Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Insights from anonymity

A less-typical viewpoint that video gaming (and digital interaction in general) can offer on gender issues in society, I think, may come from the prevalence of anonymity or alternate-identities.  Most gender discussions, analyses, etc. about society have to come from the perspective of that society itself, to be voiced in that same society and be responded to in the context of the same society.  Arguably, any gender dynamics informing the general interactions between members of a society will necessarily also inform the interactions between people analyzing that society.  We see recognition of this in, for example, claims that feminist analyses are subjected to biased criticism by dint of being written by a woman, or opposing claims that such analysis is getting undue attention for the same reason, depending on a given person's particular opinion of the dynamics of society.  Basically, taking a step back to analyze alleged core forces in society can raise a lot of questions about the ability to step back at all, and turn into a confusing circular mess :P.

The digital community, however, offers a level of anonymity unique in our society.  Not only is a single subject anonymous, but almost EVERYONE is.  Sure you may use the same fake name to identify yourself, or even just mash up your real name for the purpose.  But regardless of the identity you adopt online, you can take for granted the fact that the people you interact with do not know who you are, and will probably never interact with you outside of the current context.  In effect, the large and anonymous makeup of online communities separates it from the societal rules that govern its members' normal day-to-day interactions by separating them from the consequences of breaking those rules.  Of course, if an online community sticks around long enough, they will form their own "societal rules" that violating will cause consequences.  But online personas can be rebuilt, reputations restarted, and the consequences are minimal.  You have only one "meatspace" society, though, only one identity, and consequences in that space have a meaningful effect on your life.  This is the society we analyze, the society we live and breathe in, the proverbial water to the fish.  And online communities are places where people from this society can interact largely free from those rules.  That is to say, they can be the outside perspective from which to gain more insight into the dynamics that normally cannot be escaped.

We joke about this all the time.  We make jabs at the raging name-callers for hiding behind a fake name, we shake our heads at the vulgarity people spew behind their gamertags, we call bullshit on the bizarre or unlikely.  This reflects that we (and the liars and trolls and creepers) know this is a place separate from real life, a place where the regular rules don't hold.  It's a place where people can act in ways most would not dare to act around people they had to live with day in and day out.

So I wonder if this alternate-society can give us insight into the society we analyze, legislate, and argue about.  Not about the characteristics of digital society per se, but what those characteristics say about society; or, more importantly, what digital society HAS that meatspace society has NOT.  We take note of the vulgarity of the Xbox chatter precisely because it is unexpected, because it is something that in our society we do not normally tolerate from complete strangers supposedly joining us to have a good time.  We question the bravado of the anonymous poster because we expect saying such things to the face of people that knew them would result in backlash.  We approach things with more skepticism because we know people online can get away with lying in ways we would expect them not to when dealing with people they have to live with for the foreseeable future.

And this says something about the weakness of pointing to behavior in the gaming community as some kind of litmus test for gender dynamics in society as a whole.  You can point to the colorful harassment you got from xXBonerrrrrrrXx, make a collage of all the nude pic requests you've gotten, keep a tally of how many times you've been told to go make a sandwich, but if you think this is a jackpot of evidence to back up all your claims of misogyny permeating society, you're wrong.  If anything, it's decisive evidence that this kind of behavior is something that society does NOT tolerate, since every perpetrator has struck from the safety of anonymity.  And you know, and they know, that they must have this protection when acting like this, because they'd be personally attacked otherwise as the douchebags they are behaving like.

Or if you write an opinion piece about the injustices of being a female gamer and get criticized by Mr_Snuffles and the Guest posse for being overdramatic  hypocritical, or bitchy, think about what your reaction and those of your supporters would have been if you knew their real names.  Think about if they'd even feel they could say such things without being personally attacked, without it putting real-life connections in danger.  And think about what that says about what ideas really are mainstream, what voices really are promoted by society.

Anonymous online interaction is not indicative of normal human interaction, but if you are shocked and offended by something said or done behind the fortress of anonymity, realize that a good chunk of your reaction comes from the fact that something like that just isn't done.  Realize what it says about the standards of behavior you take for granted in day-to-day life.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. If I heard comments half as bad in real life as the ones I've read online, lots of people would've been fired, expelled or investigated for threatening and violent behaviour.

    I enjoyed reading this but in a way, it's rather disheartening that you had to explain this after so many years on the internet. I understand that there's no danger of experiencing the same kind of treatment in real life as I've seen online but there are certain people who are desperate to try and use that behaviour to make a point or search for a greater meaning behind it. Sometimes abuse is just abuse and we should ignore/report it and move on.