Anonymous Behavior in Virtual Environments

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nonymous Behavior in Virtual Environments
is fostered by the unique nature of the internet, which allows users an entire spectrum of anonymity that they may use to identify themselves with. Unlike in the real world, where behavior is guided by societal norms and enforced laws, virtual environments allow people to construct, change, and duplicate their own identities online at a rapid speed (and, in some cases, allows them to operate under several totally different online identities at the same time), which in turn defines its own behavioral norms. Because online identities are potentially grossly inaccurate representations of a person in real life, it can be difficult to trace back actions to their actual users and to hold those individuals accountable for their actions online. This anonymity allows, to some extend, users to decide exactly how they want to portray themselves to people they meet online and gives them almost total freedom to misrepresent themselves to others, which has a whole host of potential ethical implications.

Causes and Reasons for Anonymity

Anonymity has historically been a protective veil for those who wish to express their opinions when doing so under normal circumstances isn't possible or carries the risk of harm [1]. For example, the members of Project Chanology wear masks to conceal their identities in order to protect themselves from personal harm or anti-war protesters who use anonymity to express a unified opinion.

Anonymity is also a shield for those who work on the opposite end of the moral spectrum. Before the widespread use of caller ID, prank calling was an easy task to accomplish with little worry of the victim ever learning the caller's identity. Although today it is significantly more difficult to make anonymous prank calls, it is still possible through public telephones or pre-paid phone cards. Identity theft is another crime in which the perpetrator often isn't easily identifiable, which allows him/her to act anonymously with the information stolen from the victim.

While anonymity allows those under the veil to act differently than those who are not, anonymity in real life still has risks of identities to be revealed and physical confrontations. However, in virtual environments the risks of being revealed are lessened and allow people to interact more freely, without fear of repercussions and this can leads to people behaving in ways that they typically would not have otherwise. These changes in behavior could be positive or negative.

Kathleen Wallace's 3 Goals of Anonymity

Scholar Kathleen Wallace has outlined three primary motivations for pursuing anonymity online[1]:

  • Agent anonymity: an individual seeks anonymity in order to further his desired goals.
    • The Unabomber sought anonymity in order to continue manufacture and distribution of bombs. Anonymity was a necessary condition for the implementation of his goals.
  • Recipient anonymity: an individual seeks anonymity in order to protect himself against the actions of others.
    • Witness Protection Program participants remain anonymous in order to avoid persecution from those against whom they have testified in court.
  • Process Anonymity: an individual seeks anonymity in order to maintain integrity of a process.
    • Reviewers of scholarly articles in most disciplines remain anonymous in order to ensure their review is not motivated by potential effects on their working relationships or reputations.

Anonymity and Doxxing

Doxxing is the collection and releasing of personal information on the internet without the approval of the person or organization that the information is about. These people who post share this personal information are known as ‘doxxers’ and in many times are used to slander or hurt the reputation of their victims. Anonymity allows internet users to share as much information about them as they want online and doxxers remove their victim’s rights to anonymity by reducing their ability to decide what information they share and who it to [2]. Not only does doxxing remove anonymity but anonymity promotes doxxing. Since doxxers identities are private when sharing the personal information there is no way to determine who is leaking the information. Because of this, there is nothing stopping doxxers from continuing their actions since there are no consequences for their actions.

The Freedom of Virtual Environments

An example of a Garry's Mod server.

A virtual environment can be anything from a monochrome text console to an entire galaxy of civilizations. Virtual environments attract people for a variety of reasons, including an escape from reality, a chance to travel somewhere new or unreachable, or even just to socialize with others. People aren't likely to use virtual worlds if there are strong disincentives [3] and not every world will cater to every individual. With this in mind, it is necessary to determine the target demographic before beginning construction of a virtual world in order to maximize the efficiency and use of that world [3].

Some virtual environments are shipped pre-built, such as World of Warcraft, and some are built on demand, such as Garry's Mod. Players in a pre-built environment may not feel a sense of connection since they have no part in shaping it, whereas in a sandbox environment players create the world as they see fit so they are its designers as well as its users. On the other hand, a virtual environment pieced together by the random input of a small community is not necessarily guaranteed to be as completely functional and thoroughly designed as an environment built by the hands of paid professionals. The interpretation of the realism of a virtual environment can also influence the behavior of its users. Virtual environments should be designed around following some basic rules such as gravity, chronological continuity, and static environments that can't wildly and randomly change [4]. If the world cannot be expected to remain sane, then why would its users?

The Faceless and Guiltless

Social norms in virtual worlds are influenced by their users, the representations of the users, and even the worlds themselves [5]. With that in mind, behavior in virtual environments can easily be predicted based on the environment in which the most involved users interact. If a model railroading community is designed to realistically operate virtual trains in a multi-user environment then it can be reasonably assumed that dedicated members of the community won't purposefully drive recklessly, crash into others, or leave trains blocking the main line. However, the behavior of new members with little time invested or those who joined randomly can't be predicted.

What digital communication has over face to face communication is a perceived buffer and thus the perceived effects of discrimination and harassment are lessened in the eyes of the aggressor. Electronic harassment is unique from traditional harassment because aggressors are removed from their victims and from the impact of their actions [6]. Removal from the victim is fundamental for creating the distinctive dynamic that makes online harassment unique. In traditional harassment these aggressors must deal with the immediate effects of their actions. When anonymous, or behind a barrier it is much easier for antagonists to antagonize with no remorse.

