Before starting on the who’s and whys of negativity online, allow me to define my stance first. Now, we’ve all had at least on experience online of someone who seems to do nothing but spew a constant torrent of harsh words and abuse online. Why do people do this though? A popular thought is that some people are just jerks. They’re jerks online, so it logically follows that they are likely jerks in real life too. What’s logical, though, is not always what’s correct. Why would someone who is offline a perfectly nice and decent person act like a complete monster online?
For an academic explanation, I turn to Professor of Psychology John Suler. His article “The Online Disinhibition Effect” discussed the phenomena of “social disinhibiton” to describe people acting differently online than they would normally. He also spoke of what he called “toxic disinhibition” to refer to people who, “may be rude, critical, angry, hateful, and threatening… territory they would never explore in the ‘real’ world” (2005). Suler’s usage of “real” isn’t quite accurate anymore with the large-scale rise of social media and web 2.0 blurring that line significantly, but the principle of acting radically different online is not lost on the modern-day.
For a much less formal explanation, think about this example. There is a random average person. This random person is on the internet and is going by a pseudonym so nobody knows who they are. Under these circumstances, what reason do they have to act decently? They could say the most hateful, inflammatory, and insulting things, and what could anyone do about it? The average user can’t do anything outside of appealing to an administrator, or blocking the offending user. Even with these solutions there are still very many more people acting similarly out there.
So why is acting in this manner seemingly so appealing to all the people who engage in similar actions online? Again, let’s turn to Suler. He suggests that people exhibit this level of toxic disinhibition as being, “simply a blind catharsis, a fruitless repetition compulsion or acting out of pathological needs without any beneficial psychology change” (2005). Simply put, they act that way because they find it fun.
It is somewhat easy to see why people think they can do this. Plenty of people online made up a character that they are pretending to be. It wasn’t really “Jane Doe” insulting and demeaning that girl, it was “Blue_Velvet_56.” For a plethora of reasons, it just does not occur to “Jane” in this example that she is really saying that. The foremost reason is that “Jane” can’t see the victim of her abuse. Suler says that, “This invisibility gives people the courage to go places and act in ways that they otherwise would not” (2005). It’s a lot easier to lay personal abuse and insults at a picture of someone, or a just a stand in picture of them, than the person herself. For example, if you insult them in person they can easily fire back insults at you, go to get help, or otherwise stop you from continuing to insult them. On a less physical level, “Jane” can’t see her target, so, in a sense, there is no “real” victim.
Now that things have hopefully had some light shown on them, we can move on to the bigger issues. Namely, what can people to try to avoid this kind of behavior, how to react to it once it does happen, and importantly, how outrage and negativity at something online isn’t always a bad thing. See you next time.
P.S. The article is not publicly available, at least not that I could find, so you will have to either have a research capable account, or buy the article to view it at the link provided.