Tonight someone left a comment on my website, anonymously. The person simply left a letter in the space where a name or handle would go.
Now, perhaps it was just circumstance, the name being the initial of at least one person I am not really friends with anymore. It may also be what I think I recognize as a kind of conversational tic from that same person. Whatever it is, all I know is that I assumed the anonymous poster was someone I know. And yet in my response post, I behaved as if I didn’t know the person.
This, I think, is fascinating. It tells me a lot about the way I (and perhaps humans in general) infer about other people, and how we engage in interactions which can, on a certain level, be compared with other forms of “gameplay”. I’m thinking that a brief look at both of these might be in order.
Firstly, the assumption that I know the person. This is difficult to explain. The reason is, the way I feel an urge to tell the story is this way: “I knew it was so-and-so the moment I saw the comment.” Now, it may well be that this lingering intuition is correct, after all, but the thing is, it was not the first and only intuition. Before that came another one, which was this: if someone is posting comments anonymously, and it’s not a spambot, then it must be someone I know personally. Why this should be so, I’m not exactly sure, but logically I suppose it doesn’t make sense for a stranger to comment anonymously. With a stranger, the anonymity (which is not only implicit in the comment, but outright declared) would be unnecessary, because after all I don’t know the person to begin with. Anonymity in this context doesn’t make sense with a stranger, not anywhere near as much as it would with someone I know personally, however vaguely. Could it be that what was triggered was some primal social instinct? I imagine it isn’t too far fetched to consider it possible. I would certainly imagine that suspicion, however idle, about the commenter’s desire for anonymity probably led to a rapid parsing for possible identities, whereby I would have gained the suspicion of the anonymous poster being a specific person I know.
The second point is interesting too. If I had a strong suspicion about the motivation for the commenter’s anonymity, why did I play along as if I didn’t know the person? This, it seems to me, leads me back to the comment made by Merlin Donald in A Mind So Rare, the book about consciousness and neurology that I’m reading now. Donald points out that we humans are quite comfortable with our intersubjectivity… meaning the way that we interpret subjectively the actions and expressions of others and then, from within our own subjective viewpoints, express our interpretations with what are linguistically objective-appearing statements. Except that as humans over a certain age of normal brain development (I think it was age 7 or so) we all somehow also understand that these statements are intersubjective.
Meaning that even if I think I know the anonymous poster’s reasons for being anonymous, there’s a part of me that hedges bets that I may be wrong, and that treating my own subjective response to the stimulus is socially risky for a number of reasons: it could lend me an air of paranoia and instability (rendering me a possibly unreliable ally), or if it’s simply a mistaken intuition, it could drive away a stranger of potentially good willa potential ally. It seems to me that there’s a rather sophisticated kind of social gameplay involved in this interaction, one that, while it might be impossible in the kinds of environments we humans evolved in, still reflects the kinds of social interactions we were, during our long evolution, programmed for.
Right, this self-analysis is now over. But… I am curious to know if I’m right about the anonymous poster’s identity.