The Troll without a Face: Anonymous Online Discourse

When I first started posting my writing online, I kept an open door to anonymous comments when the sites where I posted allowed me to do so. In my mind, someone had just read my work and had some amazingly insightful thought about it and went to comment and … she wasn’t a member of the site, didn’t want to be a member of the site, and so just went away, and I was bereft of her insights. In my naivete, I failed to appreciate how most people use anonymity online, but I wasn’t long catching on. Within a few months of starting to post some of my work there, I disallowed anonymous comments on Fanfiction.net. I don’t remember well enough to say that they were all nasty and vitriolic, but most certainly were … and many registered members of Fanfiction.net aren’t known for their skills in diplomacy. I decided that I could give up that one amazing insight if it saved me from the other ninety-nine comments containing nothing but loathsome vitriol.

Last week, the New York Times published an article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner on anonymous commenting that makes the same observations as I did some years ago on Fanfiction.net. Brodesser-Akner considers the theory that anonymous online snarkiness arises because we have evolved mechanisms to control our social interactions based on face-to-face interactions. Online, without the facial and body-language cues of our conversation partners to tell us when we’ve crossed the line (and the attendant negative emotions that come with such disapproval from a fellow human), we’re left in the dark and can say things that we’d never dream of saying in a face-to-face interaction.

I’ve often observed the same of people in cars. Most people won’t even shush a chatterbox in a movie theater, but the meekest granny will give you the finger for cutting her off. I notice my own perception changing as I drive and become irritated: Suddenly, I am not annoyed with other people but with cars. I perceive the behavior as coming not from a person but from a car and, likewise, any of my own aggression is aimed at a person but at the car, an insensate and lifeless hunk of metal from which I don’t have to fear censure or disapproval.

The same happens online. I know many of the people with whom I regularly communicate. Some of them I have even met. When I read their comments and their emails, I hear their voices in my mind and see their faces. Sometimes, I know what a person looks like from pictures; other times, I have communicated so much–often in more spontaneous forums like instant messenger–with a person that I have developed a voice for that person, despite having never heard her voice. But an interesting thing happens with people whom I know online but do not know well. Just as I come to associate my friends with a face, a photo, a tone of voice, so I come to associate acquaintances with the icons that they use most often. I see that person’s name, and her icon flashes into my mind. Perhaps this is my mind’s way of making sense of faceless communications: by creating a face of whatever handily associates itself with a particular name.

Anonymous comments allow none of that. I have received the rare unsigned comment on my work on LiveJournal, and without any clue as to whom I communicating with, the voice takes on a flat, featureless quality as I read. And it is difficult to respond to such comments too. Everything that I say feels insincere or, if I’m simply talking shop about my writing, overly clinical. I am no longer talking to a person but a blank white box with no notion of who sits on the receiving end.

The NYT article links to a related post by Connie Schultz that delves even deeper into the effects of anonymity online:

It makes for many an ugly day, discouraging thoughtful discussions and repelling readers who don’t have the stomach for the daily dose of vitriol. … Some argue that allowing anonymity is a way of outing the bigots among us. But reading multiple posts, often by the same person using a variety of identities, amplifies voices and exaggerates numbers. The haters are small in number, but they are tenacious, and the resulting echo chamber fuels a growing climate of fear and rage born of false impressions.

Or: sockpuppetry, as we’d call it in fandom. One person with abhorrent views and a lack of civility can create the impression of consensus where none exists. Suddenly, those who play nicely, who are “only here to have fun,” feel like they are marooned on an island in hostile waters. I remember when it seemed people were quitting Fanfiction.net in droves due to the general tone of uncivility there propagated by a few people with multiple accounts; the heads on the hydra that, lobbed off for ToS violation, would spring back in a newly vicious permutation. We still get the occasional registration on SWG from a writer who’s never posted off of Fanfiction.net and wincingly asserts that she can “take concrit” but “doesn’t flame.” Since policies both allowing concrit and banning flames are codified into SWG’s rules, these assertions, to me, speak far more about writers who have become hand-shy in a toxic environment that makes no attempt at insisting on accountability.

