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Anonymity in the Virtual World

Anonymity in the Virtual World

As Judith S. Donath states, “Identity plays a key role in virtual communities.” However, the virtual world has made it increasingly easy to either fake an identity or proceed without one at all.  Without identity, the user is not held accountable for their actions. A Michael Welsch says, the power of anonymity can create an “online disinhibition effect” because “anonymity shields participants from any long-lasting social shame.”  Users recognize how anonymity empowers people to behave differently than they usually would. Teo Keipi, Doctoral student of Social Psychology, quotes a young student on the safety and confidence one feels from being anonymous online, “Often when using the internet anonymously, people have more courage to do more and to tell their opinions directly. It feels safer. This being the case, people do and say more than they would in face-to-face interaction.”

ImageThe power of anonymity is clearly portrayed by considering the drastic differences between the physical world and the virtual world. In the physical world, our identity is rooted in our bodies. However, our concrete bodies are no longer an essential part of our identity while online. As Donath notes, in the virtual world our identity is composed of information rather than matter. This lack of physical presence changes the rules for users. Because of the vast differences in concepts of identity between the two worlds, there is a substantial change when transitioning between the physical and the virtual world. The social rules, norms, and expectations, which are accepted in the physical world, are not always applicable in the virtual world.

People are used to the clearly defined border and rules of the physical world and many times, mistakenly, expect them to uphold in the virtual world. Yet, they are separate. Donath describes the virtual world as, “a world in which the boundaries exist only as a social mechanism.” Usually these social mechanisms are strong enough to maintain order and prevent chaos. However, frequently these rules are ignored. Online, the lack of identity and thus, accountability, causes chaos and entices users to behave in outrageous manners.

As always, it is important to consider the implications of identity, deception, and anonymity on society, but especially the effect of these factors on our youth. There is a generation of kids who have grown up always interacting with the virtual world. They have grown up in a place where digital media and the virtual world have enabled vicious and typically unacceptable behavior to occur frequently. These users recognize how the rules for the virtual world are different from those of the physical world. Many times, they exploit this fact and misbehave without considering the implications for their actions, because in their minds, there are none. Keipi quotes a teenager’s thoughts on the virtual world, “the internet is an unsupervised area, where nothing brings consequences.” Although the youth would not usually behave in these risky manners, they recognize the unique environment and opportunities that the virtual world offers. Mean and defiant behavior is facilitated through the virtual world.

ImageA primary example of the youth exploiting their anonymity, lack of identity, and perceived lack of consequences is cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is much more prevalent today because it is facilitated by the culture of digital world. Harassing others and behaving hostilely is much more appealing to many bullies when they are not physically close to their victim and they are unable to see the victim’s emotional, distraught reactions. Would the bully say these hurtful things to the victims face? In most cases, they would not, which is why they revert to the Internet to commit these acts. Further, the limits and boundaries of the virtual world are vague enough that the bully may not view him/herself as crossing any lines or behaving immorally. It is a lot easier to justify one’s actions if the boundaries are not definitive and up to interpretation. Every website and group online has different rules for what is acceptable and expected behavior. The bully could rationalize their behavior as just joking around and not intending any harm. Finally, most cyberbullies lack a sense of accountability. The power of anonymity allows them to shield their identity. Thus, they do not feel accountable for what they say or the pain and damage they inflict. They feel shielded by the power of the Internet and do not consider the repercussions for their actions.

When my younger sister was in third grade, she realized the power of anonymity online. She, like most kids at that time, had a Webkinz account.Image Webkinz is a virtual world in which younger children interact with one another through their Webkinz pets. After playing on Webkinz for a while, my younger sister realized how she could use Internet deception to benefit herself, at the expense of others. One of her classmates, Ella, gave my little sister her username and password. With Ella’s information, my little sister logged on to Ella’s account and wreaked havoc. She took everything of Ella’s (food, clothes, furniture, special items, and money) and sent it all to her own Webkinz account. Upon finding all of her possessions gone, Ella was clearly upset. Ella was later able to get my little sister in trouble through talking to my parents. Ella was able to confront and resolve her online problems through the physical world. Although Ella was able to force my sister to own up to her actions, many victims of online are not able to confront their hacker or troll, because of their lack of physical presence and identity online.

This type of deception does occur frequently online. It can be viewed as a type of hacking or identity theft, even though it required little work or effort from my sister, because Ella simply handed over her password. A tormenting act like this is easy for a third grader to commit in the virtual world. But would she have committed it in the physical world? It is highly unlikely, if not impossible for a third grader to break into a friends house, take all of her personal belongings and money, and leave her stripped of all her possessions. Clearly, this mean act is only possible in the virtual world. Further, it is less likely that my little sister would have committed these acts of ‘identity theft’ if she were able to see Ella’s upset reaction to her vicious actions. The absence of physical presence enables young people to not consider the consequences of their actions. It is easier for them to view their actions as merely clicking buttons or typing some words, rather than focus on the implications of their actions and their effects on individuals. The virtual world permits the youth to evade accountability and refuse to take responsibility for their actions.  They do not view their actions as serious or consequential. The existence of the virtual world and all the capabilities that it offers, opens the door to all sorts of possibilities at the hands of unassuming youth. 

Hacking, deceiving others, behaving ‘immorally’, cyberbullying, and violating social norms are all common happenings, which the youths frequently commit and do not even question. What is the effect of growing up with such advanced technology that allows us to hide our identity and behave anonymously? There is a generation of youth who has grown up with this as the norm and do not know of a world without it. Although I am very close in age to this generation, there are a few years between the rise of the Internet, which distinguishes us. Growing up while the Internet was slowly becoming accepted, gives me and my peers a different perspective, because it was not always prevalent in our lives. It also makes it easier to recognize many of the changes in acceptable behavior from my generation to theirs

The Webkinz anecdote is applicable to the same problems I discussed with cyberbullying. It is very easy to condemn the bullies and write off the abusers as malicious or vindictive. However, my perspective changes when I actual know the person misbehaving on the Internet. Clearly, because she is my sister, I sympathize much more. Although, obviously her behavior was unacceptable, I wonder what prompted such deviant behavior. Is my little sister simply a malicious little girl with cruel intentions? No she’s not; she was obviously misbehaving, but the power of the Internet allowed her actions to become much more meaningful and have more severe implications. One could argue that was she enticed by the novel capabilities offered by the Internet. She acted out under the guise of anonymity, and did not consider the repercussion for her actions. Growing up with the Internet in her always in her life has given her a different perspective for her interactions on it.

My little sister is a part of a generation who has grown up with the Internet always prevalent in their lives and was always familiar with the presence of the virtual world. Its important to consider what will become of this generation. They are still in the middle school and high school currently, but one day they will be the adults and dictating the world. How will growing up with access to the virtual world shape the outcome of our society and generations to come? 

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