Anonymity isn’t the issue
After years of seeing comments on the Internet, I’m pretty sure that everyone’s conception of what causes asshole behaviors online is off the mark.
You cannot discuss people being jerks online without someone bringing up that damn Penny Arcade strip. Which is not a sociological paper, I know, but neither is this. Every discussion I’ve seen about people acting like dicks to others online is based around this assumption, that when you give a random person the option to be anonymous they instantly turn into a raging monster to whomever happens to be within spitting distance.
This is neglecting the many people who don’t do this, obviously. But it’s also ignoring the fact that we’re not anonymous on the internet, certainly not in the ways that this line of thinking suggests. We have our user names, we have our identities, we have ways that we’re marked. A five-minute stretch of Facebook makes it clear that anonymity isn’t what’s fueling the behaviors that we take as the price of doing business online. Or, more accurately, it is – just not in the configuration we think it is.
Before I go any further, though, I want you to take a look at this XKCD comic. I want you to think about playing that game for just a minute. It sounds kind of horrifying, doesn’t it? We’ll come back to that.
We think of the internet as a sea of anonymity, but it’s not and hasn’t been for quite some time. Obviously it’s not for me; you see my name at the top of the page, I have my byline listed on Massively, I’m a visible presence. But while I’m an outlier, I’m not the only one, and it’s not as if you’re somehow more anonymous if your only online mark is a Gmail address which you use to chat with a few people, or a World of Warcraft character named Longduck. Unless your name is Duck Long and you live on 92 Long Duck St. in Longduck, MO, that doesn’t really give many hints as to your real-world identity.
Heck, I’m pretty sure there is no Longduck, MO.
Except that’s not really what anonymity is about. If I work with you day in and day out, adventure with you, enjoy your company, share jokes with you, I’m getting to know you. Sure, I know you by the name of “Longduck” instead of your real name, but I know who you are. I might know your favorite movies. We’ve probably commiserated about bad days at work. You have an identity.
And I do, too. You’re not going to act like a random jerk to me, because you know who I am, too. Whatever anonymity you might have had isn’t an issue any longer. And yet it’s still very possible that you will act like a jerk to people online, despite the fact that there isn’t any real anonymity at work here, that you’re only really hidden if you only browse and never interact.
Hell, look at Facebook. It’s hard to browse Facebook under a pseudonym, and 90% of the people who act like utter trollwads to other people on Facebook certainly don’t take that effort. You see plenty of real names with real people attached posting nastiness to others on Facebook. Michael Sanders, to use a completely random potential name, is posting sexist and racist screeds across Facebook without any hint of remorse, and he is not even remotely anonymous. His name is right there. His profile picture, based on history, is a picture of him wearing sunglasses at a beach. You can click his name and find out where he went to school. Yet he acts like a jerk.
Why? The same reason that a normal FPS doesn’t give you a quick clip about the life of the person you just offed, why Grand Theft Auto would stop being fun if every pedestrian you mowed over led to a series of flashbacks in which you had to really think about the fact that a human life was just snuffed out because you couldn’t be bothered to not drive on the sidewalk. Even if they simply had names. Anything to turn them from anonymous blobs into actual people.
Because it’s not our own anonymity that allows us to act like monsters to other people, it’s theirs.
This is not something new or unusual. People have always been better at decrying what we don’t know; it’s often been cited as one of the leading causes behind behavior on highways and so-called “road rage.” We don’t see another person in a car, we see a car, and as a result we have no mental checks providing us with a nuanced portrayal reminding us that whoever is in the other car is just as human as we are. The less human someone else seems to us, the more willing we are to treat them as inhuman.
How nasty have you been with customer service or tech support on the phone? Would you act the same way if you were standing in line and speaking to someone you can see is a person? Would you raise your voice? Would you drop threats?
Reading words on the internet, you don’t see a person. Most of you reading this have no idea what I look like in real life. I am words on a screen, I am concepts, I am criticism and ideas you may not agree with. Nearly every piece of email I get from my work here or on Massively is positive, but comments are another matter entirely… because sending me a mail requires engaging with me as a human being. Leaving a comment just involves tossing words at something devoid of identity.
I don’t mean to take the moral high ground here; I am 100% as guilty as anyone else. When I wind up in a Final Fantasy XIV group with a particularly bad player, I don’t find myself thinking of them as a human being who might have had a bad day, might simply be misguided, and so forth. They are a burden, an albatross that I need to deal with, sometimes with harsh words and occasionally with an unceremonious ejection from the party. I have to consciously stop myself from dropping nasty bon mots at someone just as they leave the party, because to me, they’re just a target – even though they’re real people, same as you and I.
So long as you assume that the problem is the anonymity of the aggressor, it’s hard to devise any solutions. No matter how easy you make it to identify the person dispensing abuse, people will still be abusive, because what really matters is the relative non-identity of the target. They are amorphous blobs. They aren’t people. What you say to or about them doesn’t matter. It wasn’t so long ago that the creator of a game tweeted death threats to Gabe Newell without the slightest hint of a hidden identity, because in his mind, Newell was just a punching bag for his frustration, not a human being.
Hell, look at what people have done to prominent women in game design and game criticism simply because they represent an idea. None of these people have the slightest regard for the consequences of their actions. They don’t see people hurt, they see an imaginary assault on their consumer identity and launch hate campaigns against targets they don’t regard as people.
Our own anonymity isn’t the problem. It’s the fact that we can’t see someone on the receiving end, so we fill in the blanks we want and declare it good. And then people get hurt and shamed, and someone says “well, it’s like this Penny Arcade strip says,” and no one learns anything.