Tech Cynic: Who needs a Babel Fish? Credit: Anna-Maria Oléhn via Flickr
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Tech Cynic: Who needs a Babel Fish?

In August 2003, psychology researchers from the Open University carried out an informal study of online social interactions. 15 adults were shut in a room at Sussex University with computers running chat-room software, and invited to interact anonymously. Within 20 minutes the chat-room discussion had degenerated from polite, light-hearted chat into sexual banter and increasingly personal insults.

I know this because I was one of the participants, studying with the OU for a degree in psychology. The tutors later told us all that they carried out this experiment every year, and every year the results were the same. Connect a bunch of people together online and sooner or later you will get sexual and aggressive interactions. This might seem like an obvious outcome now but at the time it was unanticipated and unfathomable. Why would ordinary, polite humans lose all sense of decorum and civility just because of a change in their medium of communication, despite all of them being physically in the same room?

For years it was widely assumed that anonymity was the problem, and that people would behave more responsibly and sensibly online if forced to interact under their real names. Social media, especially Twitter, has destroyed that hypothesis, since even people with validated identities can and do come out with the type of invective that if spoken in person would see them punched, or worse.

The reason all of this popped into my head is because I've just returned from visiting a small town in rural New Zealand, where I lived for almost a decade before leaving two years ago. As with many if not all provincial towns around the world, this one always had its fair share of local feuds, petty rivalries and long-running spats because of things like boundary disputes and what Kev said to Jan at Steve's wedding.

A lot can happen in two years. The town now has its own Facebook page, to which anyone local can post. Although it was introduced with the best of intentions, it has had the same effect on the town as that OU chat-room experiment. The old rivalries are still there but now they're kept alive and refreshed on a daily basis. New ones are added all the time, as people who might once have privately agreed to disagree about minor issues, or carried out their debate on more thoughtful terms via the local newspaper's letters page, now vehemently and aggressively defend their point of view in public with no consideration for tact or diplomacy.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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