After writing the article on “Oppressed Group Behavior Among Foreign Teachers in China,” I began to reflect a great deal more on the specific examples I cited from Internet forums for foreign teachers in China in terms of my own experiences with “forum life.”
Shortly after arriving in the Middle Kingdom, I found and soon became an active member of an anonymous Internet forum for EFL teachers in China. Initially, I enjoyed being a member of an active virtual community of foreign teachers and even made a few online foreign “friends,” particularly among those who wrote especially well and always had what I felt was something important to add to the various discussions I was following.
That was about five years ago and since that time, I was one of the founding members and administrator of two such other forums, respectively, for foreign teachers in China. The one that I had personally opened was by invitation only and was, more or less, an onymous forum (that is, members knew each others’ real names). I closed that one a few months ago to devote my free time to completing the Foreign Teachers’ Guide to Living and Working in China.
As much as I had enjoyed being a member of these forums, I have come to the conclusion that they don’t offer nearly the value or usefulness that I had initially thought they did, especially for prospective foreign teachers in need of valid and reliable information. In addition, there is a very dark side to these forums that led to some very unpleasant experiences for me. This article will examine the problems with anonymous EFL forums, particularly for those teaching in China, from a psychoanalytic perspective and explain why they should be approached with a good deal of caution, at the very least.
Dr. John Suler, a clinical psychologist, computer enthusiast and professor at Rider University in New Jersey has written prolifically about the psychology of cyberspace. In his book of the same name, he offers some very thought-provoking questions for us to considerSuler, J. (2002). Personality Types in Cyberspace. In The Psychology of Cyberspace, www-usr.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/persontypes.html (article orig. pub. 1998):
- Does online anonymity and freedom of access encourage antisocial personalities?
- Do narcissistic people use the access to numerous relationships as a means to gain an admiring audience?
- Do people with dissociative personalities tend to isolate their cyberspace life from their face-to-face lives? Do they tend to engage in the creation of multiple and distinct online identities?
- Are schizoid people attracted to the reduced intimacy resulting from online anonymity? Are they lurkers?
- Do manic people take advantage of asynchronous communication as a means to send measured responses to others, or do they naturally prefer the terse, immediate, and spontaneous conversations of chat and IM?
- Are compulsives generally drawn to computers & cyberspace for the control it gives them over their relationships and environment?
- Do histrionic people enjoy the opportunities for theatrical displays that are possible in online groups, especially in environments that provide software tools for creative self-expression?
After five years of being a member of, as well as managing, a couple of EFL forums for foreign teachers in China, I’d say the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes. The problem, as I see it, is a multifaceted one.
As discussed in the aforementioned article, foreign English teachers in China can accurately be thought of as an oppressed group who engage in negative behaviors towards each other that are collectively referred to as “horizontal violence.”Duffy, E., “Horizontal violence: A conundrum for nursing,” Collegian: Journal of the Royal College of Nursing, Australia 2 (April 1995) 5-9. These behaviors include but are not limited to devaluing, discouraging, scapegoating, backstabbing, sabotaging, cheating, exploiting, and conspiring. To varying degrees, depending on the particular individuals involved, these behaviors are tempered or constrained through face-to-face contacts and the eventual establishment of personal acquaintanceships. However, the anonymity that the Internet provides induces what researchers refer to as the “online disinhibition effect.”Suler, J. (2001). The Online Disinhibition Effect. In The Psychology of Cyberspace, www-usr.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/disinhibit.html (article orig. pub. 2001) That is, in the absence of face-to-face contact and under the veil of anonymity, these aggressive behaviors become uninhibited and are unleashed—and clear evidence of this can be found not only among these forums’ registered members but among their moderators and administrators as well. To the degree that the “fellow patients” are running the “asylum,” so to speak, these forums can be (and typically are) very toxic environments, psychologically speaking.
Oppressed group behavior combined with the online disinhibition effect produces a unique set of problems that all prospective teachers need to keep in mind when reading and considering posts submitted by registered members of EFL forums for foreign teachers in China.
