14 Nov 2012

Does the anonymity of the internet encourage dishonesty?

For some the Internet can be an escape from reality, a place a person and their actions can largely remain anonymous, where one can have a different name or names, a different persona, a place where reality can be distorted into; well anything. For others the internet is a place to extend offline influence, a place to connect with like-minded people, a place of opportunity and learning. And for others, (arguably the majority), it is a place somewhere in between the two extremes, oscillating between them for the many different uses it has.

In a world where many brands and individuals are often either:
  1. Over-obsessed with quantity metrics (fans/followers/likes) as opposed to focusing on quality of engagement
  2. Embracing of social media, but caveatted by their paranoia of negative comments feel compelled to create alias / fake engagement through employing a mass of paid social commentators to create 'fake' reviews
  3. Or both (or some) of the above
Brands / people may be surprised to discover social scientist Jeff Hancocks research that despite some popular opinion that "anonymity of the internet encourages dishonesty" that in fact "the searchability and permanence of information online may even keep us honest. "

In Jeffs most recent TED Talk '3 Types (of Digital) Lies', Jeff examines and classifies digital lies and what mediums are more deceptive than others (I.E written vs text vs spoken),  how this differs between verticals (think an online dating profile vs a linkedin or Facebook profile), and how the permanency of recorded text (by and large) encourages the truth, or at least minimal exaggeration only. 

Jeff's discusses tell-tale signs of a fake hotel review vs an authentic one, and draws on his experience as a customs officier defining (or redefining for many of us) what the key signs are to deception actually are. Apparently, it is not in the eyes.

Is it wrong to lie?

The moral element of this talk is the definition of a lie. What is a lie? When does a small exaggeration become a lie? Is a small lie said to make someone feel better morally wrong?

The point is we all 'lie' to some extent, whether we do this knowingly or not. It is part of the social eco-structure. A 'lie' can be created for a number of reasons, and can have variable consequences; which may, or may not also be subjective!

An example of a lie vs an exaggeration: If you are using a dating site and you say you are 6ft 2" when really you are 5ft 9", or you say you have dark hair when really you are bald, then clearly the consequence is more likely to be negative; your exaggeration is a fairly substantial lie. If you had said you were 5ft 10" when you were really 5ft 9" then maybe the consequence would be different. It is still a lie though, but this example according to Jeff Hancock is a more accurate representation of the average online 'lie', i.e a small exaggeration, not an outrageous 'lie'.

Well, does the anonymity of the internet encourage dishonesty?

The point is, most of us would like to think we are honest people, interacting with honest people, reading honest reviews, and acting as 'honestly' as possible. Whilst brands/people do employ hot desks to create fake online interactions, we can learn how to identify these, quickly shun them, and spend our time focusing on the real people. As with any social community, there will always be honest people, fakes, and people in between. The better we get at identifying these different sets of people, the better our online experience will be. 

In a world where online reputation is ever evolving, converging, becoming an essential part of many peoples lives and careers, and where more of our lives (than ever before) are becoming recorded in digital and written form, I (the eternal optimist) agree and would like to believe that "the searchability and permanence of information online may even keep us honest".

What do you think?

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