Sunday, July 24, 2011

Cloak of Anonymity Brings Out the Dark Side of People

The Guardian (U.K.) describes a phenomenon well known to bloggers and those who frequent social media. People who post on these sites anonymously will write things that they will not say to that person face-to-face.

Take the case of comedian Stewart Lee, who collected pages of anonymous comments about his TV show. Many of them, like the ones listed below, were disturbing or threatening:

"I hate Stewart Lee with a passion. He's like Ian Huntley to me." Wharto15, Twitter
"I saw him at a gig once, and even offstage he was exuding an aura of creepy molesty smugness." Yukio Mishima,
"One man I would love to beat with a sh*t-covered cricket bat." Joycey,
"He's got one of those faces I just want to burn." Coxy,
"I hope stewart lee dies." Idrie, Youtube
"WHAT THE HELL! If i ever find you, lee, i promise i will, I WILL, kick the crap out of you." Carcrazychica, YouTube
"Stewart Lee is a cynical man, who has been able to build an entire carrer [sic] out of his own smugness. I hope the f**king chrones disease [sic] kills him." Maninabananasuit,
"I spent the entire time thinking of how much I want to punch Stewart Lee in the face instead of laughing. He does have an incredibly punchable face, doesn't he? (I could just close my eyes, but fantasizing about punching Stewart Lee is still more fun than sitting in complete, stony silence.)" Pudabaya,

The psychologists call it "deindividuation". It's what happens when social norms are withdrawn because identities are concealed. The classic deindividuation experiment concerned American children at Halloween. Trick-or-treaters were invited to take sweets left in the hall of a house on a table on which there was also a sum of money. When children arrived singly, and not wearing masks, only 8% of them stole any of the money. When they were in larger groups, with their identities concealed by fancy dress, that number rose to 80%. The combination of a faceless crowd and personal anonymity provoked individuals into breaking rules that under "normal" circumstances they would not have considered.

Deindividuation is what happens when we get behind the wheel of a car and feel moved to scream abuse at the woman in front who is slow in turning right. It is what motivates a responsible father in a football crowd to yell crude sexual hatred at the opposition or the referee. And it's why under the cover of an alias or an avatar on a website or a blog – surrounded by virtual strangers – conventionally restrained individuals might be moved to suggest a comedian should suffer all manner of violent torture because they don't like his jokes, or his face. Digital media allow almost unlimited opportunity for wilful deindividuation. They almost require it. The implications of those liberties, of the ubiquity of anonymity and the language of the crowd, are only beginning to be felt....

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