Anonymity & Behavior Change

The following is the second comment by UMN student BZ (The first comment is here) which in turn is intended to invite your comment, on Anonymity & Behaivor Change.

B.Z. is researching the development and nature of communities on the internet, and this particular sub-project explores anonymous and pseudonymous blogging or commenting as well as other topics.

Anonymous interaction leads to no consequences. Because of this, people act differently than they would in face to face conversation.


Almost every forum or blog on the internet has someone acting like a jackass – are they really like that in person? Online you might for example, tell someone you disagree with over a political issue, or the correct distribution of Linux to use an idiot, using numerous colorful expletives. In person, you might keep silent during political arguments; passively agree with whatever distribution of linux is mentioned first.

Behavior change can go a lot further than acting more aggressive online than in person. People can be anyone they want to be – totally reinventing themselves. Males might pretend to be females. Custodial engineers might pretend to be marine biologists. Changing ones behavior online is a gateway to experiencing different reactions from individuals.

Are these virtual outings any less significant than our actions in the real world? Does calling someone an asshole online hurt their feelings any less than in person? Is developing an emotional bond with someone while playing online video game, such as a MMORPG any less significant?

The physicality is lacking. The knowledge of who you really are is lacking. These are the same reasons you can behave this way – your personal consequences are not immediate or even real, but what about those with whom you interact?

Have you ever misrepresented yourself for a particular purpose or behaved in a way online you wouldn’t dare express in “real life”?


  1. #1 george.wiman
    December 3, 2008

    I generally try to be much nicer online than in real life. In meatspace I can look around the room and decide what level of anger to express for best connection and communication. Online (unless the message itself consists of “I am really pissed) I don’t know who’s reading so I try not to let content be overshadowed by pathos.

  2. #2 Ray Ingles
    December 3, 2008

    I also try to be polite and straightforward online. Of course, I generally don’t post anonymously, so I’m not sure I’m even a negative data point…

  3. #3 Virgil Samms
    December 3, 2008

    Online anonymity does not change my behaviour. I am this rude in person.

  4. #4 B.Z.
    December 3, 2008

    Hmmm. Three posts from three people who claim to not post anonymously.

    Wouldn’t it be something if Ray Ingles was in fact Virgil Samms? And Virgil was actually George Wiman? That would mean that George is actually Homer Hussein Simpson.

    Now that we’ve established that you are all in fact not who you claim to be, perhaps you could talk a bit about how people treat you differently since you all appear to act the same (or nicer even!) than in “meatspace”.


  5. #5 The Traveler
    December 3, 2008

    I have found most contacts to be much more gracious and business like. I do not witness as much profanity (probably because it is not allowed). There are some that have typos and all lower case. I think this speaks about the type of person they may be in person. Not a necessarily bad person, just not a patient person.

  6. #6 Virgil Samms
    December 3, 2008

    Hmmm. Three posts from three people who claim to not post anonymously.

    Who claimed that?

  7. #7 B.Z.
    December 3, 2008

    The Traveler: I take it your interactions are in moderated environments if profanity is not allowed?

    You make an interesting point about the usage of lower case and typos. Online has a nuance in language all its own (capital letter often equate to shouting) This could be akin to generalizations and stereotypes made in “meatspace”. If someone has a slow southern drawl it doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent. Similar if someone uses all lower case they may not be impatient, rather different priorities. Perhaps they have A LOT of online interactions and simply want to get their point across without having to go through the tedium of proper use of written language. Is this acceptable?

    Virgil: I did, by making an assumption.

  8. #8 Virgil Samms
    December 3, 2008

    There are some that have typos and all lower case.

    Those are probably C programmers.

  9. #9 JSB
    December 3, 2008

    I am moderator for an email list with about 80 members, perhaps 20 of whom post regularly. Nobody is anonymous, most of us have been friends for many years. One of the list rules is free speech (the other rule is don’t piss off the list owner, but many of us break that one). Occasionally arguments break out, and flames and name calling. We only rarely act like that in person. But online, even if we are not anonymous, we are ruder. Interestingly, the social group functions well. Perhaps better than it did in the days before the internet.

