Sandra Newman writes: It is an acknowledged fact of modern life that the internet brings out the worst in people. Otherwise law-abiding citizens pilfer films and music. Eminent authors create ‘sock puppets’ to anonymously praise their own work and denigrate that of rivals. Teenagers use the internet for bullying; even more disturbingly, grown-ups bully strangers with obsessive zeal, sometimes even driving them from their homes with repeated murder threats. Porn thrives, and takes on increasingly bizarre and often disturbing forms.
Commentators seem at a loss to satisfactorily account for this surge in antisocial tendencies. Sometimes it’s blamed on a few sociopathic individuals – but the offenders include people who are impeccably decent in their offline lives. The anonymity of online life is another explanation commonly given – but these behaviours persist even when the identities of users are easily discovered, and when their real names appear directly above offensive statements. It almost seems to be a contagion issuing from the technology itself, or at least strong evidence that computers are alienating us from our humanity. But we might have a better chance of understanding internet hooliganism if we looked at another form of concealment that isn’t true concealment, but that nonetheless has historically lured people into behaving in ways that are alien to their normal selves: the mask.
There doesn’t seem to be any culture in which masks have not been used. From the Australian outback to the Arctic, from Mesolithic Africa to the United States of the 21st century, people have always made and employed masks in ways that are seemingly various and yet have an underlying commonality. Their earliest appearance is in religious ritual. [Continue reading…]