Online anonymity and transference

I’ve been online quite a few years now.  Actually, I first used the internet in college in the late 1970s.  There were only a handful of non-governmental university sites back then, and I happened to be an undergraduate at one of them.  A decade later, in the late 1980s, I was a member of the first online community, called The Well.  In the years that followed, I was active in online forums about psychiatry and other topics.

By the early 1990s, after my psychiatry residency and research fellowship, I had begun to think about the psychological dynamics of online communication.  Now that it’s almost 2009, many dissertations and books have been written on the subject, online communities are commonplace (e.g., see here, here, and here), and most everyone is at least somewhat familiar with online communication.  But nearly 20 years ago it still felt new and ill-defined, and an idea dawned on me that seemed to explain a lot about what I saw happening online.

In the 1980s, the main place for freewheeling discussion online was Usenet, a huge collection of topic-based forums (newsgroups) covering every imaginable subject.  From highly technical discussions of computer technology to frivolous chatter about celebrities, this text-only, worldwide, generally anonymous medium served as a massive reservoir of information and “computer culture.”  In addition, local “bulletin board systems” (BBSs) provided similar forums on a much smaller scale, and individual email discussion lists arose where subscribers could read and post commentary outside of Usenet.  In all of these, emoticons (e.g., smiley faces), in-group jokes, and acronyms (like LOL for “laugh out loud”) were popularized, and have left their mark ever since.

What most caught my attention, though, were the extremes of emotion expressed.  I was struck by the incredible hostility many users directed toward others.  Snide putdowns, withering sarcasm, and utter contempt were fair game and surprisingly common.  This was collectively called “flaming,” as in blasting someone with flames.  Flaming was social behavior that would never be tolerated FTF, IRL (face-to-face, in real life).

My first thought about flaming was that it existed because flamers could get away with it.  They were untraceable due to anonymity and unreachable due to lack of physical proximity.  There were typically no consequences for flaming other than flames directed back in response.  But this failed to account for the hostility in the first place.  Are young men (the demographic of most internet users back then) naturally inclined to such levels of raw aggression anytime they can get away with it?  Not entirely implausible, but a sad conclusion if true.

Then I noticed the opposite as well.  Organized online dating would not catch on until the advent of the World Wide Web and commercial websites in the 1990s, but cyber-romance was already well-known in 1980s computer culture.  People who scarcely knew each other — and only through text, no pictures — would flirt eagerly online.  There was an idealization of the unseen other, a belief or hope that he/she was everything one dreamed of.  Of course, stories were rampant of disappointing (or horrifying) results when a meeting finally took place FTF.  But these romances struck me as the other side of the flaming coin.   Hmm, idealization and devaluation — where had I heard of those before?

Transference was a concept invented by Sigmund Freud to apply to the psychoanalytic situation.  The analysand (patient in analysis) experiences feelings toward the analyst that are “transferred” from parents or other important figures in the analysand’s life.  These feelings are often erotic if positive, harshly rageful if negative, and often a mixture of both.  Successfully analyzing the transference is a main task of psychoanalysis, and thought to be central to its curative effects.  For this reason, transference is promoted in psychoanalysis.  By sitting outside the analysand’s field of view, refraining from personal disclosure, and maintaining “therapeutic neutrality,” the analyst provides space for the patient to ascribe facts and feelings to the analyst and to react to them.  These facts and feelings are created in the patient’s imagination, and are not realities about the analyst.  However, the patient’s emotional reactions are real, and shed light on long buried feelings and emotional assumptions about others.

I realized that online anonymity, and online communication more generally, unwittingly encouraged transference.  During the 1980s era of text-only discussions on the internet, users literally sat outside each others’ field of view and provided little personal disclosure.  (This formed the basis of a now famous 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker.)  Facts and feelings were ascribed to the unseen others online.  These presumed facts and feelings in turn prompted primitive erotic and aggressive feelings, and these in turn led to cyber-romance or flaming.  The main difference from psychoanalysis was the lack of a professional to interpret and contain the transference.  Thus, there was nothing healing or curative about it; it was bad-tasting medicine with no benefit.

