The Modern Day Mask of Online Anonymity

Masks have existed in many cultures for thousands of years for various reasons, be they for ceremonies, hiding one’s identity, allowing someone to take on a more powerful persona, or to aid in a performance. The oldest found mask dates back to 7000 B.C.E. and looks like this:

Our species is a social one, and we feel rewarded and good when we have access to imitate details of others lives and valuable social information. At the same time, knowing others have access to the personal information from our own lives makes us feel vulnerable and at times even afraid. Masks offer psychological protection from this. With a mask, nothing you say or do is attributed to yourself, but to the mask. It takes on characteristics of an entity.

Wearing the mask can be considered a freeing exercise. It allows one to act without consequence, to return to a childhood where one could speak without a filter.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” 
-Oscar Wilde

Comparing the power of masks to the online world is not new. The group “Anonymous” directly embraces the comparison, taking up the mask from the movie V for Vendetta as a symbol of this protection, allowing them to act without it being attributed to who they are in their real life. The idea is that a mask, as an entity, can be made up of infinite people who wear it temporarily. No one person is the mask, but many are temporarily so. Masks let us borrow identities. 

On online forums that require nothing more than a username, people can create their own masks and wear them whenever they wish, taking them off when they go into the world. Even those who don’t participate in anonymous forums will probably notice they are more able to communicate freely wearing a Facebook or Twitter mask than wearing their own face. We create illusions of safety behind our public masks with privacy settings. Are we as witty or as willing to talk about our days with another person standing before us as we are on our social media pages?

It’s easy to think of this as something to which only other people are susceptible, but anyone reading this has an online persona that they wear. This blog is one for me, and I have others. Most everyone from children to adults have a variety of masks they have grown quite attached to. Some masks hide more of us than others. In all cases, though, we are more ready to speak our minds online than anywhere else. 

This phenomenon is called The Online Disinhibition Effect. It is generally characterized by people taking on different characteristics, actions, and language use online, and creating separate identities for their “real” life and their online persona.

The lack of consequences being tied to face-to-face interactions leads to online harassment, cyber bullying, and all sorts of sexually explicit and casual offensive language. The combination of anonymity and huge audiences brings out our culture’s worst traits. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have seen far more blatantly racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic language during a two week period on the internet than I have in all the rest of my “real” life. The way people communicate while wearing their masks is entirely different from the rest of their encounters, and sometimes that’s horrible. 

Many people are rightly concerned about the environment we’re creating for ourselves. The online world is not just a fantasy or an entertainment source. For many people, it is the only honest social interaction they receive on a daily basis. When someone’s friends or family are not near, when they do not know many people, or when they are too exhausted or anxious to attend social events, many choose to relieve their loneliness in the online world. Whether we like to admit it or not, the internet is a huge portion of the average young adult’s social life.

I often find that this issue is either ignored and laughed off, or it’s held up as evidence that the younger generations are obviously inferior, terrible, and dooming humanity as we know it. I don’t think either is the right way to approach this.

It is serious, because as much as we like to imagine a divide between a real existence and an online one, neither is imaginary. It’s an entirely genuine interaction between actual people, no matter how we categorize it.

At the same time, while this environment does seem relatively new, this is not the only instance in which we’ve created these situations. I started with the comparison to masks for a reason— we have been allowing for this to happen for thousands of years in different ways. This is only the most recent.

You might recognize a similar nastiness towards those working in customer-service jobs where people act as if the interaction isn’t with another person. It’s hardly an anonymous situation, but it creates the illusion of anonymity in the same way Facebook does. They may see your face, but there is a psychological divide in each case, being a screen or a counter. 

You might recognize a similar willingness to shout horrible things from people who catcall from their cars. Again, there is a degree of anonymity because someone decides no one in their “real” life will know, and the person being harassed will likely never see them again. 

You might recognize a similar ability to open up and say intimate, secret things if you’ve ever mailed someone a heartfelt letter or sat beside a stranger on the bus or an airplane who confided all their secret fears to you about their family life. 

The mask effect is not exclusive to the internet, though it is one of the most common places to find it. Because of this, our strategies for navigating our social worlds need to address that masks are a constant reality for many of us.

I don’t believe that the solution is to shame those who do use the internet as a primary form of social interaction. There are some improvements that could be made to any culture that makes honest emotional expression feel embarrassing. Perhaps we should focus our change on this society that teaches us not to say hello to each other on the street, (“don’t talk to strangers”) or to talk about our relationships (“don’t gossip”), or to tell people we love them outside half-joking greeting cards because it makes us too scared to be near someone and tell them how we feel. We have generations of people simply negotiating how to live in this culture and trying to find a balance where they don’t need to be vulnerable or afraid of shame, but can still express their emotions, share their stories, and have a voice.

I negotiate this through my poetry, sometimes, and through social media other times. I would feel stripped and isolated without my masks, and I’m certain I’m not the only one.

We can promote writing (especially creative nonfiction, which allows us to share all those intimate stories and reach wide audiences of strangers), art, and music. We can promote clubs, organizations, and community efforts to allow emotional expression in person. All these things will help. 

But we will never defeat the ease in which our internet masks slip on. Anyone with an internet connection or access to one can share their thoughts, without needing to plan, without needing to expend any large effort. So we need to address how to be a force of good within our internet culture as well. 

First, ignore those who post offensive material. If you can hide them, “downvote” them, ban them, or otherwise silently tell them it’s not appropriate, do those things as well, but usually starting arguments will only enforce the behavior. Everyone online, millions of people, are looking for attention and community that they aren’t getting in the rest of their lives. If you ignore them, they will find other ways to get that attention, and if they realize being mindlessly hateful isn’t working, maybe they’ll find something else.

Second, support those who are being victimized online. It may be that only one person out of thousands said something nasty, but if that’s the only comment the person receives, it creates the illusion of agreement with the bully. Bystander intervention happens online too.

As an example situation: Someone posts something sexist in response to a female commenter, the female commenter replies that it was offensive, and the other commenters say it was a joke and downplay it. This scenario happens all the time. Try being a voice of reason and agree with the female commenter, ignoring the other voices. “You’re right, they’re being completely offensive. I thought your original post was really interesting.”

Third, read anything you post online out loud before you press enter. Is it something you could hear yourself saying to someone ever? If it sounds stupid, offensive, or overly personal, you probably should refrain from sharing it. Simply hearing your posts out loud may help lessen the divide in your behavior behind the mask. 

Finally, look for areas of the internet with good moderation. Smaller communities are usually better, particularly those that have measures to ban anyone who posts extremely offensive material. If you’re teaching a person about the internet who might not already know their way, show them some healthy places to go for online company. There are supportive communities where people help each other and provide a listening ear.

The Online Disinhibition Effect is known for bringing out negative traits, but it can also bring out something very human in people. It is known to make people more affectionate and more willing to openly express their emotions. If we can remain self-aware to the changes in ourselves online and keep our masks from bringing out harm, we can make areas of internet culture that are safe to share and empathize. We can make our attempts to fend off loneliness and find social connection in our world less dangerous. We can provide areas where people of all backgrounds can experience emotional catharsis through storytelling, conversation, and the written word.