Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Online/Offline Rage

Yesterday the BBC had a story about “Britain’s first `web-rage’ attack.

I’m not exactly sure what “web-rage” is, and I’m not sure if this qualifies as web-rage, assuming it exists . . . since the attack in this case occurred online.

Two men apparently met and chatted in a Yahoo! chatroom, but they fell out when one allegedly began to spread rumors about the other. The object of the alleged rumors tracked the other fellow down, using online sources, and showed up at the alleged rumor-monger’s home armed and with an armed companion. A fight broke out, but fortunately no one was seriously injured.

The story made me think about the notion of web-rage. Some (including me) have written about the fact that life online seems to spawn a version of road rage. We’re all, I imagine, familiar with road rage: When we get in a vehicle, the anonymity of being isolated inside and the perceived power the vehicle gives us causes us (many of us, all of us, maybe, sometimes) to act in ways we would never act if we were face-to-face with others. People who would never cut in front of someone in a grocery line cut people off in traffic, tailgate others, honk and/or make rude gestures to indicate their frustration and hostility with people they blame for driving too slowly, too cautiously, too ineptly. It’s a documented phenomenon, studied by social psychologists and others with expertise far exceeding mine.

It struck me, a few years ago, that we seem the same phenomenon migrating online. Cyberspace is actually a more hospitable venue for this kind of amorphous hostility: While you can be relatively anonymous in your vehicle, the vehicle itself is clearly identifiable if anyone wants to make the effort (model, make, color, license plate #). And you are visible – to a greater or lesser degree – inside your vehicle, so you, too, run the risk of being identified if you do something awful enough that anyone actually wants to track you down. That, I think, serves as something of a moderating force for road rage; we know we can be hostile to a point, but if we go further than that we begin to run the risk that someone will report us to law enforcement and create the risk of consequences we’d prefer to avoid.

So you have some anonymity in your vehicle, but nothing approaching what you can achieve online. Depending on the effort you put in, you can achieve almost-perfect or functionally-perfect anonymity online and this, I submit, erodes or even erases the risk of consequences that keeps real-world road rage in line.

The effects of this heightened anonymity are exacerbated by the real power one can achieve online. The power of the vehicle lies in its physically insulating us from others, in its capacity for speed and in its mass – its bulk. It makes us feel bigger, stronger, more invincible.

Much of the heightened sense of power people can enjoy online derives, I think, from the perfect/almost-perfect anonymity they can assume. Anonymity has often been equated with power: Super-heroes are always anonymous and that’s part of their power. They stand apart from everyone else, tinkering in our mundane lives with their special talents; in a sense, they manipulate us and the context in which we live like children manipulate toys.

I think some of that comes out online, with web-rage or whatever we want to call it. This phenomenon is very apparent in the behavior of online stalkers and harassers. While some of them might engage in similar conduct in the real-world, many, I think, would not, at least would not go as far as they are willing to go online.

That reminds me of a conversation I had several years ago with a county prosecutor in a state I won’t identify. For some reason, we were talking about cyberstalkers, and he told me he has the perfect way of dealing with them – guaranteed to stop them. He said, and I agree with this, that much of the motivation for thee stalking lies in the power of the anonymity they assume online. So he said when his office gets a report of cyberstalking he contacts the police and they send officers out to the alleged perpetrator’s home. There, they take his/her computer (computers). He said that puts an end to it.

I was sputtering a bit at this point, trying to point out to this prosecutor that police simply can’t go out and seize someone’s computers – that this would be a blatant violation of the 4th Amendment. His response? He said that cyberstalkers depend on anonymity, and so are embarrassed and unwilling to complain about their computer’s being seized because this would “out” them as alleged cyberstalkers. Reeling, I asked him how long they keep the computers. He said, basically, forever, unless the person at some point really makes an issue of it.

That story is kind of a digression from my main point, but not really. Online anonymity, coupled with the information you can discover about people online and with the ability you have to . . . what? . . . interfere with, manipulate, harass, etc. other people online produces what I think are some very interesting, and often very unpleasant, variations on real-world road rage.

I don’t, though, think the solution lies in taking people’s computers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting point, and a great insight. This is a huge issue...not only with adults, but with kids, as well. I've seen what can happen when rumors spread and things are said...all over IM, text messaging, etc. In cases where nothing is handled face-to-face, drama abounds.

I once (several years ago) communicated via email with some folks at a popular web site. Needless to say, my tone was misinterpretted and my email was circulated internally amongst the group. One of the individuals hit "Reply All" instead of "Reply" when he told the others what he thought about me...without ever having met me.

This perception of anonymity tends to breed an absolution of personal responsibility. Couple that with a lot of the situational ethics I see amongst many of the younger generations, and I can see how we really have to consider the societal effects of the Internet, in many aspects of our day-to-day lives.

H. Carvey