Anonymity, Manners, and the Weakness and Power of the Internet


Do you think the anonymity of the Internet is a problem?

I was talking with a friend recently, and she was mentioning a rule she uses in her online discourses: Never say anything to someone online that you wouldn’t say to their face.

It’s an idea I’ve seen a lot in discussions of online society: Online interactions tend to be ruder and more cruel than in- person ones. Without the physical presence of the other person, people feel somewhat released from normal social inhibitions — inhibitions like civility, and empathy, and kindness. Without the presence of the other person, people tend to forget that they’re interacting with an actual human being, and not just a set of ideas and beliefs.


There is some truth to this. People do say things online that they wouldn’t say in person. And some of those things really shouldn’t be said: from personal insults to bigoted diatribes to death threats. Even interactions that fall short of these extremes can be, shall we say regrettable. I’ve had more than one painful lesson with friends and family, teaching me never to process serious emotional issues online. It’s too easy to try to marshall your arguments into an unstoppable steamroller, and too easy to forget that you actually care about the person you’re talking to, and don’t want to hurt them if you can avoid it.

So yes. There’s some truth to this.

But ultimately, I don’t agree with my friend.

See, here’s the thing. Yes, some of the things people say online are terrible and hurtful and never should be said. But here are some of the other things people say online that they don’t feel they can say in person:

“I really don’t agree with you.”

“I think your ideas are mistaken, and here — exactly — is why.”

“I’m gay.” (Or bisexual. Sadomasochistic. Polyamorous. A sex worker. A foot fetishist. A furry. Almost any sexual minority you can think of.)

“I think your most deeply held beliefs are irrational, unsupported by the evidence, and almost certainly incorrect.”

“I am an atheist.”

And these are important things to say. They’re things that should be said, things I want to be said.

Emily post

The fact that people feel less bound by social convention online than they do in person doesn’t just give them license to be rude where they would otherwise feel pressured to be polite. It also gives them license to tell the truth as they see it, where they would otherwise feel pressured to go along with socially acceptable lies — or stay silent in the face of them.

And that, I think, is a good thing.

I’ve felt this pressure myself. In person, I’ve definitely backed down from arguments — dropped the subject, changed the subject, agreed to disagree, whatever — to keep the social engine running smoothly. And I haven’t always felt proud of myself for doing so. I’ve compromised my honesty and my beliefs, let stupid and terrible and patently false ideas slide unchallenged, in order to defuse conflict and awkwardness in social situations. And I think most of us have.

It’s a hard situation. I like the fact that I’m empathetic and diplomatic, able to see things from other people’s perspectives and reluctant to hurt their feelings. And it’s not like I think that contradicting wrongness or proving my point is always the highest priority, or that I want every party to turn into a debate. But like a lot of people, I have a reflexive anxiety in the face of conflict, a reflexive tendency in social situations to prioritize social grace over other considerations. And I don’t like it.


So I love the fact that the blogosphere releases me from some of that concern. I love that there’s a social arena where the convention is that it’s okay to disagree: okay not just to argue, but to stubbornly stick with an argument and see it through to its end instead of just saying, “Well, you may have a point, let me think about that, hey how about them Yankees?” I love that there’s a social arena where it’s okay to point out that the other person has flawed reasoning, unreasonable assumptions, incorrect facts.

I don’t just love it so I can hammer on other people’s ideas, either. I love it so other people can hammer on mine. I feel like the blogosphere is a crucible, a whetstone, where my good ideas get clarified and my fuzzy ideas get sharpened and my bad ideas get burned away. I want other people to feel as free to criticize my ideas as I do to criticize theirs. Otherwise, what the heck’s the point? And I think that’s true for a lot of people. Having a place where you can test your ideas against another smart, thoughtful, stubborn person who’s just as willing to go the full fifteen rounds as you are? I can’t be the only person who thinks that’s the neatest thing since buttered popcorn.

And for people who don’t live in Sodom by the Bay, all of this isn’t just important. It’s vital.


