The anonymity of the Internet enables a range of ugly behaviour that was unthinkable in the pre-tech world.
Cyber-bullying and trolling can be perpetrated by cowards who are ashamed or unwilling to put their name to their comments, but happy to drip-feed poison into cyberspace without consequence.
But like so much of technology, there are positives as well as negatives associated with being able to communicate incognito. The anonymity and reach of the Internet presents opportunities in collecting data that have never existed before. If you have a lazy five minutes to spare you can play your role in that data collection through the Australia Talks platform launched by the ABC this month. The broadcaster surveyed 54,000 people about their attitudes, behaviours and experiences and has now opened the questionnaire to the broader public.
Although some optional demographic data is collected, such as suburb, income, gender, age, ethnicity and religion, the survey is anonymous. It therefore encourages honest responses to statements like “Smacking a child is an acceptable form of discipline”, “Political correctness has gone too far in Australia” and “White people have an unfair advantage in Australia,” as well as straight answers to questions around sex and accessing porn. Australia Talks is one step further removed from human interaction than an anonymous telephone survey, and therefore arguably one step closer to providing a reliable picture of thoughts and beliefs.
The platform uses a similar approach to the ABC’s Vote Compass launched ahead of the last election, posing a series of statements/questions and then generating a comparative picture based on your responses. To be honest, I was slightly uncomfortable about Vote Compass – it seemed there was a risk of people deciding who to vote for based on what the app concluded, using some fairly simplistic questioning. Like all data and statistics, healthy scepticism and looking at the process are important – what might have influenced the results to present a certain picture? Is the sample weighted disproportionately towards one group? Were the questions ambiguous or difficult to answer definitively?
Australia Talks has other issues too – it would be easy to accidentally respond at the wrong end of the agree-disagree spectrum when responding to some negatively-phrased statements; the data collected is inevitably simplistic, as are the conclusions drawn from it; and the platform (and therefore survey findings) will only reflect responses from those who are prepared to engage with the ABC. Is it Australia talks, or just ABC fans talk?
Nevertheless, it provides a fascinating insight into how many fellow Australians think and feel. Over 55s can celebrate their status as the happiest, least anxious, and least lonely. And perhaps not surprisingly, the older we get, the less we care about what others think of us. (This is a concern for 75% of 18-24 year-olds, but only 20% of those aged 75 and over).
The survey reveals some deep levels of concern - 47% of Australians are not confident they'll have enough money to retire comfortably, a third of Australians are struggling to make ends meet right now, and three-quarters of Australians believe there is significant racism in our society – and it also lays bare some of our weaknesses and inequities as a nation.
Don’t miss the light relief though. A brave 2% of over-75s are open to sending nude selfies, presumably reflecting both good technology skills and positive body confidence.
It's a liberating thing, not caring what others think.