China is a vast country comprising 23 provinces (including Taiwan), five autonomous regions (Guangxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Tibet and Xinjiang), four central administrative municipalities (Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin) and two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macau). Although the provinces do not have the same degree of individual discretion in many matters that the 50 states of America do, there are still significant differences in how national laws and regulations are interpreted and enforced. What is customary or “normal” in one province may not be at all for another. In addition, and to further complicate matters, what is customary or routine in any given province can and often does change from time to time.
Despite this reality, registered members of these Internet EFL forums have the overwhelming tendency to report an experience they personally had some time ago (or had observed in others) as both a factual and legal truth regarding what other foreign teachers can and should expect and rarely, if ever, are these “truths” verified with outside and authoritative sources. Consequently, these forums are highly fertile breeding grounds for unfounded rumors and myths that then spread like wildfire across the Internet. Very recent examples of this include rumors regarding a two-, three-, and “five-year rule” (referring to the maximum amount of time a foreign teacher can remain in China before needing to return home for “renewed exposure” to native English language)That the sheer absurdity of this explanation escaped those who reported and spread it is truly unimaginable and the “21-year old rule” (referring to the minimum age one must be to obtain a work visa).
In China, knowledge is power and that extends to even the most mundane types of information that most Westerners take for granted or can easily ascertain through public sources (or by simply making a phone call to directory services, for example). On Internet forums, what often emerges is a game of one-upmanship in which members attempt to outdo each other by submitting “news-breaking” stories of some previously unknown and undocumented change in Chinese law or regulations. Consider the following illustration posted a little over a month ago on a popular anonymous Internet forum for foreign teachers:
Topic Heading: “5,200 the new tax limit”
Sorry, I have no shiny regs to offer. This subject was talked about earlier. But I was very reliably informed (emphasis added) that 5,200 is the new limit, up from 4,800 for the past year and a half.
whether your school FAO knows this is another matter. Jan 2006, when it was raised to 4,800 I had to insist my FAO ask several times. The third call he made seemed to reach someone in the tax department who knew. The first call was certainly to a friend
What I find particularly fascinating about this post, from a psychological perspective, is how the author broadcasts his alleged possession of special knowledge while simultaneously protecting himself against personal accountability by noting that this piece of information is so new and privileged that, by his own admission, it is unverifiable through the very government officials who are responsible for knowing this information (and, in fact, the reason it could not be verified was, more simply, because it was not true). Nevertheless, this highly illustrative example of “phallic posturing,” not to mention misinformation, is extremely commonplace among foreign teachers of oral English in China on anonymous Internet EFL forums.
Obviously, when members of an Internet forum are anonymous, they can assert anything they like as the absence of their real identities completely absolves them of any personal liability in the event of actual damages incurred by those who may have been foolish enough to act on their advice.
In real life (life outside of Internet forums, chat rooms and other virtual communities) everyone is entitled to an opinion but not everyone’s opinion is regarded as either being equal in weight or as expert advice. In a court of law, for example, when a layperson offers an opinion when testifying, it is inadmissible as evidence because it is regarded as speculation or hearsay. On the other hand, when someone with the proper education and experience testifies—that is, one who has been pre-qualified as a bona fide expert through a process referred to as “voir dire”—then that individual’s opinion is accepted as evidence and entered into the court record as such. In stark contrast, the tendency among registered members of anonymous Internet forums for foreign teachers in China is for members to claim or posture at expertise on the basis of total post count as well as time spent in China. This is tantamount to an average citizen who has lived across the street from the train station for 20 years, and who has ridden the subway twice a day, claiming expertise on the transportation system in his town.
Also in stark contrast to what is true in real life, the Internet provides what some have referred to as a “net democracy,”Suler, J. (2002). The Basic Psychological Features of Cyberspace: Elements of a Cyberpsychology Model. In The Psychology of Cyberspace, www-usr.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/persontypes.html (article orig. pub. 1996) i.e., everyone is equal irrespective of his or her offline status and, in many contexts, this equalization of status is useful and even necessary in creating cohesive online communities. When offering opinions about videos, music or favorite restaurants, or when sharing recipes, for example, it truly doesn’t matter whether the poster is a high school dropout or a doctor of philosophy, and what he or she does for a living outside the forum is rarely, if ever, particularly relevant to those types of discussions.
