I read two articles recently which made me start thinking about the nature of anonymity and how it brings out the worst in some of us.
The New York Times had an interesting article about anonymous insults on blogs and the question of how to deal with them. The article talks about an ad agency executive, Paul Tilley, who committed suicide last month. Some people wonder whether his suicide was a result of comments made by a blogger called Agency Spy, who is an anonymous advertising industry employee.
No one knows who Agency Spy is, and what his motives are for his abusive comments. For all you know, he could be a competitor, or a junior or mid-level executive who could have been working with Paul, but never had the courage to criticize Paul in person. His blog, on the other hand, gives him a platform to speak freely because of his very anonymity. He has exercised this freedom, without considering any of the responsibilities that come with it.
The second article I read was a Washington Post article about a website called Juicy Campus, where anonymous posters share campus gossip. This is invariably salacious gossip slandering classmates, mostly women. The anonymous commenters name specific classmates and question their character and morals. The website itself disclaims any responsibility for the comments posted on it, though it does encourage people to “give us the juice”.
In both these cases, the people who made these remarks are anonymous, but the people they are targeting are not. So the targets have no way of calling the attackers out. We do not know what the motives of the attackers are, and we have no idea about their credibility.
But the mud they fling remains. If you fling enough mud on anyone, and if you keep flinging it repeatedly, people think some of it will stick. The charges themselves may be completely untrue, but at least some readers will believe them. We always tend to believe that there is a kernel of truth in gossip. “There is no smoke without fire”, we think, but what if there were never any fire, just a smokescreen?
This could become a serious problem if the wrong people read these allegations and believe them. Think of a scenario in which, in the first case, a client of Paul Tilley believes Agency Spy, or in the second case, a recruiter who is googling a college graduate’s name as part of employment verification comes across the campus gossip.
I don’t have an issue with Agency Spy or anyone else choosing to remain anonymous. We all have our reasons, and in fact, I blog anonymously too, so my issue is not with the cloak of anonymity that some of us wear.
But behind the cloak of anonymity, most of us still remain the same person we are in real life. We are still responsible for all our actions online.
But some people think differently. To them, the cloak of anonymity is more like The Mask, except in this case it brings out their inner troll. They use anonymity to post blog posts and comments that range from the stupid to the abusive to the depraved. They do this because they do not have to face the consequences of their actions. They would prefer to do a drive-by-insult rather than a stand-and-fight.
Obviously, none of these people would ever have the courage to say any of these things if their identity were revealed.
The very fact that they would prefer to insult people anonymously also shows that somewhere in the far reaches of their minds, they know that this is not the way to argue or behave. They are embarrassed to have their real-life identity linked to their behavior.
I think of these guys in the same way I do the middle-aged, avuncular looking guys in the bus, who find that crowded buses (or trains) are the perfect opportunity to grope women. They know they are anonymous, because it is difficult to pinpoint the perpetrator in the crowd.
Such people are disgusting. But sometimes, apart from disgust, I feel another emotion – pity. Why do these people have such twisted minds, I wonder. Why do they have so much hate, anger and cynicism bottled up inside them? Why do they make their days miserable by spewing negative emotions, when they could be thinking happier thoughts?
In the end, there is nothing much we can do about such people. Perhaps we don’t even need to. They are punishing themselves much more than we would ever have the heart to.