When we were working to open the SWG’s story archive, we were faced with a number of choices about what we would and would not allow. I was and am open to many different possibilities, but one thing I continue to insist upon is that anonymous comments will have no place on our site. If you want to communicate with an author, then you can register for an account. It takes ten seconds, and you need never visit us or be bothered by us again. But it creates accountability, however little, and associates comments with an identity.

In Schultz’s article, she notes the same thing. She has experienced with a Facebook page to connect with her readers and finds greater civility there. Now commenters have names and most have pictures associated with their names as well. Though she “knows” very few of them, they nonetheless possess an identity. She writes, “A not-so-amazing thing happens when people feel safe: They start to speak their minds. Dozens, mostly women, tell me they have never before expressed their opinions so publicly.” Does that sound familiar to anyone else but me?

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8 Responses to “The Troll without a Face: Anonymous Online Discourse”

  1. Ithilwen says:

    I agree with you about the potential negative effects of anonymity; some people just seem to feel free to revel in rudeness when they can comment anonymously (as anyone who’s been in fandom for longer than a month is all too well aware!). What i don’t understand is why this effect is sodiminished when commenters have to “sign their names.” Given that there’s no way to verify someone’s ID online, you’d think the flamers would be just as free with their vitriol even if they can’t comment anonymously. (Of course, some of them *ahem Battling Bard ahem* don’t seem to care either way – but most people do seem to feel at some level that signing even using a pen name demands more accountability than a truly anonymous post.)

  2. Michelle says:

    You know, I agree. And then I don’t. I admit I’ve “missed out” on many of the experiences you talk about here. I use ff.net only as a reader and commenter. I have never and will never post fanfiction there. Which is to say, I have yet to receive a flame. I’m using smaller archives, moderated archives – and I think flamers feel much more at home in the vastness that is the Pit. The archive in itself invites such behaviour, just by being a huge, largely unmoderated mess.

    But I also dislike sites where I have to sign up. I generally prefer to leave logged-in reviews, which is why I’m a member of so many sites. But on the other hand, I don’t want to be forced to sign up. When I want to leave a review, I don’t want to take a detour by signing up, waiting for a confirmation mail ect. Because of this, my LJ and NAN allow anonymous comments. To this day, I haven’t had a problem with it. On NAN, quite a fair number of reviews are left “anonymously”. One of the problems I see (for both parties involed) is that an anonymous commenter has no way to leave a bit more info – like email or website. Only the site admin can at least see the IP. That creates a rift between signed-in and anonymous commenters, IMO, which is not at all a good thing.

  3. Dawn says:

    Ithilwen: I can say from an admin perspective that signed reviews allow me to demand more accountability! :) On eFiction, anonymous reviews display an IP address to the admin, but that’s the only identifying information. Yes, I can block an IP through our host, but that’s rather drastic for a rude comment. With a registered user, I have access to an email address and have the chance to at least say, “Hey, cut it out!” before invoking the banhammer! (And, on SWG, I’ve never had to banninate or even call out for bad behavior anyone but spammers, but I feel more secure in being able to control the tone taken on the site with only allowing registered reviews.)

    You’re right, though, in that I don’t know why a penname would create different behavior, but it seems it does. What’s interesting, too, are the occasional clashes between o-fic writers and fandom where the o-fic writers feel threatened by the pennames much in the same way as we feel threatened by anonymity because they feel it allows people to “hide” in a way that promotes negative behavior.

    Michelle: I haven’t had many bad experiences on ff.net either because, when I have time to cross-post, it’s generally the last place that I post, and I haven’t had much time for cross-posting in the past few years. However, I have seen numerous people leave the site (or at least stop posting) because of the trolling and flaming that goes on. The Battling Bard and her sockpuppets have a lasting vendetta against me, but I take that as the compliment that it is. 😉 Mostly, I don’t post there because I don’t get that many more comments than I do on SWG, and they aren’t of the same quality, i.e., “Please write more!” on a single-chapter story. 😉 And a lot of nitpicking and condescension on “canon.”

