Lifestream, Comment on Week 1 by Renee Furner

[In reply to]

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on week 1, Dirk – and so innovatively. I missed the live transmission, but caught it about an hour later.

I agree that the creation of groups allows for (and can encourage) the construction of ‘otherness’/’sameness’. This part of your talk/post made me think of that famous lesson with the brown-eyed and blue-eyed children (Jane Elliott, experiment starts at 3:19). However, I’m not sure that reducing anonymity or enforcing real-name policies are ways to eliminate the vitriol. Research by Rost, Stahel and Frey (2016) suggests that people are actually more hostile during online ‘firestorms’ when using real-names (empirical evidence is based on behaviours in a German social media platform, 2010-13).

The authors further suggest that the reason we often equate anonymity with increased aggression online is because most attempts to theorise about such behaviour use traditional bullying research theory. Under this theory, as you noted, online aggression is driven by lower-order moral ideals and principles, which people would be ashamed to express if their identity was known. However, Rost, Stahel & Frey suggest viewing such behaviour through a different lens – social norm theory. Through this lens, those posting aggressively online might be viewed as enforcing of social norms – ‘aggressive word-of-mouth propagation in social media is the response to (perceived) violating behaviours of public actors…In this view online firestorms enforce social norms by expressing public disapproval with the aim of securing public goods, for example, honesty of politicians, companies or academics’ (Rost, Stahel & Frey, 2016, ‘Introduction’, para. 8). If this is held true, many people who post aggressively online believe themselves to be acting from a position of higher-order morals, and perceive the public actor they are aggressing as acting from lower-order morals, and they have no need to hide their identity (ibid., ‘hypothesis 3′). Even when real names are given, acting aggressively online as a way of norm-enforcing is low cost for the actors: their geographical distance reduces risk of physical harm, lack of non-verbal cues from recipients reduces aggressors’ empathy, and technology allows them to reach a large audience with little time or effort (ibid., ‘online firestorms within a social norm theory’).

No doubt some people who act aggressively are just bullies, acting as you say, because their anonymity allows them to disregard morals through reduced fear of getting caught. I’m not sure it is the full picture, though.

Thanks for prompting me to think more deeply about this.


Rost, K., Stahel, L., & Frey, B.S. (2016). Digital social norm enforcement: Online firestorms in social media. PLOS ONE, 11(6): e0155923.

from Comments for Dirk’s EDC blog

In this post (and Dirk’s initial post) the focus is on the negative reality of cyberculture, in terms of how it is experienced today – complete with trolling and aggression. Of course, it is just one side of the coin – there is also willingness to engage politely, helpfully and generously amongst strangers.