I spent a long time wondering what topic I should write on today. I found it very difficult to pick a stance on anything. At many points, I started outright thinking, “I don’t have any opinions right now.”
Of course, that is a lie. I have plenty of opinions on all sorts of things. What I meant to say is “I don’t have any opinions right now that I am completely confident in, willing to put in print and willing to stand by and attach my name and reputation to.”
There is something about having your name attached that makes you hesitant to say or do stupid things. This is usually a good thing, as it prevents you from violating social norms. I know that my name will be associated with anything I write in this newspaper forever, and therefore I try to be thoughtful about what I say.
However, there is one place where we are all granted anonymity — the internet. A den of harassers and hateful trolls and perverts. The internet provides us with dozens of platforms where we can disguise our identity behind screen names, where we have no permanent connection to anyone because in an instant we can either walk away or block them.
It will come as no surprise to anyone reading this that people behave very poorly online. People say extremely mean and spiteful things about others that they would never say in real life. You might be called fat or ugly or stupid or a Nazi or whatever else.
I’ve noticed this in my own behavior. I play a game called League of Legends, where (using a screen name) I am matched with four teammates whom I don’t know, against a team of five randomly chosen opponents. Each person is given a distinct role and both teams have to work together in order to defeat the other and win the game.
This is a game that requires cooperation. Therefore, there is a strong incentive to be nice to each other and not treat your teammates like dirt. However, the League of Legends player base is notorious for insulting, criticizing each other, calling teammates worthless or stupid or otherwise bad at the game.
I am part of that crowd, and I was literally banned for being such a toxic player. I was given many warnings, but I couldn’t stop and would regularly insult others — even though I was far from good myself. This apparently puts me in the top 1 percent of toxic players in their multimillion person user base. I created a new account and have mostly reformed, although I have occasionally said nasty things and gotten warnings and mild disciplinary actions.
We have established that I am (or at least was) very badly behaved on this game. However, I did notice one trend. Whenever I played a match with a friend that I knew in real life, who would call me “Joe” instead of my username, I never typed in a negative message during chat. I never got furiously angry and rage-quit or started harassing my teammates, calling them idiots and losers. Why? Because if I did that, my friend wouldn’t think, “Wow that random player was a real jerk”. They would think “Joe Tharakan is a real jerk. I don’t want to hang out with him anymore.” The thought of my name and face being paired with such behavior was a strong enough disincentive, so I simply behaved better.
In a similar vein, sometimes I play pick-up basketball at Pottruck, with whoever happens to be there and interested in playing at the time. Usually I don’t know any of them. This is quite similar to how my League of Legends teammates and opponents are selected. Yet somehow I haven’t once called any of my teammates stupid or bad or anything else. The simple reason why is that my teammates and I can see each others’ faces. Therefore, I would instead try to be a good teammate and avoid negative or toxic behavior.
People are so nasty online because they cannot be held accountable for their actions, due to the decoupling of their name and face from their words and actions. This won’t go away anytime soon, but the least we can do is hold ourselves accountable. It’s easy to forget we are interacting with other human beings when we are staring into a computer screen, particularly on an anonymous platform. Reminding ourselves of that fact might make the internet a better place for everyone.
JOE THARAKAN is a College senior from the Bronx, studying biological basis of behavior. His email address is email@example.com. “Cup O’Joe” usually appears every other Tuesday.
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