    I agree that the vastness of ff.net also encourages bad behavior, though I think that that reflects more on the poor management of the site than the size necessarily. (Another reason why I don’t like to post there!) The moderation is basically nil; enforcement seems to be arbitrary if it happens at all. At least, this was my experience there some years ago. I have always disliked that the site pushes authors to accept all reviews of their stories with a smile without pushing reviewers to be diplomatic. It is a two-way street, imho.

  4. Independence1776 says:

    I think part of the reason there’s accountability with pseudonyms is that there’s a record of behavior. If someone cares enough to, they can search for past histories, or ask people about their experiences. With anonymity, there’s none of that. There’s no way to tell whether it’s one person or fifty, or if they’re “drive-by” or someone with a vendetta.

    I find it interesting that you do that with icons– I do as well. Even if I know someone’s face (only a handful of people, due to pictures they’ve posted), I’ll often think of the icon first. I know I go by icons when I’m scanning my flist, and only secondarily look at the screenname.

    As for ff.net, I’m rather lucky. I’ve never been flamed, not even when I posted my OC-centric Akallabeth stories last August. But then, my posted writing there has been fairly uncontroversial. I don’t expect that to last once I start posting some stories I’m working on. And yes, I do allow anonymous comments– I think about half the comments on “Never Look Back” are. I like people just being able to comment if they want, so I don’t plan on turning it off unless I’m deluged by negativity. And I do reserve the right to delete anonymous flamers. (I think part of my attitude is that I’m a strong enough writer and secure in my canon knowledge that I *can* take flames. Many people aren’t. It’s a real shame that ff.net fosters a culture of fear.)

    So I’m on both sides of the fence when it comes to anonymous reviews. I appreciate that they aren’t welcome on SWG because they *are* so often problems, but a part of me can’t help but think about those who would review but don’t want to register for whatever reason.

  5. Spiced Wine says:

    You know, I came across the term ‘sockpuppet’ through FFN, and was reading posts, accusations and counter-accusations with bewilderment. (Please, speak English, lol.)
    When I did discover what the term meant, I thought, ‘What is this idiocy?’

    “haters are small in number, but they are tenacious, and the resulting echo chamber fuels a growing climate of fear and rage born of false impressions.”

    They do it to back *themselves* up, and indeed from the outside it does appear as if there is a herd, rather than a few animals. :)

    Since I started posting on archives, I have always put my full name up in my bio. (In fact, I think if I type my name into Google, one of the results will lead back to an archive) because I wanted to appear friendly, and also had nothing to hide. The first forum I was ever on (in about 03-04) was nothing to do with fanfic, it was a support group for people with long-term depression/anxiety, and although some few people used pseudonyms the majority didn’t, because I believe we all wanted and needed to talk to *real* people. There was a huge openness and trust on that forum, and I suppose I felt it would be the same in fanfiction. When I had to choose a pen-name I was a bit flummoxed. It seemed as if every-one used them, and I thought it was almost an unwritten *law* or at least expected, but I thought, ‘Why can’t I use my own name?’ O_o

    Now, of course, I do understand that some people have to be careful of being associated with writing certain genres or themes, (which I find appalling in itself, but understand the need for caution if it means one’s employment may be affected) but I like to be seen as approachable and open, and yes I suppose, accountable.

    I have certainly said some things I am ashamed of, but as my time in fanfiction has lengthened, I hope I have come to deeper levels of understanding myself that there are *real* people behind the pen-names who should be treated as real.
    All of the authors I regularly communicate have their definite fingerprints, in their style of writing, through any photos they may have put up on LJ, their icons, their work. Some email me about story ideas, perhaps with snippets of writing, etc. And that makes me feel good, because they too are thinking of me as a genuine person. :)

    While I understand some reasons for it, sockpuppetry seems ridiculous. When I heard of it on FFN, I thought it was puerile. But it can be damaging when people are dog-piled by many *socks* and feel they have to leave a site or forum. Yes there are people who do not hide behind them, but vomit acid through their main account *and* make sure it is also spread by sockpuppets.

