Just as the real world has complex rules that define our behaviour towards one another (eg, "Your place in a supermarket queue cannot be maintained with a basket containing a solitary banana") there are rules for online interaction, too.
The most famous is probably Godwin's Law: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving the Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." But another, by web comic artist John Gabriel, is gaining ground; it simply states the following: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Idiot*. Or in longhand, give the average human the opportunity to express themselves online anonymously and without fear of retribution, and they'll behave rudely, viciously and inappropriately.
This "Greater Internet Idiot Theory" – or something incredibly similar to it – was undoubtedly in the minds of executives at Blizzard, the company behind the insanely addictive game World Of Warcraft, when they decided last week to impose a system in their forums where you'd be obliged to post using your real name. Many people began to rant aggressively at strangers over the imminent loss of the opportunity to rant aggressively at strangers, but there was a more measured but equally deafening reaction from those who simply valued their anonymity – or at least their pseudonymity. If you've played World of Warcraft you'll know it's not the most restrained social arena (particularly if you're trying to annihilate Kaz'rogal in the Battle for Mount Hyjal) and the prospect of online altercations spilling over into the real world scared many people.
Female players were particularly concerned, very aware that revealing their gender could invite unwanted attention from the kind of men who spend long hours sitting indoors seeking the Reins Of The Bronze Drake within the Caverns of Time. Some respondents during the ensuing 2,000-page discussion on this topic dared to suggest that privacy wasn't really an issue, but they were forced to eat their words when a Blizzard employee, after revealing his real name in defence of the system, suddenly found his phone number, address, details of his parents, siblings and spouse, and even pictures of his childhood home posted online by Warcrafters trying to make a point.
Blizzard backtracked at the weekend, realising that alienating thousands of customers might not be good for business. But that has left them as the unhappy gatekeepers of a famously brutal online forum where untrammelled anger is endemic. There's no doubt that exposing real identities can raise the level of debate – but it can also dissuade sensible, privacy-conscious contributors from posting. Balancing this encouragement of forum participation with a desire to maintain a respectful tone is something that news organisations are having to address constantly – indeed, our online editor, Martin King , has written a couple of excellent blog posts on the subject. The solution now employed on The Independent's website uses a system called Disqus, and it's a nice halfway house; by linking your comments with your other social media profiles – be it Yahoo, Twitter or Facebook – it doesn't rule out the option of pseudonymity, but does enough to at least make us consider the consequences of rude or threatening behaviour. Ideally, of course, everyone would just conduct themselves in a polite fashion – but that would be ignoring the Greater Internet Idiot Theory, which is never a good idea.
A classic 21st century workplace scenario: you receive an auto-respond email from a colleague explaining they're out of the office for two weeks, but 20 minutes later you get a reply from them regardless. Our absurdly connected world has made us so sensitive to the idea of being kept in the loop, that being removed from that loop makes us deeply unsettled; we need that short-term hit associated with being thought about, and knowing that we're one of the first people to receive a piece of information. (Even if that information is as mundane as being told that Thursday's meeting with Human Resources has been postponed.) This is just one of the problems outlined in a new book called The Way We're Working Isn't Working, and it makes no bones about the negative effects of technology upon our quality of life. It also argues that multitasking is far from beneficial, noting that the average time we spend on a single task before becoming distracted is a mere three minutes five seconds – which may go some way towards explaining why this week's column has such a weak sign-off.
* Or a similar term that's common online but unsuitable for a family newspaper.Reuse content