For people who live in suburbs and small towns, places that are even more strongly ruled by social convention than the big impersonal cities, the online world is a godsend. (Tangent: What’s a secular word for “godsend”? I couldn’t think of one.) There are thousands — millions — of people for whom the online world is the only place where they can speak their truth, and explore the questions and details and complexities of their truth, without fear of reprisal. Not just fear of social disapproval, either, but fear of actual, practical, losing- your- job type reprisal. There are thousands, millions, of people who have no place other than the ‘Net where they can safely say, “I’m queer,” “I’m an atheist,” “I think the way I was brought up is stupid and evil.” For them, the fact that there’s a social arena where it’s okay to disagree and argue and not fret too much about what other people think or whether your opinions are hurting their feelings… it’s not just a relief. It’s a sanity- saver.

A is for atheist

Let me put it this way. If everyone followed the “Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t say in person” rule, the atheosphere probably wouldn’t exist.

And I want the atheosphere to exist.

I’m not saying that people should relinquish all social inhibitions in online interactions. Far from it. Even when I’m locked in a hardcore online battle of wits and wills, I try to remember that there’s an actual other person on the other end of the ethernet cable. And I try to remember to criticize ideas and beliefs and behaviors, rather than personally insult people.

Plus, for every well-mannered person who finds a good balance of honesty and kindness on the Internet, there’s an inept, inconsiderate, socially tone-deaf moron who needs more social inhibition, not less.

So I’m not saying that the Internet’s tendency to loosen the bonds of social good grace is an unmixed blessing.

I’m just saying that it is a blessing. A mixed one, but a blessing nonetheless. I’m saying that this weakness of the Internet is also one of its greatest strengths. As annoying and off-putting and fucked-up as it often is, I’m glad that there’s a place in the world where I can say things to people that I wouldn’t say to their face.

And where they can say them to me.

Anonymity, Manners, and the Weakness and Power of the Internet

25 thoughts on “Anonymity, Manners, and the Weakness and Power of the Internet

  1. 1

    “the online world is a godsend”
    Perhaps windfall? Serindipity?
    I enjoy your blog, thanks for being so clear in both your beliefs and your doubts.

  2. kc

    As always, you’re right on on this one. For all the crap that goes on online, the anonymity definitely yields good discussion. I used to have more good debate/playing with ideas freely in high school (very liberal gifted kids school), but now that I’m in college, suprisingly, there is less of that (public school in indiana). The internet is a place where you can have that kind of debate and discussion I miss… which is why I finally joined in and started a blog of my own, though it isn’t getting much use at the moment.

  3. 4

    I’m very skeptical of the existence of these intense civil discussions. I’ve never seen one and have only ever heard anecdotal evidence of their existence. Any and every time I have seen an intense discussion it is always out for blood. The peanut gallery is played to like a vaudeville show and the enemy is treated as either evil or stupid incarnate. No, I have no use for public discussion where showmanship is more important then convincing the other person. It’s useless.
    I find the idea of argument or debate to be almost completely useless. What is gained from “checking bad ideas” as you say? The person’s mind is not going to be changed, the most you’ve done is simply register yourself as if it were a poll.
    No, I find any argument that isn’t private and friendly to be useless. My ideas are honed by reading the thoughts of the opposition, not by trying to spar rhetoric. What does a debate good for? It changes no one’s mind and presents nothing that couldn’t be gleaned in a better way.
    As a matter of fact I view blogs as the anti-debate. Blogs are about presenting your opinions, and you can find a blog to counter any opinion you may find. Read that, don’t go 12 rounds trying to get the crowd to hate your opponent in the comments section or some public forum. Nothing is achieved except honing your rhetoric and appeals to the audience, instead of zeroing in on the truth.
    No, debate is a waste of time and argument is rarely worth it. Present you opinion and I’ll go read someone who differs, then I’ll be the judge of who made their case better. Save the circus.

