Dark Side of the Net

In the virtual world of student e-mail, anonymity is no guarantee of virtue.

September/October 1996

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Dark Side of the Net

Internet access at Stanford has opened a window on a number of experiences that are not available off-line. If I want to warble an affectionate serenade to someone I admire from afar, challenge a professor or just assert opinions with stutter-free eloquence, I can do so by safely resting behind a screen of anonymity.

But I've also discovered that the net provides a student with the opportunity to hide behind a digital mask and pester fellow users in the belief that somehow virtual harassment is not real.

Throughout my junior year, I received a series of e-mailed assaults from a student whom I had presumed was a friend. His messages, though never uttered face-to-face, were offensive and threatening. The attacks usually opened with an expletive directed at me and were followed by a vicious analysis of my off-line behavior.

I dreaded this barrage of e-malevolence. At first I made light of his threats, characterizing them as "digital tantrums" in humorous exchanges with friends. But, despite the combined efforts of my most potent defenses*my confidence, my optimism, my sense of humor* his words filled me with self-doubt. I began to believe that I was a target because I deserved it.

When I approached him and our mutual acquaintances to express my concern and fear, I was ridiculed for allowing "only words" to bother me. I even received a curt suggestion from one friend to "just delete them," which I did. But in doing so, I was conspiring to make myself a victim within my on-line boundaries, looking the other way when the offender crossed the boundary and encroached on my personal space.

Ignoring the problem didn't make it go away. He forged my e-mail address to mass mail a derogatory rant under my name. It was not until a recipient of the message e-mailed a response to "my" mail that I realized what had happened. He had zapped a crude caricature of me into the electronic in-boxes of many fellow students in an attempt to injure my reputation.

Fortunately, I was able to straighten the situation out before any major damage was done. But all year long, I couldn't check my e-mail without feeling some degree of unease. Each time I went on-line with peers, professors and professionals, I feared another vicious encounter.

Seeking solace from the threats, I confided my fear and frustration to a girlfriend who was not acquainted with the on-line aggressor. She immediately recognized the gravity of the situation, and how much more serious it could become if I let his actions remain unreported. Rather than follow my other friend's recommendation to "just delete them," my girlfriend advised me to leave a paper trail, warning that my passivity would only invite more trouble.

It took a report to the dean of student affairs and a threat of academic suspension to finally silence him. The dean recognized that offensive e-mail messages cannot be written off as silly pranks or "only words." He confirmed that such action is a violation of Stanford's Fundamental Standard, an offense committed when one has abused University privileges*in this case, privileges to free Internet access.

Despite being the victim of cruel play, I still recognize that the anonymity of the net is one of its greatest virtues. Users can assume variable identities and make connections they wouldn't seek in off-line life.

One of the more popular recreation features of the net is the multi-user domain, or MUD, whose popularity may rest mostly on the fact that it provides alluring alternative identities for its guests. The MUD is fertile ground for exciting role-playing and for undergrads suffering from temporary collegiate ennui. A romp into the appearance-blind MUD to become a virtual lover or digital sleuth holds a seductive advantage over being just another sophomore in a Stanford sweatshirt.

Thanks to MUD -- and similar venues for anonymous social dallying on the Internet -- net users have the chance to pursue adventure, build self-confidence and "hang out" with students they wouldn't normally befriend.

But this same anonymity is, of course, the problem, as I discovered. It grants Internet users the opportunity to exploit others without fear of being accused of a legal offense. Hiding behind the faceless computer screen, on-line offenders feel they can say things that they would not dare to utter in person. They somehow believe that the glowing screen separating them from their victims reduces the "realness" of their on-line threats.

Perhaps my on-line offender regarded his behavior as "only words." But words -- whether exchanged on the Internet or in person, whether transmitted in bits or in physical threats -- can have a potent effect.

The Internet should be embraced, not feared, as a forum where we can safely unleash our inhibited identities. Having access to multiple identities and unique experiences on-line is a privilege that should not be misused. The self-deceiving concept of "only words" should never be used as an excuse to attack an unseen on-line victim.

Kristie Lu Stout, '96, is a master's student in media studies from Saratoga, Calif.

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