The veil of wonder that once gleamed around the internet has been lifted. Behind it, we’ve located the inconvenient truth about life online — it’s filled with fake news, trolling, cyberbullying, filter bubbles, echo chambers, and addictive technology. The honeymoon is over, as they say.
The ills of the web are the ills of society. They have existed, well, probably forever. Bullying, marginalization, violence, propaganda, misinformation — none of it is new. What is new is the scale and frequency enabled by the internet. The way the web works and, more importantly, the way we engage with it, has taken these issues and amplified them to 11.
Our public debate takes each issue separately, attempting to understand the root cause, mechanics, and solutions. We tweak algorithms in order to pop the filter bubble. We build features and ban accounts to curtail fake news. We ban instigators and require the use of real names to snuff out bullying. What is this approach missing? These problems are not actually separate. They are all symptoms of a deeper psychological phenomenon. One that lives at the core of human interaction with the web.
The Anonymity Paradox
The internet lives in a paradox of anonymity. It is at once the most public place we’ve ever created, but also one of our most private experiences.
We engage in the digital commons through glowing, personal portals, shut off from the physical world around us. When we engage with our devices, our brain creates a psychological gap between the online world and the physical world. We shift into a state of perceived anonymity. Though our actions are visible to almost everyone online, in our primitive monkey brains, when we log in, we are all alone.
This isn’t anonymity in the sense of real names versus fake names. The names we use are irrelevant. This is about a mental detachment from physical reality. The design of our devices acts to transport us into an alternate universe. One where we are mentally, physically, and emotionally disengaged from the real-world impacts of our digital interactions.
Though our actions are visible to almost everyone online, in our primitive monkey brains, when we log in, we are alone.
This is the same psychological phenomenon that we experience when we drive a car. The car is a vortex where time and accountability disappear and social norms no longer apply. We routinely berate other drivers, yelling at them in ways most of us never would if we found ourselves face-to-face. Speeding along with a sense of invincibility and little concern for any repercussions, we sing and dance and pick our noses as if no one can see us through the transparent glass. We talk to ourselves out loud, like crazy people, reliving (and winning) past arguments. Time bends and we lose track of how long we’ve been driving. Sometimes we get to where we’re going and don’t remember how we got there.
In this bubble of anonymity, the real world is Schrodinger’s cat, both existing and not existing at the same time. This paradox is why we flush with embarrassment when we suddenly become aware of another driver watching us dance. Or why road rage stories that end in tragedy are so unnerving to hear. It’s the real world popping our bubble. We’ve killed the cat and now there are consequences.
This is our life on the web. Every day we repeatedly drop in and out of an unconscious bubble of anonymity, being in the world and out of it at the same time. Our brains function differently in the bubble. The line between public and private becomes less distinguishable then we would like to admit, or maybe even realize. It is this paradox that drives the scale of the problems plaguing our beautiful internet.
Cyberbullying, Trolls, and Toxic Communities
Just like road rage, our digital bubble gives us the psychological freedom to unleash our innermost feelings. From the safety of our basement, desk, or smartphone screen our brains step into a space of perceived impunity, where repercussions are distant and fuzzy at best.
It doesn’t even matter where we physically are. Interacting with a digital device requires attentive processing. Your brain must be almost fully engaged. Mentally, it pulls you completely out of your current environment. If you’ve ever tried to converse with a person who is checking their phone, you know they’re all but gone until they look up. Like blinders on a horse, the physical world disappears and all our brain sees is the screen in front of us.
In this bubble, there are no social cues. No facial expressions, body language, or conversational nuance. The people we interact with are all but faceless. Even if we know them, the emotional gap created by the screen means our brain doesn’t have to consider the impact of our actions. In a face-to-face interaction, we have to assume the burden of the immediate emotional response of the other person. Online, our fellow users are temporarily relieved of their personhood, in the same way that our fellow drivers relinquish their personhood the moment we get behind the wheel. They become just another thing in the way of us getting from A to B.
As Robert Putnam described in his best-selling book Bowling Alone, “Good socialization is a prerequisite for life online, not an effect of it: without a real world counterpart, internet contact gets ranty, dishonest, and weird.”
In some ways, our online experiences mimic those of drone fighter pilots. Sitting in windowless rooms staring at digital landscapes half a world away, drone pilots experience a war zone that both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time. This creates a bubble of anonymity between pilot and target.
To quote a piece from the New York Times:
The infrared sensors and high-resolution cameras affixed to drones made it possible to pick up… details from an office in Virginia. But… identifying who was in the cross hairs of a potential drone strike wasn’t always straightforward… The figures on-screen often looked less like people than like faceless gray blobs.
When our brain shifts into the bubble, it creates an artificial divide between ourselves and the people we interact with. They are text on screen, not flesh and blood. On top of that, because of the voyeuristic nature of the web, every interaction happens in front of an entire cast of individuals whom we never see, and that we may never know were there. We are increasingly living our lives through a parade of interactions with faceless gray blobs.
It’s easy to remove the human from the blob. This gives us permission to do and say all kind of things online that we wouldn’t in real life. This same emotional gap is why it’s easier to break up with someone via text message than a face-to-face conversation. Technology creates a psychological buffer. However, the buffer is only temporary. At some point, we come back to reality.