In this weeks blog I’ll be taking a closer look at the comment system and the consequences of anonymity on social media and just the web in general. A classmate of mine has given me two good works on this, more specifically ‘The Online Disinhibition Effect’ by J. Suler and ‘Reading the Comments’ by J. M. Reagle.
I feel like talking about Suler is a good starting point on how online behaviour can work differently from real life performance. The disinhibition effect is the phenomenon whereby people online express emotions and desires that they would otherwise restrain offline. He makes a distinction between ‘benign disinhibition’ and ‘toxic disinhibition’, whereby the former is the situation where people display a large amount of hospitality and friendliness and the latter, the state where they express hateful and rude statements. Suler states that the anonymity, or even physical invisibility to a minor extent, we obtain online is a big factor in the creation of the effect.
While I understand the difference between the two versions I feel as if, the benign effect can’t really be called as an expression of suppressed feelings as the toxic one. People whom are friendly online, I think are by nature also very friendly people offline. While people who behave in a rude, hateful and discriminatory way online, aren’t necessarily also bad people offline. It wouldn’t be surprised if some Internet trolls are actually nice people in real life, but take on a complete new personality when they surf on the Internet.
This ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’ is important to keep in mind, as we move to the next work, namely that of J. M. Reagle. His text talks more specifically about comments on online blogs, forums and social media. I think we all have looked at the comments of a video or social media post before and found that it sometimes contains some very hateful messages. The comments are just an example of the effect described by Suler. Because our identity is protected by our anonymity online, we are free to comment whatever we want on what we find. A few famous youtubers have decided to disable their comment sections in the past, some of them even permanent. Many have stated that this action had an impact on their channel.
Another famous example where toxic comments come forth is on news articles on Facebook. Even though I try to stay away from them, I sometimes can’t resist reading them and finding out some very ignorant comments. When it comes to politics many take on a very cynical, even sour (as we say in dutch) attitude. While Facebook goes against the anonymity principle that is brought forth by both the authors, it is still not enough to block some very toxic comments. I personally think this has to do with the fact that even though our identity is exposed, nothing holds us accountable for what we write in comment sections. If people call someone out on a lie in a response to a comment, many of them will either ignore it or attack that person back.
Just today (15th of October), I saw a perfect example of the topic of this blog post. It was a news article by De Morgen, which a Flemish quality newspaper about a statement by the actress Mayim Bialik, who plays in The Big Bang Theory. It was about the recent scandal involving Weinstein in Hollywood. I won’t go further on this as it’s not of importance here but if you followed the news for the past week then you definitely heard of it. She said that because she dresses just mediocre and doesn’t really flirt with people, she never had the problem of men harassing her. In a perfect society women should be able to dress how they want etc., but because that’s not the society we live in, women are to be careful in those things. When I took a look at the comment section I was kinda disgusted with the responses to the article. One guy stated that she dresses mediocre because she has nothing to show for in the first place, another one calling her a dumb religious child. One guy even stated that she has been going crazy for a while now, speaking as if he personally knows her. 2 out the 3 profiles of the people I stated above where fake accounts. So here again the anonymity makes it so they can say whatever they want without it ever harming them in real life.
It is one of the many sad things that have come with the rising popularity of social media, and sadly one that is very hard to counter. Though we shouldn’t just look at the toxic comments, but also appreciate the encouraging ones or those with constructive criticism. As with anything on the Internet, there’s a good and bad side to it.