The Curious Case of Internet Anonymity

Marcus Fitzgerald, the younger brother of NFL star WR Larry Fitzgerald apologized for writing disparaging remarks about QB Kurt Warner on his Twitter account.  LB Nick Barnett, LB Robert Henson and C Kevin Love have their own Twitter snafus.  Two Wisconsin Deputy Sheriffs burn a dummy wearing a co-worker’s uniform and post the video on Facebook, leading to their dismissal.  Employees at the National Science Foundation were fired for looking at porn at work for 331 days.  What do these incidents have in common?  They are all examples from the last week of people doing something stupid on the Internet and being SHOCKED when they are caught.

It seems like I hear about another story like this every day and I can’t seem to figure out why.  When the Internet first starting becoming popular in the late 90s, it was not uncommon to hear about people being fired for looking at porn at the office, buying illegal items over the Internet or trying to meet up with underage children.  I chalked that up to stupid people bringing their shady offline behavior to the Internet and not understanding that the Internet is basically public.   I figured that people did not realize that pretty much anyone could find out about what they were doing since the Internet was new.

Fast forward to 2009.  It’s been a decade since people started to become familiar with the Internet.  Everyone in the United States should have heard hundreds of these stories in the last ten years.  It wouldn’t surprise me if most Americans know at least one person personally who has done something stupid online that has led to adverse consequences.  Why does it continue to happen and why are people who slap videos up on YouTube shocked when they are discovered?  Why do people have a sense of anonymity and privacy with the Internet, when in reality, the Internet is probably the least private place in the world?

Why do underage drinkers post pictures of themselves on Facebook for the police or school officials to find when they would not post those pictures on their lockers?  Why do teens send nude pictures of themselves to their classmates over their cellphones or on Facebook when they would never give pass around a hard copy?  Why do grown men go to chat rooms and try to proposition children and go to meet them, even after the popularity of Chris Hansen’s To Catch A Predator, when they would never approach a child on the street (or even on the phone) with the same advances?  Why do people post rants on their Facebook or Twitter pages when they would never put the same information into a newspaper or say it to the person’s face?  Why do people do illegal things and post them on Youtube or Facebook video when they would never send them to their local news station?  Why do people post all sorts of things online that they would be mortified to do in real life?  Why are they shocked when they are caught?

I truly don’t understand it.  They have to know better.  They have to have seen examples of people getting into trouble for posting things online.  I cannot figure out why people have a sense of anonymity online when in reality it is the exact opposite.

I think about 20% of the people who do these types of things are just stupid.  They are equivalent to the guy who walks into the grocery store and waits for an employee to walk by, then shoves a frozen turkey under his coat.  They just don’t get it.  There is another 5-10% of people who just want to be “YouTube famous” and will post just about anything to be popular.  There is no helping these people.

My hypothesis for the rest of the population is that people who are posting these types of things online are generally alone, in their office or their home, and are lulled into a false sense of security.  They think that they are alone at home, so how can anyone else see what they are doing?  I don’t think that they are crying out for help or trying to get caught.  I think there is something about the isolation that is caused by computers and the internet that gives people the idea that they being private and careful, when in fact, it is the exact opposite.  They view the Internet as their own personal world, without regard to the rest of the people who happen to inhabit their virtual world as well.

I wonder if this is the height of the problem and history will look back at 2003-2009 as the crazy years when people were naive about the Internet, posting whatever they wanted and doing whatever they wanted, without regard to the consequences.  It could also go the other way, where everyone becomes desensitized to the stupid things people do online, but I do not think so.

Help me understand.  What’s your hypothesis as to why people slap pictures on Facebook and videos on YouTube that can get them in trouble? Why do so many people have a sense of anonymity online?  Will it continue?

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  • Greg

    “Man that guy is an idiot for putting that on the Internet,” is a phrase i’m sure we have all uttered. However, another phrase I’m sure we have all said, but more likely only in our head is, “That would never happen to me.” It’s the classic teenager mentality that more and more people are failing to grow out of. How many stories of teenagers getting into an accident and/or dying have there been recently? (searching for less than 30 seconds will produce at minimum 15 stories) I’m sure you have heard of at least one person and probably know someone personally as well who has caused an accident because of texting while driving. This act increases your chances of crashing by 50%. Yet driving down the highway at insane speeds you see not only teenagers, but 20-somethings and 30-somethings and even at times I’ve seen drivers with gray hair texting in the driver’s seat…right beside you! These older people are supposed to have more common sense than teenagers. Why when these people know the danger do they still decide to knowingly increase their risk of death or bodily injury? They don’t think it can happen to them.

    This is the same idea and can be correlated to people and the Internet. The general mentality of invincibility carries across the population in frightening ways. When a police officer posts a video of them burning a dummy with a co-worker’s uniform to share with his buddies, he’s thinking, “This will be so funny and it’s just on Facebook. No one will watch this or be able to look at it except who I allow to see it.”

    Invincibility! It’s a dangerous and deadly mentality.

  • Greg

    “Man that guy is an idiot for putting that on the Internet,” is a phrase i’m sure we have all uttered. However, another phrase I’m sure we have all said, but more likely only in our head is, “That would never happen to me.” It’s the classic teenager mentality that more and more people are failing to grow out of. How many stories of teenagers getting into an accident and/or dying have there been recently? (searching for less than 30 seconds will produce at minimum 15 stories) I’m sure you have heard of at least one person and probably know someone personally as well who has caused an accident because of texting while driving. This act increases your chances of crashing by 50%. Yet driving down the highway at insane speeds you see not only teenagers, but 20-somethings and 30-somethings and even at times I’ve seen drivers with gray hair texting in the driver’s seat…right beside you! These older people are supposed to have more common sense than teenagers. Why when these people know the danger do they still decide to knowingly increase their risk of death or bodily injury? They don’t think it can happen to them.

    This is the same idea and can be correlated to people and the Internet. The general mentality of invincibility carries across the population in frightening ways. When a police officer posts a video of them burning a dummy with a co-worker’s uniform to share with his buddies, he’s thinking, “This will be so funny and it’s just on Facebook. No one will watch this or be able to look at it except who I allow to see it.”

    Invincibility! It’s a dangerous and deadly mentality.

  • http://nathanlustig.com Nathan Lustig

    Great observation about people failing to grow out of their teenage mentality of invincibility.

  • http://nathanlustig.com Nathan Lustig

    Great observation about people failing to grow out of their teenage mentality of invincibility.