“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
– Oscar Wilde
Technology has had a profound impact on the way we communicate with each other – just think about how we’ve transitioned from letter writing to talking on the phone, to emailing, to texting and tweeting over the past 30 years and how that’s shaped how we socialize, how we date, and how we acquire, share, and debate information.
To be sure, online communication has its bright and dark sides. There’s no question that the internet has given us the gift of real-time personal access to both social contacts and “breaking news,” at arm’s length and at the touch of a finger, which most of us take for granted on a daily basis.
Over 90% of the US population pays considerable monthly fees to remain “plugged in” to a portable device (over 50% have smartphones) and the rest of the world is right there with us. Beyond the convenience of our everyday personal lives, this connectivity has great potential to effect positive change on a global scale, whether by allowing us to track and halt the outbreak of diseases or to spark cultural and political revolutions.
But for all its benefits, we’re often reminded of the darker side of online communication. A number of high-profile cases of suicide, especially among teenage girls, have been blamed on cyberbullying. Last month, the actress Leslie Jones, star of the recent Ghostbusters reboot, was subjected to a level of public vitriol and hate speech that would be almost unthinkable in face-to-face interaction.
It seems then that online communication may bring out the very worst in us. How can we understand this psychologically and use that understanding to do something about it?
Back in 2004, psychologist John Suler popularized the term “online disinhibition effect” to describe how online communication can encourage people to come out of our shells to participate in public discourse.1 As Suler and others have noted, this disinhibition can have positive effects – for example, allowing people to share their inner emotions and giving a voice to those who might otherwise be too shy or feel too disempowered to speak up.1,2 But online communication can also facilitate “toxic disinhibition” whereby personal attacks, cyberbullying, hate speech, and threats flourish.
Suler attributed the disinhibiting effects of online communication to several factors, most notably the ability to be anonymous (hiding our identity), invisible (not seeing nor being seen in face-to-face contact), and asynchronous (not interacting in real time).
While Suler’s hypotheses were largely speculative at the time, subsequent research by Dr. Russell Haines and colleagues suggests that while anonymity does increase participation on online discourse, it does so across the board, without any specific or disproportionate benefit to shy people.2 The potential for anonymous online communication to have an “equalizing effect,” allowing shy people to speak up, was not supported in his experimental study.
Instead, Haines found that anonymity “removes the accountability cues and frees members to express unpopular or socially undesirable arguments,” freeing reticent opinions as opposed to reticent people.2 In other words, the anonymity of online communication gives us the sense that it’s okay to speak our minds, sharing opinions that we’d more likely keep private – appropriately so – in face-to-face social interactions.
Similarly, University of Houston professor Arthur Santana analyzed actual online comments, comparing between news sites that allowed either anonymous or non-anonymous reader commentary.3 Anonymous commenters were significantly more likely than non-anonymous commenters to make an “uncivil” comment consisting of a personal attack, vulgarity, ethnic slur, racist remark, or threat.
A small majority (53%) of anonymous comments were uncivil, whereas only about 30% of non-anonymous comments were uncivil. So – no surprise here – it appears that anonymity encourages “internet trolling,” loosely defined as making uncivil comments online.