We have discussed why it is important to use your real name on the internet; we have also dissected the difference between Hate Mail and Spam and concluding there is no difference. Now the New York Times explains the research behind Web Rage.

In a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure.

This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track.

Have you ever said something online you would never utter in person?

How do you handle people online who seem perpetually angry and always looking for a fight?

When you write comments here, do you post everything you write, or do you sometimes censor your thoughts and revise your comment or even decide not to publish what you wrote?

Research by Jennifer Beer, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, finds that this face-to-face guidance system inhibits impulses for actions that would upset the other person or otherwise throw the interaction off. Neurological patients with a damaged orbitofrontal cortex lose the ability to modulate the amygdala, a source of unruly impulses; like small children, they commit mortifying social gaffes like kissing a complete stranger, blithely unaware that they are doing anything untoward.

Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

Are online emoticons merely a facade or can they convey appropriate facial expression for interpretation? Are smilies cued text or only cute text? Is it easier to misread an emoticon for real emotion?

Flaming can be induced in some people with alarming ease. Consider an experiment, reported in 2002 in The Journal of Language and Social Psychology, in which pairs of college students — strangers — were put in separate booths to get to know each other better by exchanging messages in a simulated online chat room.

While coming and going into the lab, the students were well behaved. But the experimenter was stunned to see the messages many of the students sent. About 20 percent of the e-mail conversations immediately became outrageously lewd or simply rude.

Is there a danger of the virtual becoming real? Have you ever picked up a phone to “clear the air” with someone you’ve been misreading — or who has been misreading you — in email or a text chat? Has someone you met online come to find you in person without your knowledge or approval?

And now, the online equivalent of road rage has joined the list of Internet dangers. Last October, in what The Times of London described as “Britain’s first ‘Web rage’ attack,” a 47-year-old Londoner was convicted of assault on a man with whom he had traded insults in a chat room.

He and a friend tracked down the man and attacked him with a pickax handle and a knife. One proposed solution to flaming is replacing typed messages with video. The assumption is that getting a message along with its emotional nuances might help us dampen the impulse to flame.

Do you think video will solve web rage?

Or will people put on harder masks to fool others as to their real intent and felt emotion?

Are we in for a virtual world where everything real dies and only the imitative is accepted without any sort of internal correction system synapsing into place?

Are we doomed to lose all our inhibitions and become unfettered streams of public consciousness?


  1. I always thought people were nicer to each other online because there wasn’t any need to get along if you didn’t like each other.

  2. Hi arin!
    Now that’s an interesting take on the opposite view of the argument of today’s article. You feel an online life is nicer than an in person life because you can pick and choose those you interact with virtually, right?

  3. Why would you want to hand out with people you didn’t know online. In person you’re forced into more situations with strangers than on the web.

  4. Do you miss the in-person clues, though, arin, when it comes to interacting? You can’t judge body language or facial expression or vocal tone over the web can you?

  5. I can ignore people online. That’s hard to do when you’re stuck with someone you don’t like in real life in a class or in a line or whatever. You have to cope more in person.

  6. Thanks for the interesting take on today’s topic, arin! Your analysis is surprising but it makes a lot of sense in the provided context.

  7. David,
    What a tangled Web it is!
    For many people, the Web is a magnifying glass and a shroud at the same time. It unveils and amplifies those parts of themselves they would normally reserve–rage, sexual perversion, whatever–but also conceals their ‘true’ identity. They can behave as lewdly or as nastily as they wish without having to attach their name and face to that behavior.

  8. Emily!
    Wowser! Well said! I think you’re right on target. It would be interesting to see if people still flamed others if they had to do it under their real identity. I think the social norms are what keeps us together and friendly in real life and it is anonymity that wounds a lot of people’s online experiences.
    Road Rage and Sidewalk rage are the same thing: Semi-anonymous ways to vent and flip people off because you probably won’t ever see them again.

  9. Oh, and Emily, I’m with you on the image. I keep twisting my head so I can see how the inside of the mouth takes over the rest of the head, but I can’t seem to get my head around it in the right position. 😀

  10. David,
    I think you are right-many of our accepted social norms are in place to keep us relatively friendly with each other and, therefore, safe in each other’s company. Online, those norms do not exist. I find it funny that what almost everyone fears most is being exposed and vulnerable on the Web, when it is really the anonymity that is scary!

  11. Emily —
    Yes, if even one person has anonymity on the web — and the rest do not — the anonymous one can terrorize and burn the place down because they have no social or moral compunction to properly behave without being publicly shamed.
    I still think we should all have “web licenses” that we carry with us in our online personas and anyone can check our credentials and our truthfulness of our provenance by clicking a button.

  12. Hi David,
    When I was using BlogExplosion and reading political blog posts, I felt my blood boil a couple of times, but never fired off anything too controversial. I always did what I do in real life — try to win people over with kindness, love, and respect.
    Of course, it seems that there are a lot of people who don’t subscribe to that method of persuasion and would rather start “flame wars” or be nasty. I remember when I was chatting using IRC in the early 1990s, channel operators always had to make sure to “hand off” control to someone who was trusted, otherwise the channel would disintegrate and people would just spend the day attacking each other.

  13. Hi Chris!
    I stopped surfing Blog Explosion for the same reason! There was too much stuff out there born in hatred and I didn’t want to have to look at it just to earn surfing credits. 😀
    It’s interesting even in the IRC days that bad behavior lived in anonymity! We’re still in crisis mode with no resolution in sight!

  14. Hi David,
    I’m new to the blogging thing, but I feel that if the rage is there, it’s there!
    What I mean by that, is that people who comment are generally predisposed to a certain emotion. If they are passive, no amount of flaming is going to get a rise out of them. Of course there are rare exceptions.
    On the other hand, if they are prone to flaming, they will certainly flame.
    Some people are just generally p*ssed and want to vent and will vent on whatever comes their way! It could be a long line at Walmart or bad service at McDonalds.
    There is a lot of raging and angry people in our society. A lot of them are angry because they don’t have money or power or health care or food or even a roof over their heads.
    Rage is warranted but sometimes ignited by those who have not against those who have.
    [Comment edited for content by David W. Boles]

  15. This is a very interesting post David!
    It is in this blog I encountered a few of those people who are eternally enraged and so on…
    I think “rage/revenge” is an expression of inner frustration which is prevalent in every aspect of our life – be it online or be it in person.
    It is easy to express anger in the virtual world anonymously, people take chance of that.

  16. Thanks for the great information, aramink! It’s a fascinating topic and I certainly hope we can work to get rid of the rotten flamers.

  17. Called Worse by Better People

    I am always amazed at the vulgar language people try to use online to convince others of the importance of their argument. When people begin to curse and insult others in a vicious manner, the good people tune out instead

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