Demonstrating Social Names Interactively

In the multiplayer video game The Sims Online (TSO) people were given the ability to create avatars which they used to interact with others in the Sims environment. Goals of the game included building and decorating houses, creating social networks, improving character statistics, and others. Due to its interactive nature, social norms played a large part in shaping the community and even though the wide variety of body and facial expressions used in the real world were limited in TSO, people still found ways to express themselves [5].

Social Behavior in the Non-virtual World

Deindividuation is a psychology term coined by Leon Festinger that refers to a situation where peoples' individual behaviors and actions can't easily be separated and solely attributed to any particular individual's motives due to the impact of their surrounding environment (i.e., stadium crowds, Mardi Gras, riots, etc). A person in a state of deindividuation is almost guaranteed to be freed from social and judicial restraints because his or her actions can't easily be linked to himself or herself. The guards in The Stanford Prison Experiment led by psychology professor Phillip Zimbardo were randomly assigned to their roles, but deindividuation changed them from simple college students into aggressive and relentless dictators. The students were not held responsible for their actions because it was assumed that such actions were appropriate for the duration of the experiment. Because the students became so intertwined with their roles that their actions and behaviors were threatening to cause long-lasting damage, Zimbardo decided to end the experiment early. As said by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie Men in Black, "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it."

Escaping Punishment Virtually

In the case of the World of Warcraft Funeral Crashers video an assortment of people grouped together to intentionally grief the members of a virtual funeral. The incident sparked debate from both sides, some suggesting that the game's mechanics weren't broken and the griefers' actions were valid given that the particular server in which the event occurred encouraged player versus player confrontations, and others suggesting that the sanctity of the funeral should have been respected in light of its seriousness and that the griefers went out of their way to cause harm. In this situation, two sets of conflicting social norms clashed with each other: one set designed to interact with civility and rationality during a formal event and the other designed to have fun "crashing a party" with others. The comment at the end of the video made by the griefers even says, "Sorry for your loss. Yes, we know we are assholes :D".

Cautionary Tales of Anonymity Online

A mask representative of the online group Anonymous and has recently become a symbol for the real life Occupy movement

It is worth noting that sometimes anonymity online is taken for granted. Internet users may not always be quite as anonymous as they think. Often, IP addresses can be tracked in order to ban members of online communities that do not conform to the communities rules and guidelines. For example, Wikipedia uses this tactic to block users causing continued harm to Wikipedia by adding false or biased information. This could also be used in coordination with proper legal measures to trace users to their location. Secondly, many people give away information that could allow others to identify them on social networking sites or other sites that gather information. Even when users provide a pseudonym or false information

Avenging Dusty the Cat

One extreme example of this occurred when a group spun off from the /b/ board on the popular site 4chan organized to "avenge" Dusty the cat. A teenage boy posted a video on YouTube of himself in a ski mask abusing a cat named Dusty. The video went viral and a group banded together to identify this person and hold him accountable. Although the boy did this in an anonymous fashion by using a fairly generic account name, glennspam1, and pseudonym, Timmy, the group that would later become known as Anonymous was quickly able to find out much of the teen's personal information. He was identified as Oklahoma teen, Kenny Glenn, and was found through a search of public information on his YouTube profile, which led to finding his MySpace profile, family name, address and more. The group then used an analysis of the images on his profile to determine that he was the perpetrator [7]. Once they sent this information to his local police station and the information was proved to be truthful, Glenn was arrested and Dusty the cat received medical treatment [8]


Another example of controversy surrounding anonymity online is the case of Chatroulette. Chatroulette is a website that randomly pairs people in video chat sessions, with the ability to end the session at any time and be "spun" into a new, random one. One out of every eight spins, however, has been shown to lead to video sessions with "adult content," especially nudity or masturbation.[9] This has led to Chatroulette cracking down on nudity on the website.[10]

Other Ethical Implications

Anonymity is merely a illusion in the virtual environment. Each computer is identified with and requires an IP address in order to communicate with the main DNS servers and although there are proxy servers and IP hiding applications, they are not without their faults. No single person can be completely hidden by the Internet. Young children are using the Internet for self-expression and frequently they are unaware of the deceivingly thin layer of anonymity that hides their IP address.

Not only are people easily identified by their online pseudonyms, but also their activity is stored forever. The Internet is an extraordinarily permanent medium, once something is on there, it cannot be completely erased. Heated debates occur when deciding the level of responsibility that should be assigned to minors and their actions on the Internet.

Group Activity

See Anonymous (group) While anonymity online is an illusion, the strength of groups can be a powerful force. As exemplified by 4chan, even though the anonymity may not be protected, there exists strength in numbers. The users who distribute denial of service attacks are extremely difficult to ascertain not because of security measures they are using, but rather owing the large number of users committing the act.

See Also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wallace 2008, p.179
  2. Douglas, David M. Doxing: A Conceptual Analysis, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 199–210.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Bartle 2003
  4. Castronova 2005, p.81
  5. 5.0 5.1 Martey 2007
  6. Raskauskas, J. (2007). Involvement in traditional and electronic bullying among adolescents. Developmental Psychology, 43(3), 564-575.
  7. Think Smarter: Kenny Glenn Caught...
  8. Wikipedia: 4chan
  9. “Chatroulette Is 89 Percent Male, 47 Percent American, And 13 Percent Perverts – TechCrunch.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 16 Mar. 2010,
  10. “Chatroulette.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Apr. 2019,

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