Anyone who has used email or any other form of electronic communication has seen (and probably sent) written content that shocked you. You were amazed that the person, that you know, could say such a thing in such an aggressive way. The New Scientist has an interesting article that suggests that some of the reason for this is deindividuation:
Social psychologists have known for decades that, if we reduce our sense of our own identity – a process called deindividuation – we are less likely to stick to social norms. For example, in the 1960s Leon Mann studied a nasty phenomenon called “suicide baiting” – when someone threatening to jump from a high building is encouraged to do so by bystanders. Mann found that people were more likely to do this if they were part of a large crowd, if the jumper was above the 7th floor, and if it was dark. These are all factors that allowed the observers to lose their own individuality.
Social psychologist Nicholas Epley argues that much the same thing happens with online communication such as email. Psychologically, we are “distant” from the person we’re talking to and less focused on our own identity. As a result we’re more prone to aggressive behaviour, he says.
The most recent place where I have seen this personally has been in the occasional reply-to-all storms that we have in our email system. Someone will send out an email to whole set of people. Someone else will reply-to-all that they don’t know why they received the first email, or similar. This will then set of a storm of activity from people replying to the reply-to-all. Each of these replies will get more and more aggressive in their language.
If only these people sat back and analysed what they were doing they would stop doing it. It’s unlikely any of them have read though the recipient list to see who is on it, in their minds they are just replying to some random person. What they are actually doing is replying to all sorts of senior people who could have a great influence on their career, what’s more they are abusing a fellow colleague. If they only thought about how they would feel to receive such an email they wouldn’t do it.
A wise person once said: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”