Health waiver e-mail 2009: Anonymity and the Mob

By Shaina Davis

Ah, summer. Three long months of warm weather and relaxation. With vacations to take, movies to see, internships to fulfill and family to spend time with, summer is the ideal time to kick back, relax and . check your e-mail?Yes, there’s nothing more annoying than having your summer fun interrupted by mid-break messages from school. But Macalester uses e-mail to keep students informed about everything from important forms and waivers to professors’ latest publications. A little bit of interruption is often necessary to stay informed and make sure you’ve done all your paperwork. Students generally expect to see at least a couple of school messages show up in their inboxes each month. Most students would be very surprised to suddenly see almost 160 e-mails from the school mailing list arrive in their inbox – but last summer, that’s just what happened.

On June 30, 2009, a message was sent out to the “Returning Students Fall 2009” e-mail list reminding students of the need to either enroll in or waive the student health plan. Three days later, one student accidentally replied to the message instead of forwarding it on to her father; another replied in the hopes that her e-mail would reach someone at the health services department who could answer her insurance-related questions. Instead of going to their intended recipients, the messages went to all the students on the list, appearing to have been sent from the e-mail list address – the students’ e-mail addresses did not appear on the message. It didn’t take long for someone to realize that any further replies would be sent anonymously to the entire student body, and that’s when the real craziness began.

On July 5, the emails began trickling in. “Oooooooooooooooooo!” wrote one student; another responded with, “O hay guys wat’s goin on in here?” Someone sent a response to the first student’s accidental message, pretending to be her dad, and a few messages later someone sent an e-mail pretending to be her mom. One exasperated student asked, “Why are we up doing this when we could be outside or away from a computer?” and was met with answers like, “What’s this outside thing I keep hearing about?” and “I experience nature through a web interface – it’s a cyberpunk thing.” There were comments about Michael Jackson’s death, “Jon & Kate Plus 8” and various Web sites where users comment anonymously. Someone asked for suggestions of restaurants in Philly; answers included POD, Jim’s Steaks and the LGBT Cheesesteak Palace. Other people sent in photos, animated images and ASCII artwork, made with strategically spaced punctuation marks and letters.

Not everyone was amused to have their inbox flooded with messages. Students began requesting that the e-mails stop almost as soon as they had begun. “Make this stop. I want my inbox back,” pleaded one student. A tech-savvy contributor explained how irritated students could send all the new messages straight to archive so they wouldn’t clutter up their inboxes. Others made cynical predictions about how long it would take ITS to fix the glitch. Several hours into the conversation, a school employee asked students to stop sending “personal and unrelated messages,” and warned them that the administration could see the e-mail addresses of everyone who had responded, but the e-mails continued: non sequiturs, estimations of how long it would take for the sheer volume of e-mail to crash Google’s servers and an intellectual conversation about the role of ewoks in “Return of the Jedi.” By July 6, the conversation seemed to have reached a natural stopping point, and the e-mails petered out.

Why would such a mundane email suddenly explode into a long, mostly nonsensical conversation? Professor Kendrick Brown, a social psychologist, said it’s common for people’s behavior to change in situations where they have anonymity.

“The best term you could use would be ‘deindividuation’,” he explained. “If [people] deindividuate, they’re likely to engage in a behavior more than if they think they can actually be linked to the behavior. [.] This [e-mail] gives people the chance to just say off-the-cuff things.”

Normally, this would only apply to situations where people feel they cannot be identified or connected to their words; when students found out that the school could identify them, one would think that the conversation would have ended there. Brown thinks at that point, a different psychological principle may have come into play: “Folks want to be consistent, and so they might have just continued because hey, people can see.”

Although this kind of behavior in the face of anonymity has definitely been given a boost by the growing use of the internet, deindividuation certainly isn’t a new concept. Although one student e-mail joked, “Keep it going! This is fodder for my capstone!!!!” this kind of behavioral change has been the subject of psychological studies for decades.

“The Internet seems to really be an environment in which this takes even more hold, but it’s been around for a while,” said Brown. “A lot of times when psychologists have looked at that they’ve studied crowd behavior. . A lot of people have called part of this ‘mob psychology.'” Just as an anonymous e-mail may seem like a safer way to communicate an unpopular idea, a person in a crowd may shout out something hostile because they feel they can’t be identified as easily; both are forms of deindividuation.

Next time you join an anonymous conversation – online or off – feel free to have some fun. Keep it civil, of course, but if you want to make obscure pop-culture references or give your residence hall floor a shout-out, go right ahead! Psychology says it’s perfectly normal.