Wanted: (Your) Opinions

By Charissa Dechène

We live in a (online) world where we are constantly invited to give our opinions. May it be on a friend’s update  or a news bulletin, underneath the post is an open invitation to share your thoughts.
With the ongoing public discussions about refugees, migrants, and ‘otherness’ I find it sometimes hard to read some of the discriminatory, racist and other negative and dehumanising comments placed underneath heart-breaking stories and/ or news articles. Therefor I usually do not read them, but sometimes they just catch my eye.
Just last week MiND (Meldpunt Internet Discriminatie – Hotline for Internet Discrimination) stated that in the last 9 months they have received 300 complaints of discrimination and racism on the Internet in The Netherlands. Which is a 64% increase compared to last year. This, in spite of the recent campaign against discrimination in the country.

As I have mentioned in my blog “But, where are you really from”, issues relating to discrimination and racism in The Netherlands and creating a dialogue about it are still quite hard. This comes especially into light with the need for meetings about centres for asylum-seekers and refugees in several counties. At these meetings there is also a necessity for police interference in case things escalate, like in Rotterdam last week. Citizens are protesting, online and offline, against their local government giving refuge to the people who have risked their lives to get to safety. Moreover, government officials such as mayors are being threatened because they agreed to provide a place of refuge. Protesters often reply what populist Geert Wilders states over and over again that “our people should get help first”. His national party and other local right-wing parties are also encouraging people to resist local governments on providing refuge places. While I find this a ridiculous argument, because the situation of refugees and Dutch citizens ‘in need’ can in no way be compared to each other, the argument seems to get picked up by protesters.

Giving your unsolicited opinions and views on the Internet is not something new. In Dutch we call this aggressively type of commenting reaguren, in English it would be considered trolling. While I write this piece in English I would like to explore the Dutch meaning of the word. The word is a combination of the words react (reageren) and voyeurism/spying (gluren). During my Bachelor my study-friend and I decided to give a presentation about this social phenomenon from a socio-anthropological point of view. This blog is inspired by that presentation.

The way people react to certain news events, especially those relating to gender, sexual, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, may be because they feel confident enough online to speak their minds or they get a sense of belonging in a collective identity. Some may do it because they get pleasure out of it and entertainment. However, in doing so is the way you are responding interacting or are you just a voyeur who types a few words? And are those words a true representation of your online and offline identity? One may say that aggressively speaking your mind is a person’s right to the freedom of speech, which may be true but also has its limitations. You are allowed to say whatever you want, however if you would say something that is incriminating you are likely to be prosecuted. Moreover, freedom of speech is indeed a human right, as it is a human right to not be discriminated.

Under the cloak of anonymity, you can express the ugliest of sentiments; you can join a witch-hunt to destroy a reputation or to assassinate a character. We are thus liberated and simultaneously imprisoned by social media. (Jonathan Dimbleby)

The Internet seems borderless with infinite possibilities. It transcends countries, oceans and even social borders. It is assumed to be an open space in which people, who have an Internet connection, can explore the endless amounts of websites and their (online) sense of self. The Internet is also a place which seems to enable people to say whatever they want, as opposed to (social) restrictions one can encounter in real life. It is often being argued that people tend to give their honest opinions and ideas on the internet, because it is more anonymous than when you would say those opinions offline. However, anonymity is something that is not quite possible (unless you are a hacker genius). Especially when taking into account that our online world is almost always intertwined with our offline world.

I find the juxtaposed position of creating a likeable ‘online identity’ while staying ‘anonymous’ quite interesting. The possibilities of social media almost seem to take away the fears of individuals to speak publicly about how they are feeling. Which is, in my opinion, very interesting because when you post something online everyone can read what you have said, it can be circulated easily and you can get a shitload of responses back. However these will mostly come to you on your screen and not during a face-to-face encounter. While if you would say a harsh comment offline it would probably not circulate or be as easily accessible nor could you enjoy the anonymity you would online.

In anthropology the concept of ‘identity’ is somewhat ambiguous. ‘Identity’ can be understood as the conception and expression of an individual of their selfhood, that what makes them unique from others. On the other hand ‘identity’ can be understood collectively, in which individuals associate themselves with others who have the same qualities or common features. Psychoanalytic theorist Erik H. Erikson brought the term ‘identity’ into general use (1959). His use of the term focused mainly on personal identity and believed that it was located in the deep unconscious. Identity for him was as a long-lasting and persistent sense of sameness of the self, that what forms an individual’s selfhood and personality.

