, tested the effects of anonymity (or, as he terms it, deindividuation), and found that when people’s identities were masked, then they were more prone to act out violently. Whether it was a woman shocking another woman in a clinical situation, or white men destroying an abandoned car, or children playing aggressive games while wearing Halloween costumes, when the situation invited cruel behavior and the person was masked, then the people became more destructive.

Zimbardo also explains a similar phenomenon, which he terms the “Mardi Gras effect” in which cruel behavior is seen as entertainment when a person is masked. He explains that was how Lynndie England conceived that the torture in Abu Ghraib was just “fun and games.”

Could this be the reason for the brutish outcomes of some cyberconversations?

I certainly understand anonymity when blogging, especially with church leaders. We already have so much of our lives on display, and we don’t need for everyone to know everything. Plus, I have been in church situations where I could not always say what I really believed about things. I was constantly watching myself, which was thoroughly exhausting. I would have welcomed a place where I could vent without identification.

So, what do you think about anonymity? Do you think it encourages aggressive behavior? Does this relate to the web? Is there a way to keep things anonymous, while supporting civility in the system?

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2 thoughts on “Anonymity in cyberspace

  1. Obviously my blog’s not anonymous, and that impacts what I can say. But it helps me be less snarky if my name is attached. A spiritual disciple of sorts.

    Slice of Laodicea has claimed several of my friends as enemies, but it’s almost like having The Layman as an enemy. Some call it a badge of honor.

    Calling those who read our blogs without ever commenting, or commenting anonymously, is called lurking for a good reason perhaps. Knowing that people have my name but I don’t know them can feel a bit disconcerting. So far, nobody has lurked in person. I would pull my blog if that happened.

  2. Less snarky is an admirable goal. Being someone who has an opinion on everything (and not always a good one), I often think If I write about this person, and then I meet them face-to-face, am I going to be completely embarrassed? Because, really, I don’t have the stomach, nerve, or clout to be a critic.

    B’s often amazed at how many people do searches for his name or his church to find his site. Or worse, people will find his site by typing in things like, “I suffer from crippling depression.”

    “Who are these people?” he always asks, wishing he could do something. It’s like having a totally faceless congregation.

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