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Angry Online Commenters: Feeling Disinhibited?


Back in October 2013, Popular Science made the decision to do away with comments on their website. The editors had repeatedly made the argument that allowing online comments on their articles "undermines the integrity of science" and creates an environment of "aggression and mockery." The article, which focused on the psychology of online comments, led me down the rabbit hole of social psychology to the Online Disinhibition Effect - ODE.

The theory behind ODE, which was published in 2004 when the Internet was just starting to take over the world, stems from a belief that our online actions cannot be associated with our real world identities; we can say and do things under the blanket of anonymity, which means we may tell the world our secrets (benign disinhibition) or chastise others for revealing theirs (toxic disinhibition).


1. Because You Don't Know Me (Dissociative Anonymity)

The Internet allows us to wander throughout multiple environments without a name or a face attached to our identities. This anonymity lessens stigmas (perceived or otherwise) on behavior, with then drops inhibitions. We can act out our hostile feelings without having to take responsibility for them. We can also disassociate ourselves from our actions, thereby convincing ourselves that our online behavior is completely separate from who we are in the "real world".

2. Because You Can't See Me (Invisibility)

Anonymity and invisibility are, in many ways, dependent upon each other but they are also very different from each other. Invisibility extends to chats, texts, and email communications because while the recipient knows who you are, they can't see your expression while you're typing.

Without an identity, we have the courage to do and say the things we never would if there was someone watching our every move, someone capable of showing disapproval or disappointment.

3. Because We're Equals (Minimize Authority)

Because the Internet is faceless, everyone begins on the same level. Everyone is equal in their anonymity and invisibility. This makes conversations with authority figures easier in the minds of those who would not otherwise have the courage to speak their minds. The Internet is, in this respect, the great equalizer - we're all peers within the Web, no matter our job titles or personal achievements.


The power of anonymity, invisibility, and minimized authority makes the Internet a breeding ground for negative feedback. Consumers have a way to express their dislike of or discontent with businesses in a very public, very anonymous way.

Dr. David Solly at University of the Rockies in Colorado conducted a 2011 study on the online disinhibition of consumers and responses to businesses through social media. He discovered that there's a small loophole in the relationship between angry customers and the companies they dislike: engagement.

You heard me - engagement. By authenticating an unhappy customer's need for power and control in this one scenario, your business validate's that customer's concerns while also establishing a connection. Dr. Solly says, "Showing customers that the business cares about them, regardless of whether it's acknowledgement of a complaint or a compliment, provides a sense of belonging and builds loyalty."

This isn't to say that occasionally, an Internet Troll is just, in fact, a Troll. Not all angry commenters can be reasoned with, but there should always be the opportunity for a dialogue.

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