  4. 7

    I’m in agreement about the freedom the internet offers to say “I completely disagree with everything you have just said.” I blog (as a critic, not a writer) about BSG fanfic, and although I always keep the comments about the story and not about the author, I often am much harder in my critiques than I would be if I were speaking face to face with the writers. This makes for both more interesting posts, and more useful (and constructive) criticism.

  5. 8

    I’ve found that posting under my real name has both kept me more civil online, and made me more likely to express my opinions offline…
    …although I have my suspicions that a Catholic girl I was courting recently called it off because she googled me.
    But hey, better sooner than later, right?

  6. 9

    I will tell anyone my name who asks. I use a pseudonym simply because it’s easier to remember. How many “Andrea”s do we all know? How many “The Nerd”s? The latter clearly sticks better.
    I have to say that the internet is a safe place to learn about a people group as much as it is a safe place to “out” oneself as being a member of a group. It would be very embarassing to be caught at the local library with a stack of books of Furries, but it’s much more anonymous to surf the internet.
    In my husband’s case, he used to think furries and “digital transvestites” (people who play a different gender online than their real world one) were all a bunch of freaks. Then he met some and got to know them as people. Now he’s merely annoyed and confused by that particular aspect of their personality, but he no longer hates them for it.
    For me, I found out that there are people who think like me. I live in the reddest county in Indiana (as of the 2004 presidential election). I had only ever been exposed to atheists who spent their time doing drugs and acquireing STDs and babies. My research on the internet showed me that this was not universal – far from it! The more educated one is, the more likely one is to be atheist.
    I finally realized that my perspective of our society was based on lies, not on properly-researched demographics. Lucky for me, the internet makes it easy for open-minded people to come together and bounce ideas off of each other. Without it, I would still be living in the dark ages.

  7. 10

    (Tangent: What’s a secular word for “godsend”? I couldn’t think of one.)

    Perhaps “indescribable boon” to get a little more weight in there?

    I find the idea of argument or debate to be almost completely useless.

    Sure, plenty of people, perhaps most, are not amenable to having their minds changed by argument; but many are, and when they are not the simple awareness that others are not afraid to state their disagreement can at least serve as a wake-up call. As a matter of fact I have seen civil debates wherein two parties both try to convince the other that they’re wrong, even in such heated forums as anti-creationism blogs, to give an obvious example. If you have some trust in a person’s good faith and intellectual honesty, it’s perfectly possible to hammer on their arguments and get hammered back without descending into vitriol. Those requirements are often not met online, of course, but nor are they necessarily often met offline.

  8. 11

    “What is gained from “checking bad ideas” as you say? The person’s mind is not going to be changed”
    Well, that’s not true… I mean, it may be true for a great deal of people, there are certainly exceptions, myself included.
    It’s because of this and a handful of other blogs that I changed my mind about actually calling myself an atheist… A couple years back I would have called myself pantheist or humanist, or another ‘softer-sounding’ word because even in San Francisco I was afraid of the stigma of referring to myself as ‘The Big A’… But it was reading the debates that went on in blogs like this one that helped show the importance of trying to face that stigma head-on.
    Perhaps it’s a bit more accurate to say that debates don’t necessarily change the minds of the people debating, but they certainly help shape the minds of the people on the sidelines observing.

  9. 12

    I agree. I’ve thought for a while now about this, and my basic conclusion was that it’s no worse, it’s just different. It’s a different medium that acts in different ways.
    What I, personally, have found interesting, is that even when the anonymity is taken out of the equation–even when the person you’re talking to is, in fact, someone you know very well in person, it can still be easier to talk about certain things online. Sometimes if I’m having some sort of personal issue with something, and I want to talk about it, it can be easier to talk about online. At the very least, it can be easier to open up the dialogue online.
    I’m not sure why this is true, but it makes me look at online conversation and in-person conversations as different tools of interaction, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and which can be mixed and matched in different ways to enable the best possible communication in each individual circumstance.

