This morning, I saw a tiny, reddish beetle on my windowsill, right next to my bed. My first groggy-eyed thought was: Oh hello, Nature. How are you? Thanks for bringing me a cute little friend!
And then I remembered that this is NEW YORK CITY, which means that any and all small reddish moving dots I see must be under immediate suspicion of being BEDBUGS. And bedbugs – bedbugs!!! – mean that I will have to make embarrassing phone calls to prospective weekend houseguests, suffer nightmares about teeming infestations, and rack up massive drycleaning bills. In between bouts of hyperventilation, I captured the beetle in a Ziplock bag, snapped a dozen photos of it, and started up Google Image Search to see if in fact this intruder was the harbinger of gross news. (It wasn’t.)
As with many of my Googlings, I fell down the rabbit hole of tangential but compelling side searches. Could bedbugs lay eggs in your eyeballs or ears? (Unclear.) Can other insects do so? (Yes.) What does one do if one suspects an earwig or a cockroach has invaded one’s ear? (STOP ASKING QUESTIONS ONLINE AND GO TO THE DOCTOR.) That latter line of questioning fascinated me: folks online were incredibly candid about asking questions that one might not otherwise ask a neighbor, friend, or casual passerby. Nor would one share with polite company the various implements used in coaxing a cockroach or other insect out of one’s orifices (Castor oil, in case you’re wondering). Even I had turned to Google with my entomological crisis before I called my friends — – even those that I knew had faced off with these skin-munching critters before. I was so afraid of confronting any latent stigma associated with bedbugs that an online search seemed preferable.
John Suler calls this phenomenon dissociative anonymity: the idea that you can operate in a space without any affiliation with your real name. Not only does this allow you a sense of safety – that is, the ability to ask questions freely without any fear of stigma from others – but it also allows you to convince yourself that the phenomena you discuss or search online does not really relate to you. Dissociative anonymity cuts two ways. The first is what Suler calls benign disinhibition. Benign disinhibition explains why you feel okay workshopping your Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction ideas on a message board, or sharing your deepest wishes and fears in a comment thread. Benign disinhibition explains why many loosen up online much more than they do in face-to-face interactions. Suler explains that this type of disinhibition “indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being.”
And then there’s toxic disinhibition, also known as The Reason That YouTube Comments Make Me Disappointed in Humanity. Toxic disinhibition, as Suler sums it up, explains why hateful, harsh, and grotesque commentary so frequently emerges in anonymous or pseudonymous spaces.
De-linking one’s identity from one’s behavior certainly lets people experiment – but that experimentation isn’t always pretty. I’m honestly not sure if online anonymity encourages more benign or toxic disinhibition, though I do understand that many calls for banning anonymity online are premised on an understanding that the repercussions from toxic disinhibition ruin the sandbox for everyone. What I am sure of, however, is that removing the possibility of dissociative anonymity troubles me. For me, that is one beauty of the Internet: the ability to play and to experiment, to question and to ask, to learn without shame. Dissociative anonymity seems to be the engine behind at least some of that – and modes of linking fixed identity and behavior online would threaten that anonymity.
Of course, one could argue that the world was an exceptionally playful, experimental, question-friendly space well before there was cyberspace-enabled dissociative anonymity. That is true. But the online space is becoming eminently more trackable — that is, it’s easy for cookies or talented folks or even untalented folks to figure out exactly where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to online — and permanently traceable. The space in which you play, experiment, and ask questions can now be preserved indefinitely, and often out of your control.
To me, this strengthens the case for dissociative anonymity alive in the online space – and not just the perception of it, but actual anonymity – for that reason. But is there a way to keep toxic disinhibition — the type that goes beyond disappointing comments and into actual harrassment — from growing alongside?