    I post on an archive that does not allow anonymous reviews (like SWG) and I prefer it. Yes, I do know people who wont leave comments because they don’t want to join the archive, but fair enough. The people who do leave comments, I have come to know as friends on LJ (and vice-versa, I like to get to know authors I read/review, because the processes they go through when writing fascinates me and knowing them makes me feel closer to the story and characters (lol, how fangirly 😀 ) and they are a diverse group, interesting and generous in and of themselves.)

    I see nothing wrong in being myself and exposed on the ‘net’ – and links go from my bio-page on the main archive I use, to an IBS website, with links from there to YouTube and vlogs on depression, child abuse, anxiety etc. Those vlogs were specifically made to expose me, so other people, if they wished, could contact me. And they do.

    Perhaps that is why I don’t understand sockpuppetry, and have no patience with it, because I came from a different place, the depression forum where people laid themselves open. My thoughts, devolving from that, boil down to:
    ‘I am not hiding, if you wish to talk to me, you don’t need to hide either; and if you have something vicious to say, if you wish to insult, or spit hate, then say it as *yourself,* let me know who you are. Do me the courtesy of not hide behind a blank ‘Anonymous’ or a sockpuppet.’

  6. Dawn says:

    Indy: I think you’re right about the record of behavior. I know that I’ve occasionally encountered a familiar author under a different pseudonym (nothing nefarious, usually just that they started participating under a different pseudonym and, when they settled on a penname, the site wouldn’t let them change the old name … I first joined Tolkien groups under the alias RavenDawn7, for example, so my first list posts are under that name, not Dawn Felagund), and it’s a little disarming, trying to reconcile the familiar identity (and what I know of the person) with the “other” identity.

    I think part of my attitude is that I’m a strong enough writer and secure in my canon knowledge that I *can* take flames. Many people aren’t. It’s a real shame that ff.net fosters a culture of fear.

    I haven’t received many flames, either, mostly from the Battling Bard or people whom I suspect are sockpuppets of hers (given that they misspell the same words in the same ways). Flames can be pretty amusing, in fact; there’s nothing like receiving literary critique from someone who misspells every other word! 😉 But, like you, I am confident enough in my abilities as a writer to shrug off any nastiness that I do receive. The shame of it is indeed those who aren’t at that point, especially since fan fiction–and Fanfiction.net in particular–seems to attract many young and inexperienced writers, those who look at archives like HASA or SWG and say, “I’m not good enough to post there!” yet would, in all likelihood, be treated far more supportively just about anywhere else besides Fanfiction.net. When I was in high school–in university, even–I would not have had the confidence to share my work. A lot is said about how flamers tend not to write well, but I think that the biggest proof of their disconnect from what it is to truly create is their inability to understand and empathize with what a huge leap it is for most people to put their creative work up for others to see.

    Spiced Wine: I was also confused the first time I heard “sockpuppet,” which was while gawking shamelessly at the trainwreck that was Msscribe in the Harry Potter fandom. (I’m not even part of the Harry Potter fandom but, dang, that was like a free soap opera piped right into my home Interwebz! :D)

    I am not particularly shy about my real identity either, although I use the name Dawn Felagund. (My real name is easy enough to find, right here on this page even! 😉 And my real first name is Dawn!) A lot of people in fandom not only know my name but my home address, phone number, or work email. And then there are people in my offline life who think that my real name is Dawn Felagund. The first time I was called into court in SCA, I was called in as “Dawn Felagund.” (And, to add insult to injury, Felagund was terribly mispronounced!)