Anthropologists use the term in a more sociologically sense by emphasizing the individual’s social and cultural surroundings and the mechanisms of socialization and cultural acquisition. From a sociologically perspective, society can be divided into groups and social-roles. One’s identity can, from this perspective, be seen as an emergent property of their categorical memberships.
The membership an individual holds online can be as varied as in real life. You can be a member of a social network, a fandom, a (h)activist group, etc. On the Internet your sense of identity can thus be enhanced, extended, confirmed. It can also be traced, both to your actual person (IP-address) as to your past (Google search). These possibilities makes that your online identity is not as anonymous as you would hope.

Social Roles and Control
Your identity also consists of social roles you have obtained, for example you can be a parent, sister, brother, friend, employer, employee, etc. The social conventions and behaviour which are acquainted with social roles seem to fade away on the Internet, as well as hierarchical structures. Socio-economic statuses are not as visible online as they would appear offline. However, in online communities there are still power-relations among its members. Although these are not based on an individual’s socio-economic status, they are often constructed of elements that the person shares (e.g. opinions and appearance).

A person’s social role in ‘real-life’ can therefore be very different from how they (re)present themselves online.
For example people who work for the (local) government, police officers, teachers, charity- or NGO-ambassadors have been suspended, fired or forced to step down, for posting something that contradicts or damages where they should stand for in their professional roles. Sometimes this is because their personal page is not private, but publicly accessible, or they have their boss as a Facebookfriend. Also, when people leave hateful comments, there are always people who would go into discussion with them about their opinions. However, as I have mentioned in my blog about sexual assault and violence, women in particular encounter a lot of rape threats online when they speak their minds. People of color would hear that they should go back to where they came from and men can be questioned about their masculinity. These kinds of comments give the reaguurders a sense of control in who is included and excluded in the online community.
Eventhough other visitors of social media pages, voyeurs if you would like, and other members of a community can use a sense of social control to keep the social behaviour online somewhat ‘decent’, by responding to comments they do not agree with, it appears that the ones with the bigger ‘mouth’ have more control. This may be because people who give such comments are often more present, while others prefer not to comment.

Moreover, often do I notice that Facebook-users who are not shy about their opinions have a profile photo of their children or their entire family. Which also indicates that when people become parents their former identity often seem to fade away and switches into their children. To put this in perspective, if you are a parent you would probably not walk around with your pregnancy test and photographs of your children in all stages of their lives to show them to everyone you meet on the street. Nor would you get into a loud verbal discussion when you are out with your children. That parents put their (unborn) children on their social media pages for the world to see (often these photos are publicly visible) highlights the intertwined relation people have with their online identity. However, this subject (which is a subject for another discussion) should be used to stress the necessity of making your personal photos, especially that of children who do not ask to be put online, private.

The constant connection one has to the internet seems to merge online and offline identities. People seem to be more comfortable to say in public what they would otherwise only dare to say online. That comfort may come from the constant ability one has to form their opinion and is invited to do so. This indicates that people tend to merge their online identity with their offline identity. Which implies that our use of technology in everyday activities and the way we (re)present ourselves online and offline, appear to enhance or even extend our sense of identity and that there is almost no distinction between one’s identity online and offline.

(Of course you are more than welcome to leave a comment under this piece :p)

3 thoughts on “Wanted: (Your) Opinions

  1. Hello!

    Would you like to focus on such phenomena as normalization, discourse, and discipline? Personally, I cannot live without Foucault. It helped me back in Leiden for the research related to local integration policy of the municipalities (gemeente).

    Thank you!

    Looking forward to your reply.

    Best Regards,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Vakhtang,
      First of all thank you for your message! I am actually playing with the idea of using the concepts of normalization and discourse in a follow up blog on this one and “But where are you really from?”! And Foucault is indeed hard to live without, I used his inisghts on sexuality quite a bit. Your research sounds very interesting and I would like to hear more about it and your studies in Leiden.
      We could email if you want, my email is observationsofthevisual@gmail.com. Looking forward hearing from you.
      All best wishes,


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