  10. 13

    “debates…certainly help shape the minds of the people on the sidelines observing”
    Very true…and we often have no idea who (or even how many) may be observing our conversations. Never underestimate the power that even a single good example may have on someone who desperately needs to hear what you need to say!

  11. 14

    Perhaps it’s a bit more accurate to say that debates don’t necessarily change the minds of the people debating, but they certainly help shape the minds of the people on the sidelines observing.
    That’s been my experience. I find that debate rarely if ever changes the minds of those debating. It just changes the minds of those who were straddling the fence to begin with.
    As far as GC’s post itself, I can’t agree more. I’m intensely introverted in real life, but I’m quite talkative on a writing level – I’m more expressive, more comprehensive, etc. online. The internet has given me a voice and a community in which to express that voice. My livejournal community was there for me when I came out for the first time. My blogs give me a chance to voice unpopular opinions.
    Even if debating hasn’t changed anyone’s minds, what it has done is given me a forum in which to develop my side.
    (Tangent: What’s a secular word for “godsend”? I couldn’t think of one.)
    Piece of luck?

  12. 15

    As has been stated already most people will not have their mind changed. At best it’s for “benefit” of the peanut gallery.
    It’s for this reason that I think blogs, and not debates, are a better tool for changing minds online. You can see someone lay out their case and see another blog do the same in opposition to the ideas, not the words, of the previous. Since the majority of debate is simply ideological shouting matches, why not just give your opinion in a non-confrontational space, like a blog.
    I find debates to be useless as I have stated, and at times abhorrent. It’s rhetorical games to make the readers love you and hate your opponent. It’s going into a crowded room and trying to belittle someon in order to build yourself up. It’s picking a fight for the thrill of the crowd. I watch live debates, forum debates, etc and I see two men who might as well be playing dueling banjos or pianos. Neither has any interest in the arguments of the other, nor any chance of having their minds changed. Truth is left at the door so one-upsmanship and grammatical fencing can put on a stage show for the egos of the debaters.
    Screw public argument. I like my debates private so they can be sincere and without all the crowd pleasing tricks.

  13. SRW

    I agree with you, completely. I feel like the internet has reclaimed the space for written debate – the sort of situation which existed before cheap transport, when arguments would go down in letters and in journals. Hard, pugnacious things can be said – battle lines get drawn – but the arguments that get made are often stronger for it. It’s reading in the atheosphere that has taught me how to disregard – and avoid for myself – ad hom attacks and other bad arguments.

  14. 17

    Great post. You’ve captured and expressed wonderfully many of my own thoughts about the atheosphere.
    Since I’ve only been an atheist for about a year, I’m one of many who have been unable to “come out” with many of my friends, family and co-workers. The atheosphere has been a crucial place for me to find people who share my disbelief, to engage in dialogs with them, and even to form online friendships with some of them. The atheosphere is a place where I’ve been able to vent my frustrations as well as develop more thoughtful ideas. Coming out to the wrong people in my life at this time would have serious repercussions for many of my family relationships, as well as professionally.
    As far as I’m concerned the benefits of the atheosphere far outweigh its few, in my view, downsides.

  15. 18

    Often I find myself holding back in face to face conversations because I fear the consequences for my children. Occasionally I hold back because I fear the consequences for my job (which again, has consequences for my children).
    Does that mean, because vindictive theists can threaten my children or my job (whether directly or indirectly), I must hold my strong disagreement forever silent?
    Anonymity can be (and often is) abused, but it is also a great benefit to those of us who would be silenced by those that don’t want to hear us and wish to pretend we don’t exist and should not be considered.
    I think its imperative to at least present a consistent anonymous face – not to sock-puppet, and to try to extend courtesy at the very least to those who would extend it to you.

