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Look Me In The Eye When You Type That, You Cowardly Troll

Remember when I interviewed Post Secret founder Frank Warren about the app that launched just a couple of months ago?

Well, say good-bye to that. Warren had to close down the app because people were behaving so badly, his screeners couldn’t keep up with the screeds.

In a post explaining the decision, he wrote,

99% of the secrets created were in the spirit of PostSecret. Unfortunately, the scale of secrets was so large that even 1% of bad content was overwhelming for our dedicated team of volunteer moderators who worked 24 hours a day 7 days a week removing content that was not just pornographic but also gruesome and at times threatening.


Why are people so hateful online?

This NPR story suggests that haters are full of hate because the world is so annoying these days.

According to the story,

Haters know how to get attention on the Internet. Call it trolling — or, as Lawrence Dorfman calls it, snarkiness.

Author of The Snark Handbook and Snark! The Herald Angels Sing Dorfman says that “people are just completely fed up and are looking for any way to shield themselves from the constant inundation of annoying behaviors that we’re subjected to every minute of every day. … Snark is a defense mechanism.”

I suppose that’s true, but maybe more people should just take a deep breath and reconsider their own annoying behaviors?

And snarkiness is one thing. It implies a certain cleverness and humor. But what about overt online nastiness? What about insults, profanity, threats–the kind of stuff that forced Warren to shut down the Post Secret app?

Scientists are very interested in online disinhibition. So are publications, bloggers, and anyone else who puts themselves out there on the web and attracts trolls.

We have assumed that anonymity is the cause of what one scientist called “toxic disinhibition,” described in one article as “online flaming and acting-out behaviors that often involve damaging the other’s or even one’s own self-image, without any beneficial personal growth.”

Websites try to discourage such bad behavior by requiring commenters to sign up with their full names and locations.

Sometimes this works, I guess. Not always. I was once part of a committee that tried to maintain civility in the online discussions of a professional organization to which I belonged. But lack of anonymity did nothing to quell the nastiness there, and any attempts to get people to play nicely were met with indignant and often vitriolic accusations of creating a nanny state. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was enough to drive me out of the organization. Life it too short to roll around in other people’s shitty attitudes.

What is with you, people?

A recent study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior suggests that anonymity is not the biggest factor in online nastiness—it’s lack of eye contact.

In fact,

Spears, Postmes, Lea, and Wolbert (2002) found that anonymity in Internet communication induced more incidents of flaming than did face-to-face settings. However, Douglas and McGarty (2001) showed that disclosing users’ identity by means of their name or address (electronic or residential) increased their tendency to engage in flaming behavior compared to participants in either anonymous or face-to-face settings.

This new study found  that even just using webcams didn’t solve the problem because regular webcams make eye contact difficult.

But, they wrote,

When eye-contact was enforced, participants experienced fewer occurrences of flaming and fewer threats than when there was no eye-contact. Anonymity, however, produced a significant main effect for one measure only (i.e., threats). Similarly, visibility exerted a significant main effect on a single measure only (i.e., negative atmosphere). Of the interactive effects, four were significant, all involving eye contact. It seems that although the eye-contact variable had no significant effects on all of the dependent measures, it caused more impact than either anonymity or invisibility in producing the toxic behaviors implied by online disinhibition.

In some circumstances, disinhibition is good. The anonymity of Post Secret has done a lot of good over the years, allowing people to express secrets that have burdened them, and inspiring many helpful gestures. And I can imagine that anonymity in online support groups for survivors of sexual abuse or other shame-inducing experiences could be freeing.

But the flip side of that is toxic disinhibition. Even if you know a troll is a troll is a troll—simply getting his or her jollies by being nasty—ugly words can burrow into your brain and fester. Even an anonymous insult can be painful, and an anonymous threat is terrifying.

As is often said, eyes are the window to our soul, and it seems a glimpse of another person’s soul can still a hateful tongue. (Or, more to the point, fingers.)

Short of changing human nature and the insistence of some people to assert their right to be nasty, it seems the solution to this problem that technology has wrought will be found in technology.

…the research findings imply that allowing webcams, which enable eye-contact, might have significant impact on reducing toxic disinhibition and its adverse expressions in various online environments, including support groups, educational settings, and other online interpersonal interactions.

I wouldn’t want to use a webcam to engage with strangers online on a casual basis. I don’t want to have to worry about my appearance every day just to discourage idiots from acting like idiots. So I’m not sure what the solution to this depressing problem is.

The modern world is requiring us to get thick skins. Unfortunately, the thicker our skin, the less sensitive we are to others. In my experience, “You’re too sensitive” actually means “You get your feelings hurt when I say something nasty.”

I suppose everyone has a right to be a creep. But look me in the eye when you say that and see if it’s as much fun.

Look Me In The Eye When You Type That, You Cowardly Troll

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2012). Look Me In The Eye When You Type That, You Cowardly Troll. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Jan 2012
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