“Psychopathology of Anonymous EFL China Teacher Forums”

A surprisingly interesting blog post:

The Psychology of Cyberspace
Dr. John Suler, a clinical psychologist, computer enthusiast and professor at Rider University in New Jersey has written prolifically about the psychology of cyberspace. In his book of the same name, he offers some very thought-provoking questions for us to consider1:

Does online anonymity and freedom of access encourage antisocial personalities?
Do narcissistic people use the access to numerous relationships as a means to gain an admiring audience?
Do people with dissociative personalities tend to isolate their cyberspace life from their face-to-face lives? Do they tend to engage in the creation of multiple and distinct online identities?
Are schizoid people attracted to the reduced intimacy resulting from online anonymity? Are they lurkers?
Do manic people take advantage of asynchronous communication as a means to send measured responses to others, or do they naturally prefer the terse, immediate, and spontaneous conversations of chat and IM?
Are compulsives generally drawn to computers & cyberspace for the control it gives them over their relationships and environment?
Do histrionic people enjoy the opportunities for theatrical displays that are possible in online groups, especially in environments that provide software tools for creative self-expression?

After five years of being a member of, as well as managing, a couple of EFL forums for foreign teachers in China, I’d say the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes. The problem, as I see it, is a multifaceted one.
As discussed in the aforementioned article, foreign teachers in China can accurately be thought of as an oppressed group who engage in negative behaviors towards each other that are collectively referred to as “horizontal violence.”2 These behaviors include but are not limited to devaluing, discouraging, scapegoating, backstabbing, sabotaging, cheating, exploiting, and conspiring. To varying degrees, depending on the particular individuals involved, these behaviors are tempered or constrained through face-to-face contacts and the eventual establishment of personal acquaintanceships. However, the anonymity that the Internet provides induces what researchers refer to as the “online disinhibition effect.”3 That is, in the absence of face-to-face contact and under the veil of anonymity, these aggressive behaviors become uninhibited and are unleashed—and clear evidence of this can be found not only among these forums’ registered members but among their moderators and administrators as well. To the degree that the “fellow patients” are running the “asylum,” so to speak, these forums can be (and typically are) very toxic environments, psychologically speaking.

Read the whole thing.

5 thoughts on ““Psychopathology of Anonymous EFL China Teacher Forums””

  1. I think the problem analogous to that of timid people who turn into jerks when they drive. The anonymity of the car lets them act out.

    I was raised with the idea that one can only feel good about breaking the rules when one can be held responsible for doing so. As a result I am only tempted to speed within sight of a patrol car and never when on a lonely country road. Standing up to the man when the man isn’t around is just empty posturing.

    It is also the reason I post under my real name. Speaking anonymously makes me feel dishonest and cowardly.

    The phenomenon of internet aggression does poise the question of how much real space aggression is only suppressed by the credible threat or physical retaliation. It does suggest that people have not internalized civility as they once did.

  2. Thanks, Jonathan, for this link.

    Some of this reflects how many first saw intense urbanization (anonymity in the midst of crowds encourages such behavior as well). A question:

    Do you think the difference between what someone like Mao sees and this description is a difference between the nature of the forms or the nature of the participants?

    Shannon: I can remember my father grabbing for the county book he always kept in the glove department. He generally knew whose car was ahead because of the Nebraska/county system of assigning license plates (and the fact many families got their numbers together). He was a pretty grumpy guy and wasn’t above complaining to the parents of some teenager who cut him off. I’m not saying the county didn’t produce jerks behind the wheel, but they weren’t anonymous.

  3. Ginny: Both, though I think the main problem is the structure of the forums. They are like poorly designed social institutions that create incentives for bad behavior.

  4. It’s cute that the author seems to believe that the behavior he describes is peculiar to EFL teachers in China because of their position as an “oppressed minority”.

    Back when I was reading Usenet, it struck me that so many people could be so obviously stark, staring mad, and still be functioning well enough to operate a computer.

    And I wondered at the fine line between nut and jackass. How do you tell the two apart? If someone posts something obnoxious, once, he’s being a garden-variety jerk. If he does it once every day, or many times over a small number of days, he’s being a jackass.

    But if he seems to spend every waking hour (and then some) being obnoxious — and is obviously not a bot — then surely that is a nut.

    (If he is a bot, the classification is still up in the air.)

    The reason for my interest in this distinction is that it is not nice to taunt the mentally ill. Jackasses, though, are fair game. But how is one to tell?

  5. “It’s cute that the author seems to believe that the behavior he describes is peculiar to EFL teachers in China because of their position as an “oppressed minority”.

    If you read the article carefully, what the author believes to be specific to EFL China Teacher *Forums* is that “The most intelligent, educated, articulate, and respectable members of these forums are typically and eventually discouraged from posting not just by the other less knowledgeable members, but by the moderators and site administrators themselves.”

    His basic argument is that such posters are intimidating to the vast majority of members who are not nearly as intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable and, therefore, bad for business (where the goal is to generate as much traffic and “activity” as possible).

    It is a very fascinating point because, if it is true, that phenomenon is quite different than what one might expect or predict on any forum.

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