    But I also understand why people need to use pseudonyms (though, like you, I think it’s awful that in supposedly civilized, modernized places, people need to worry about losing their jobs because they write stories with LGBT characters, for instance). There has been some friction with published authors complaining of fandom people commenting on their blogs using pseudonyms (I’m thinking particularly of the Making Light blog when they tangled with fannish folk over some unseemly racial comments), but what they don’t understand is the privilege they have to do what they love under their real name. When I talk to people whose spouses don’t even know that they write, it makes me realize how fortunate I am in comparison and understand better why people feel the need to hide their identities a bit.

    ‘I am not hiding, if you wish to talk to me, you don’t need to hide either; and if you have something vicious to say, if you wish to insult, or spit hate, then say it as *yourself,* let me know who you are. Do me the courtesy of not hide behind a blank ‘Anonymous’ or a sockpuppet.’

    I really admire you for being so open about depression and related issues. I’ve tried to be more open about some of my own struggles, and it’s not easy, but I also have been hearing from a lot of people who say, “Me too. And I sometimes feel so alone and it made me feel better to know that I’m not.”

    An interesting thing happened on Fanfiction.net once. I started receiving critical comments on AMC from a signed account. Fair enough; I am open to concrit, but I disagreed considerably with this person’s interpretation of the texts. We talked back and forth in a couple of comments and (I thought) pretty much agreed to disagree.

    Then I received a really nasty review, signed, from this same person. (I hesitate to call it a flame but it was unnecessarily vicious, especially considering that this person and I had already communicated enough to know that we had vastly different interpretations of the texts and that neither of us was inclined to change, no matter what the other one said.) So I called the person out on it. I told her/him that we had different opinions; I had explained my side, wasn’t going to change my 300,000-word novel on the whim of one reviewer with whom I disagreed, and didn’t think that the nastiness was at all warranted and certainly was not a productive way to go about making opinions about my story known to me. I told the person that critiques that I might have considered, if diplomatically worded, I would now dismiss as emotion- and ideology-driven frothing at the mouth because of the tone in which it had been written. I pointed the person to some articles on the Critters website about writing diplomatic reviews and suggested that, if my story was provoking such a negative reaction, then now might be a good time to give it up as not worth the time and headache of reading any further.

    I just about fell out of my chair when I not only received a response but the reviewer acknowledged that I was correct that the tone had been poor judgment and that s/he would check out the articles on Critters. That is why those who want to hate without confronting the outcome of their hate hide behind anonymity and sockpuppets.

  7. Rhapsody says:

    I really liked the two articles, I read them last night and especially the one that linked to post-partum depression made me sit on the edge of my seat. Anyway…. One of the two articles refer to facebook where openess was created since people used their real names. Yes, I can see how that might hold people back from sputtering vitrol, after all with your name and all there, your own social circle might call you on it.

    Then of course there are usernames/pennames/nicks ect, like you I do go by a nick, mine has been around for many years and somehow came into existence before I started to review. On usename I always posted with a really shortened name of my nick, but the R (born one day on irc) just stuck 😉 Folks just don’t know better. There isn’t any difference in how I speak/act in the fandom compared to rl, however some folks seem to peruse their nick/penname as a mask to lash out towards others. Even a nick can give you that anonymity that results in shameless behaviour. Sometimes it is that intimidating that the honest and people who mean so well just back out.

    Then of course anonymous comments, sockpuppets or made up usernames like thatguyfromfreeville, teabagger10… maybe they are on a different level of Dante’s internet hell, but still.

    I am an internet vet, was online before we got browsers and back in the day everyone held the internet etiquette in the highest esteem, my personal experience is that once folks use nicks and such, this is utterly cast aside and it makes me wonder why it takes just so little to behave that violently (incl spreading slander, bullying, flaming ect ect) towards others.

    As for signing up, I think it works as an extra treshold when folks get all wired up about something, the registration might cool them down a tad or make them think extra hard about what they want to say. With anonymous comments its click, spill/rant/vent and go. if you’d do that face to face, you’d be most certainly called on it immediately, but the internet has a delay, so by the time the blogger/writer has received it, the sender already moved on, leaving the damaged party utterly alone.

  8. Rhapsody says:

    *usename=usenet… *sighs* Off to bed with me.

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