A few months ago an anonymous confessions page for SNU students was started on Instagram. It has gained a lot of popularity and followers since then. If you go through some of the posts, you will see that they are quite diverse. Quite a few of these showed appreciation and affection but what interested me most were the hostile ones. Less often than not, people do confess their affection towards another in real life without hiding their identity. But stating rude comments on someone you barely know is something I had never seen. It made me wonder why anonymity encourages such behaviour online. Google came to my rescue like it always does and helped me come across a phenomenon termed as “The Online Disinhibition Effect”.
Let me jump to a few related case studies before I explain the phenomenon itself. In the first study, a troupe of female students were placed in a space with hidden identities and were allowed to administer electrical surges to patients coming in. The electrical surges grew in duration especially towards patients whom the students didn’t like. Anonymity, in this case, released their inner feelings and under the assumption that there can be no consequence, they acted in cruelty. In the second study, social psychologist Leon Mann demonstrated how being in a crowd can lead people to behave not only offensively, but violently, highlighting a general disregard for social conventions. Mann examined reports of various suicide attempts where someone threatened to jump off a building. Mann was studying the reactions of the crowd that had gathered at the scene from the reports. In 10 out of 21 cases, people encouraged the suicidal person to jump. In one case, the crowd reacted violently and threw stones and debris at the rescue squad. Factors such as their physical distance from the jumper made the people in the crowd feel anonymous. Group behaviour such as this can be seen online on websites like 4chan. Anonymous users act without decency and various racist, sexist and homophobic comments become excessively prevalent. I’ll explain the relevance of these studies after elaborating on the ODE.
The Online Disinhibition Effect can be defined as the lack of restraint one feels when communicating online in comparison to communicating in-person. Psychologists argue that the speech and actions of individuals faced with anonymity online no longer adhere to social norms. The reason for this can be understood by first looking at how we develop these constraints on our behaviour in the first place. Internet psychologist Graham Jones explains this by saying “In the real world, people subconsciously monitor the behaviour of others around them and adapt their own behaviour accordingly. Online, we do not have such feedback mechanisms”.
So far, I’ve looked through all the negative implications of anonymity. But anonymity is more than that. It has also acted in encouraging participation and an overall increase in the sense of belongingness toward a community. It works its magic since you don’t stand out when you comment on your opinion. I have also observed that people respond with a plethora of kind and supportive comments to posts that display signs of depression or loneliness. Anonymity, in this case, has given a chance for this individual to sense positivity and love.
Getting rid of anonymity isn’t a solution to preventing its resultant unpleasant behaviour online. Anonymity used in the right way can be constructive as well as positive. There is nothing that can be done to prevent people from having negative feelings for another. But anonymous posts and comments can be filtered by unbiased moderators to prevent personal attacks on people. The second study showed that group behaviour amplifies hostility. It can also do the same for positivity. The number of posts and comments that appreciate the work of clubs and certain individuals in the SNU confessions page is a testament. Also, developing some feedback mechanisms online to curb hostile behaviour would have a great effect. Being a part of the community and abiding by social norms govern our behaviour in real life. Therefore, I feel it is equally important to create a feeling of unity in a community online.