Anyone who’s been on the Internet for a while will be familiar with the idea that anonymity can to the worst coming out in the general populace. It’s not hard point to prove either, just wander over to any mildly popular video on YouTube and browse the comments section for a little while and you’ll see ready confirmation of the idea that regular people turn into total shitcocks the second they get the magical combination of anonymity and an audience. The idea was most aptly summed up by Penny Arcade in their Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory strip, something that has become kind of a reference piece sent to those poor souls who search for meaning as to why people are being mean to them on the Internet.
However it seems that the equation might need some reworking in light of new evidence coming from, of all places, South Korea.
I’ve long been of the thought that forcing people to use their real names would work in curtailing trolling to some degree as that removes one of the key parts of the fuckwad theory: anonymity. Indeed a site much more popular than mine said that the switch to Facebook comments, whilst dropping the total number of comments considerably, was highly effective in silencing the trolls on their site. Just over a year later however the same site posted an article saying that there’s considerable evidence that forcing users to use their real name had little effect on the total number of troll like comments citing research from South Korea and Carnegie Mellon. I’ve taken the liberty of reading the study for you and whilst the methods they employed are a little bit… soft for determining what a troll post was they do serve as a good basis for hypothesizing about how effective real name policies are.
If there was a causative link between forcing people to use their real names online and a reduction in undesirable behaviour we would’ve seen some strong correlations in the Carnegie Mellon study. Whilst there was some effectiveness shown (a reduction of 30% in the use of swear words) taken in the context that troll posts only account for a minority of posts on the sites studied (about 13%) the overall impact is quite low. Indeed whilst TechCrunch did say that Facebook comments silenced the trolls they may have called it too early as the study showed that whilst there was a damper initially, overall the level remained largely static after a certain period of time.
What this means for the Greater Internet Fuckwad theory is that the key part of the equation, anonymity, can be removed and much the same result will be had. This is a somewhat harrowing discovery as it means that the simple act of putting a regular person in front of an audience can lead to them being a reprehensible individual. On the flip side though it could also be more indicative of the people themselves as the study showed that only a minority of users engage in such behaviour. It would be very interesting to see how that compares to real life interactions as I’m sure we all know people who act like online trolls in real life.
In light of this new evidence my stance on using real names as a troll reduction method is obviously flawed. I was never really in any favour of implementing such a system (I considered using Facebook comments here for a little while) but I thought its efficacy was unquestioned. My favourite method for combating trolls is a form of timed hellbanning where by the user will not appear to everyone else but to them they will appear like they are contributing. It’s a rather ugly solution if you permanently ban someone but time limited versions appear to work to great effect in turning trolls into contributing users.
It may just be that trolling is an inevitable part of any community and the best we can do is remediate it, rather than eliminate it.
My friends and long time readers will know that I’m no stranger to the darker sides of the Internet. Whilst I don’t spend every spare minute seeking out the depraved sanctuary that many of those sites provide I do love a foray onto the wrong side of the railroad tracks every so often just to see what happens when you grant a large audience an ability they didn’t have before. To be honest it’s probably more apt to describe it as a kind of Internet adrenaline sport although I must admit the rush is nothing compared to say, Zorbing in New Zealand (highly recommend that by the way).
With this in mind you can imagine the slightly perverted part of my subconscious perked up when he heard about a new site called Chatroulette. Stay your hand before clicking that link though as what lies beyond is not for everyone and most assuredly, not safe for work. I came across the site in my usual daily intake of random tech-oriented awesome over at Boing Boing, and throwing caution to the wind about the warnings of penises a plenty I decided to fire up my poor web cam (which has the IR filter removed, making most things appear strangely coloured) and see what came out on the other end. Needless to say I was in for a surprise.
The first bunch of people on the other end looked to be mostly college students, staring intently into the camera probably hoping for girls on the other end of the line to show them some skin. I say this because most of them spent about 2 seconds looking at me before hitting the next button. Feeling slightly disappointed that my random Internet encounters weren’t going to turn up a passable conversation I decided to unleash my inner 4chan troll and mess with the people on the other side of the camera.
This is when things started to get weird.
At first I just tuned into one of my favourite trance channels and turned up the volume loud enough for it to be heard on the other end whilst pointing the camera at a nearby wall. The first of my victims seemed to like the music and it inspired him to dance whilst intently watching the screen. After about 10 seconds I decided to spook him by pointing the camera at myself and yelling, which led to a very surprised reaction and a quick click of the next button. I wasn’t done with Chatroulette yet and decided that whilst providing random dance music to strangers was all good there was something missing. My web cam needed an actor.
One of the side effects of my collector’s edition addiction is the swath of various figurines and models that adorn my computer desk. They then became my avatar in this world of random encounters. From a Cylon to a Daeva from Aion to an Optimus Prime Potato Head they all got their 15 seconds of fame with those who were connected to my den of cheesy trance music. For the most part people just clicked straight on but occasionally I’d get the obviously inebriated college student who would just stare blankly at the screen for several minutes. Despite my hopes of conjuring up a good conversation with phrases like “I’m a Cylon :D” or “Where the hell did I drop my nose?” many of them would just click on, still on the hunt for random Internet strange.
And then there was the torrent of male genitalia. I’d have to say that at least 1 out of every 5 of the strangers I was connected to was a single male with the camera pointed directly at his wedding tackle. I’m sure most of them were hoping for a free peek at some Internet strange but really, why bother? It’s possible they thought that just putting it out there would hopefully make any female that was using Chatroulette to stay more than the second it would take to load up the first frame from their web cam, leading to a IRL hookup.
I think it would be more likely that they’d get their junk struck by lightening, but I’m somewhat of a realist.
You can then imagine my shock and surprise (or lack thereof) when I saw the New York Times publishing an article on the site:
Michael Wesch, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University who researches how people share and record video on YouTube, said Chatroulette was a “very exciting reuse of existing technologies.” But he warns parents to educate their children. “I can’t say that I would want my kids on there,” Mr. Wesch said, “but I know they are going to eventually find the site anyway.”
From my experience on the site, echoed by those I’ve spoken to, it seems as if 90 percent of users are genuinely looking for novel and unexpected conversation; the rest — well, let’s just say they have debauchery in mind.
Either Bilton is using a completely different site to the one I was on or he somehow managed to avoid the 20% penis rule that I encountered. For the most part the users I connected with were only interested in possibly seeing some random woman’s privates, even the ones who weren’t flashing their trouser snake to the world. The few who attempted to engage in conversation with myself or my various avatars barely managed to get past the first sentence before moving along which is what led me to indulge my inner troll.
What all of the stories on this new sensation fail to mention is that it is basically a direct rip off of another service called Omegle. Granted this service is text only but it has been around for a lot longer and appears to have a steady following. Honestly the people using Omegle were far more interested in a real conversation with someone on the other end of the line than the people using Chatroulette were and, much like Twitter, the limitations of the service are what drive the real creative uses of it. Sure adding video would attract more users but then you’d just end up with the same torrent of random boobie trollin’ strangers that plague Chatroulette’s service.
Both of these sites play into the dark side of us that strives to cast off our identity in order to create a new one that is free from all the boundaries that we’ve built around ourselves. Just like their predecessors they attract both those who seek genuine value from the service and those who seek to unleash their inner deviant. Thrusting myself into this world was an interesting experiment as I went from a seeker of genuine to connection to /b/tard in record time. I can’t see myself going back anytime soon but if I do you can be assured that the return of the trance loving Cylon isn’t too far away.
Urge to troll rising….. 😉