An essay in the Wall Street Journal explores "Why We Are So Rude Online":
Why are we so nasty to each other online? Whether on Facebook, Twitter, message boards or websites, we say things to each other that we would never say face to face. Shouldn't we know better by now?
Anonymity is a powerful force. Hiding behind a fake screen name makes us feel invincible, as well as invisible. Never mind that, on many websites, we're not as anonymous as we think—and we're not anonymous at all on Facebook. Even when we reveal our real identities, we still misbehave.
There have been a couple of interesting responses to the essay. Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy blog things it overlooks one key dynamic of online speech:
When you write online, you don’t know who is in your audience. In regular speech, you know who your audience is because you observe the audience directly. As a result, you can tailor your speech to the audience you see.
[. . .]
When you write online, in contrast, you don’t see who is reading what you are writing. The audience is unseen and usually largely unknown. This is just my amateurish speculation, but my guess is that a lot of people have a natural tendency to write by implicitly imagining the kind of audience that would be around them in the physical space where they are writing (even though their actual audience is online). Because those physical spaces can be pretty intimate places, such as a person’s home, a lot of people tend to make online communications that use the kind of language they would use when amongst friends. The speech is more unfiltered and more expecting of shared values. When the audience turns out not to share those values, though, they experience the unfiltered speech as rude — which leads them to respond with similar or even greater rudeness.
And Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway writes about a certain type of online persona:
The odd thing I’ve discovered is that many of the people I’ve encountered online who are known for vociferous and confrontational argument are completely different when you meet them in person.
[. . .]
I’m pretty sure I know the type, because I run into many of them online myself. They like to use their online persona to push an agenda and react vociferously anytime they see anything that opposes it.
I think Kerr is on to something. In the deeply divided, highly charged political landscape of today, we increasingly hang out with like-minded people. And when somebody disagrees with us in one of our hangouts, it disrupts our expectations of speaking-to-the-choir harmony. Rudeness begets rudeness, and things tend to escalate. It's not so much that the Web attracts jerks. It turns us into jerks. Hard for some of you to believe, I know, but I'm not as big a jerk in person as I am online. Not quite.