A Social Experiment

Dennis Mitton
Jun 4 · 3 min read

The Experiment

I’ve played an unofficial and unscientific game on social media for the last month, and it’s been fascinating to watch. The results are as many people would expect. But, in a few cases, the results surprised me. And it should be noted that I have a particular web presence. It’s an easy task for those so inclined to research me and to probably figure out what I think about many things. This could have tilted the responses I got.

To insulate me from the trolliest of trolls, I agreed a priori to make a comment on the first five entries I see on whatever social I’m looking at. To whatever point the original poster made, I was a contrarian. Sometimes, I wrote longish and thoughtful and engaging responses. Otherwise, I wrote as most other people: off the cuff, unabated, derisive, acerbic, short, and terse. These short posts garnered a virtually immediate response, often with others chiming in. It was kind of like sticking your tongue out at the school bully. He gets you back by having his whole posse stick their tongues out back at you. More is more in this world, I guess.

Boil Me In Acid?

I had one response regarding something I wrote about the ongoing political situation in Greece: The response was simple: “History not your expertise, huh chump? C’mon back when you finish the third grade.” This kind of response often gets a whole slew of responses with everyone virtuously high-fiving each other at the good jab.

If the topic is incendiary in and of itself — say abortion — the responses can be especially mean. Once, in an abortion thread, I asked if local populations should be able to decide what kind of community they want? I stated the response/question kindly but knew it wouldn’t be seen as such. I got a dozen or so immediate snippets of hate mail with one person saying that, if they ever met a person like me, they would boil them in nitric acid. Nice.

No Apologies

Another thing I tried on a whim with surprising results was apologizing. I got two results. Almost everyone with whom I disagreed with and then apologized to — I usually made something up to apologize for — appeared genuinely softened. But I was surprised that, in a few cases, posters just got meaner after an apology. I was told to “get my ass off the internet” several times. One gal, after I apologized for saying something about President Obama that she took offense to, told me to “Shut the hell up. I can find out who you are and where you live.” I had another guy tell me that he didn’t know which would have been better — that my dad had learned to use condoms or that he would have died before meeting my mother. Yes. These are the people you live next door to.

What really interests me is how anonymity can embolden people to be mean. I’m sure if I worked with these folks who want to boil me in acid we would get along just fine. Does anonymity allow us to secretly reveal our true selves? It appears to be so.