Transference helps to explain important aspects of online dynamics in the 1980s.  But much has changed since then.  The graphical user interface of the World Wide Web began to erode user anonymity by the mid-1990s, as home pages with photographs and personal information were uploaded by the millions.  This trend has accelerated with Web 2.0 and current social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and many others.  Anonymity now seems to be the last thing on the minds of internet users.  Personal details and the minutia of everyday life are routinely shared online.  Job-seekers google potential employers and vice versa.  Potential romantic partners google one another.  In theory this discourages transference; my own unscientific impression is that flaming has become passe, cyber-romance more cynical than idealistic.  I now wonder if we need not fear unwitting transference so much as its opposite: an undue familiarity that makes romantic love and admiration of heros less possible.

4 comments to Online anonymity and transference

  • Marilyn Mann

    Interesting post. I used to use Usenet, mostly, but it became useless due to the presence of a troll and other commenters whose main interest in seemed to be hurling insults at the troll. It wasn’t clear to me why they didn’t just ignore him. I eventually gave up on


  • Anonymous

    Interesting and well-written as usual, but I disagree with your conclusions that “flaming has become passe” and that “[a]nonymity now seems to be the last thing on the minds of internet users.” There is plenty of anonymity easily available on the web for anyone who wants it. I would suggest that flaming has not decreased at all, just that the online culture has begun to adapt to it. I continue to be amazed at the things people will write, with varying levels of anonymity, in online forums, but I have learned (with effort) not to take it too seriously or personally.

    Even as users of the web (like me) learn to deal with flaming, there is the issue of online bullying, where a previously (more or less) face to face activity has moved into the anonymity of the web, and become infinitely more cruel and damaging.

    People DO do extraordinarily antisocial things anonymously on web, primarily it seems to me, because they can.

  • Gabor Kovacs

    The phenomenon of Freudian transference also permeates all face to face encounters with strangers, casual acquaintances, professional or business counterparts (as in employer-employee and customer-provider relationships), close friends and family members. That is why we get highly emotional in situations when we confront each other about issues considered important by ourselves. Our first instinct is to consider our partner in these scenarios as the embodiment of previous experiences.

    I get helplessly angry at drivers, who selfishly block the crosswalk. I imagine them to be less than humane and part of the group of people I have already confronted (either using friendly diplomacy or showing honest anger) in the past, and who responded with flaming hostility.
    Or, I get a surge of aggressive emotions, when people in the gym above our apartment drop heavy free weights. Why, because I suddenly re-experience the helpless and sickening feeling of how our apartment management ignores and ridicules our daily complaints about this. I picture these managers in my mind (even after civilized personal encounters) as semblances of Nazi officers or a concentration camp Kapos (never actually met one of those in real life).

    Somehow I don’t respond to cyberspace bullying by strangers with any strong emotions. When I get flamed because of a comment I made online, I ignore the hostility and continue to address the valid part of the criticism only, for the benefit of all those who want to adhere to the issues discussed. I always make sure, that there is not even a hint of indignation, hurt feelings or retaliation. The flamer’s attitude rarely gets friendlier though.

    Gabor Kovacs, Chicago, IL

  • You have an excellent point. I ran an online support community for abuse and trauma survivors for about seven years (until I handed it over to a volunteer to run) and we put certain safeguards in place to help people protect their privacy. For example, the sharing of personal data (email addresses, geographic locations, real names) was prohibited. This made our online community a very comfortable and relatively safe place for people to visit, read and post. However, this sense of safety and protectedness did tend to lead to unwarranted feelings of comfort and trust among the participants in some cases — an outcome which I had not anticipated. I have seen a parallel trend in some therapy patients who have had longterm online relationships prior to entering “real world” relationships — I notice that some tend to form positive projections which may not be borne out in a face-to-face relationship. Thanks for bringing up this very interetsting topic.

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