  16. 19

    I think anonymous feedback is also important for democracy. Only when you’re anonymous can you be completely sure that expressing your opinions won’t have repercussions on your “real” life. That said, it is easier to see the person as inseparable from their opinions when debating online – something we should avoid at all costs.
    So Greta, I agree completely with your assessment of online anonymity as a mixed blessing.
    I know of another respect in which it is a blessing – sometimes for both sides. For me debating online also helps with the quality of the debate I produce, mostly because I have more time and am less emotional.

  17. 20

    I totally agree. I’m glad you feel this way, because I still remember a while back when I mistakingly wrote in a tone that came across as quite harsh. I’m so glad you approached this habit of the internet with an objective mind. Thank you for that.
    My experiences with interacting with people online are at times really really painful. Especially in the Satanosphere. People exercise authority over you by threatening to have you banned from a site and separated forever from your friends for the most trivial things. I have seen people I know get banned for small reasons and it scares me. They all gang up on you and send you away, not worrying about your feelings. Or they ignore you forever, not thinking a wit about if you have actually formed a bond with them and would be hurt by this (not saying you, but others have done this to me and it was very hurtful).
    I don’t know what’s worse, getting forcibly separated from those you have become attached to by being banned, or having those you have become attached to remove you from their lives of their own accord without any explanation or second chances.
    That’s why visiting internet forums began to take a toll and I decided to stop visiting them. But, ultimately…
    I am a Satanist.
    I am a Satanic witch.
    I am a slut.
    I am a bisexual.
    I am a black conservative.
    I do not support the sexual double standard and I never will.
    Sexism has been the bane of my existence.
    I used to hate being a girl.
    I am a Social Darwinist.
    I was a stripper.
    I considered becoming a prostitute.
    I am a misanthrope.
    I enjoy church.
    I too, am atheist.
    If you’ve read this far, you know more about me that my own mother, who lives in this very same house.
    And the best part about saying these things is finding out that there are others out there exactly like you. Just ask the love of my life, who I met in the Satanosphere. I am so grateful for that, it is worth 10,000 harsh words. And people in the Satanosphere have said these things to me, among other things, things I would most likely not here in offline:
    It’s not your fault.
    Misanthropy is healthy.
    Anton LaVey respected women.
    You are your own God.
    I love you.

  18. 21

    Greta, I’m not hiding from you, but from Google. These days, the copyability of bits has made seemingly ephemeral statements alarmingly permanent. I’d rather make a comment about the current issue under discussion from my current perspective without wondering if uttering (as opposed to silently holding) that opinion is going to come back to haunt me 15 years from now.

  19. 22

    You know what I would really like to see? Written presidential debates. Because the great thing about written debate is you can take your time, which means quick wit doesn’t matter as much as a carefully crafted, informed argument.
    A while back, I endeavored to write a line-by-line critique of the first 2004 presidential debate. I never finished it, but in working on it, I realized that when you got right down to it, most of the things they said were meaningless without supplying larger contexts that neither one had the time to supply (e.g. “Ten thousand out of 12,000 Humvees aren’t armored” is a meaningless statistic unless you supply a standard for comparison, and “I’ve got a plan to increase the wetlands by 3 million” has no unit of measurement).
    If debates were written, I like to think that debates would be more reasoned and involve more solid arguing points backed up with solid evidence, rather than short, vacuous answers. Especially considering that it would be much easier for people to read and reread the debates in order to catch things they might have missed. Hopefully, it would keep debaters accurate and careful.

  20. 23

    As long as we keep in mind that there is an actual person on the other end of the posting, debating online is often easier than in person, at least for those of us who are chronic people pleasers. I have time to go over my argument to make sure it’s sound and that I’ve addressed all of the pertinent points in a cogent fashion, plus checking for typos.
    It helps to drain the intense energy out of difficult or scary topics, allowing some semblance of truth to emerge.

  21. 25

    Great post. In my own case, I have been an atheist for many years now, but I would never tell anyone for fear of idon’tknowwhat. Thanks to the internet, I have found people who thought as I do, and now will say in public,”I am an atheist”. I really think that being able to speak anonymously about it gave me the confidence to “come out” in the real world.

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