However, I seriously challenge the appropriateness of this model for a venue in which people are seeking information with which to base life-altering decisions, i.e., uprooting themselves and moving to China for the purpose of teaching English. In this particular instance, not only are anonymity and net democracy undesirable platforms, they are potentially dangerous ones—especially when you consider the number of members, such as recruiters, private school owners and their Western lackeys, who have a strong vested interest in deliberating disseminating misinformation.
Having just written this, it should be quickly added that—even on anonymous Internet EFL forums—not all registered members are equal in the eyes of the readers. Obviously, some members write far better and may, in fact, have a great deal more to say of value than do others. However, what I have observed over the past five years is that an ironic and paradoxical phenomenon occurs on these forums that seems to be specific only to EFL forums for teachers in China: The most intelligent, educated, articulate, and respectable members of these forums are typically and eventually discouraged from posting not just by the other less knowledgeable members, but by the moderators and site administrators themselves. They accomplish this—the reasons for which I suspect are predominantly conscious—by often “locking” and even deleting those threads that are heavily overrepresented by posts from the most thoughtful and literate members. Why would they do this? Why would the very people responsible for ensuring the quality of these forums inadvertently engage in moderating practices that all but guarantee standardized mediocrity (at best)? I believe there are two essential explanations for this phenomenon.
The first explanation, which is actually the more benign of the two, can be understood by considering the very reason for the existence of these forums (in most instances): To make money for the site owner. The main goal of these forums is not to provide a public service to prospective foreign teachers by offering them valid and reliable information but to generate as much traffic to the site as possible for the sole purpose of justifying the advertising fees that are charged to schools seeking employees through the site’s classified ads. In fact, in what was rather an extremely controversial (as well as revealing) move, one such site administrator decided to remove what had been the most valuable feature of his site (from the vantage point of prospective teachers): The school review section. This section was obviously removed because it was interfering with business.
But why would especially intelligent, educated, well-written and authoritative posts be bad for business (you might be asking yourselves right now)? The answer is quite simple really: because these members openly defy and challenge the very essence of net democracy on anonymous Internet forums, especially when these members are bold enough to break their anonymity (as, obviously, anyone willing to do so is also willing to accept responsibility for what he or she advises, which necessarily gives that poster far more credibility than others). What I strongly suspect is that forums that provide “featured experts” engaged to answer questions enjoy far less of a registered membership than those that are anonymous and based on the premise of net democracy and social networking—and registered membership is one indicator of a site’s popularity.
The second explanation for why the most literate and helpful members of these anonymous Internet EFL China forums are eventually forced off the boards is far more toxic and explained by oppressed group behavior among the other members, as well as the moderators and site administrators themselves, as I alluded to earlier. The majority of these moderators and site owners are or were relatively low-paid EFL teachers (with or without the proper qualifications) and, as such, there seems to be an immediate contempt for any registered member who appears to be too dissimilar from those charged with moderating and setting the tone for the community. When content is edited solely on the basis of civility and equality (assuming for one moment that this is not just simply a pretense) as opposed to credibility and validity, this ensures that the less literate, educated and informative membership majority will have a more visible presence than those who truly have something of value to add. The isolated and valuable message typically gets lost in the din of opposing (more accurately, oppositional-defiant “yes…but”) opinions, or quite often is simply deleted and, eventually, those who once added real value to the forums resign their efforts in frustration and disgust—leaving behind those who simply enjoy the social banter and are not seeking anything else.
Anonymous Internet forums for foreign teachers in China have their place. They otherwise allow for some form of social interaction with other foreigners particularly among those who find themselves in relatively isolated areas of China. For some, this form of temporally asynchronous communication is the only form of communication they can have with other foreigners in China.
However, for those who are seeking valid and reliable information, these forums are the last places you should be looking, for reasons I have outlined above. In addition, if you do get involved with these types of virtual communities, it is absolutely essential that you protect your anonymity at all times. Do not even include your city or province in your profile, nor should you assume a user name that could be used to identity you to others. Using your membership to discuss your favorite type of Chinese food or latest video is fine but do not allow yourself to become emotionally invested in any of the discussions or with other members. The chances are great you will deeply regret doing so. Limit your self-disclosures to people you know in person only and know well, through having spent considerable face-to-face time together.