    I would postulate that even if a person is not anonymous, they are able to be more rude online than in “meatspace”. And in some cases, that isn’t such a bad thing.

  10. #10 uncle noel
    December 3, 2008

    I’m curious about people who feel like they can act differently when they are anonymous (it’s not new; phones have been around a long time). I don’t feel that way. I still feel responsible for how I treat others, even if they can’t know who I am. Not only would I be ashamed of hurting someone’s feelings, but, oddly, I’m embarrassed if I say something stupid and people who I will never meet see it. Isn’t that irrational? It’s like I have to act like God is watching, even though I’m an atheist.

  11. #11 Epinephrine
    December 3, 2008

    Penny-arcade said it best several years ago,

    John Gabriel’s GID Theory

    Yes, I’ve been harsher online than I likely would be in person. Most of us have.

  12. #12 Rod
    December 3, 2008

    I am generally the same in all venues. While I normally present myself anonymously online, I have no desire to be rude. Just as I have no desire to be rude IRL. I don’t see any value in being rude. It’s not like I have all, or even a few of the answers.

  13. #13 B.Z.
    December 3, 2008

    Epinephrine: That is a fantastic graphic.

  14. #14 Stephanie Z
    December 3, 2008

    I’m not anonymous, but I can be harsher online than I am in person. I can be more effusively friendly, too. For me, at least, some of that is determined by the fact that I have more time online to decide how I’m going to react.

    Real-space conversations also tend to be real-time, which means I may suppress or dial back my scorn because I don’t have time to work through how much it’s justified.

  15. #15 Name withheld out of fear
    December 3, 2008

    I’m not anonymous, but I can be harsher online than I am in person. I can be more effusively friendly, too. For me, at least, some of that is determined by the fact that I have more time online to decide how I’m going to react.

    That is because in person it only takes a few seconds for people to learn that they must fear you. On line it may take longer.

  16. #16 Stephanie Z
    December 3, 2008

    Yeah, but no one’s ever been able to tell me why I’m scary. Well, either that or they’re too scared to tell me.

  17. #17 the real me
    December 3, 2008

    Stephanie: what a c>nt! F@ck!ng B!tch…I H^te her! St00pid f3m!n!ss w^nn^b33…She oughta just go k!ll herself, for all I care…I don’t even care if she knows I am saying this!!

    Oh shit..did I just send that?????!!!!!

  18. #18 Stephanie Z
    December 3, 2008

    See? Still no idea why I’m scary.

  19. #19 the real me
    December 3, 2008

    Oh…er, um…ha…ahhh….h-h-hi-iii Stephanie! Um…that wazn’t me!! I promise you.It was an impasto!
    Isn’t the internet just full of creepy scary things? Words are soooo, sooooo bad…and es[pecially the people who use them!!
    But you aren’t one of the scariez….;-)
    Um, really!

  20. #20 clinteas
    December 4, 2008

    Isnt half the fun of commenting with a nick online that you can let yourself go a little,I myself am more aggressive and open online then in meatspace(like the term)?

    When social rules in meatspace ask you to remain polite,or non-committed,online there are no such restrictions,and you can let your mind go LOL
    Helps if your smashed,too.
    SIWOTI !

  21. #21 B.Z.
    December 4, 2008

    clinteas: What restrictions does “meatspace” place on you to act within social rules that online doesn’t? Do you simply find that it is in your best interest to act within social rules in person due to potential consequences that are lacking online?

  22. #22 K.
    December 4, 2008

    For the most part I’m the same person online as I am in person. This is a tough one, though. I do know that I express myself much more online than I do in real life. For example, my friends are well acquainted with my opinions concerning politics and religion, and at most I’ll make a snide comment or two depending on the circumstances. Online, I sometimes launch into full-fledged rants on these or other topics, possibly using harsher language than I would in real life. Anonymity has something to do with it, no doubt. Even if everyone knew who I was when I made commentary online, though, I don’t think my cyber habits would change a great deal. I may be more careful about what I said, but… I don’t know. I think, in general, I’m someone who communicates better through the written word than otherwise, and as such the Internet, anonymity or not, gives me greater freedom. I shall have to ponder this some more…