Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Anonymity, Social Filters and Facebook

One hallmark of most internet haunts is anonymity. If you want to leave a comment on a Youtube video, on a political website or on your favorite message board you can usually be fairly certain that whoever reads the comment won't know who you are in real life (or 'IRL', as you would say on the internet). And you can be entirely certain that whatever reaction someone has to your comment, you won't have to see their face at the moment they read it.

Anyone who frequents these comment sections, and compares them to everyday conversation, will immediately be struck by the fact that most discourse that takes place there is much more antagonistic, blunt, vile and coarse. This isn't a particularly puzzling phenomenon. When commenting to a group of strangers with complete anonymity many of the social filters that are present in physical interactions with others are stripped away, and our id's are free to spew at will. Without any immediate feedback, or lasting impact, our consciences are set free.

With the invention of Facebook this phenomenon largely dissolves, I have noticed. When your comments and statements can be viewed by your mother, your grandmother, your pastor, your co-worker, your wife and your friends, with your real first and last name, you not only don't have anonymity, you have the exact opposite. Of course Facebook comes equipped with privacy settings, so you could re-produce the anonymity to some degree if you wanted to, but my feeling is that most people don't. And for that reason Facebook's social environment can be sharply contrasted to much of that on the internet, and usually for the better. It reproduces many of the aspects of live physical interaction; what you say can be seen and heard by people that you know well, who know that it's you saying it, and they can have an impact similar to if you had said it aloud to someone. Which is to say it reproduces a semblance of accountability and restraint that are probably healthy things.

Reading Adam Gopnik's piece in this week's New Yorker about the internet in comparison to other revolutions in information and communication made me realize that we probably do tend to exaggerate the extent to which technology affects or defines us, when it is actually always us defining and informing it. However, the medium is also the message, and technology does affect the nature and content of our interactions, to the extent we choose to let it. It seems the people at Facebook don't want to let it do so as much as the rest of the internet does.

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