The New Internet Honesty

Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the author of the The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. And he couldn’t disagree more: “Personally that I think that the Internet has made people less honest, not more honest,” he says.

“The Internet is allowing people to say things with less social consequences,” he says. “Anonymity, I think, is allowing people to have less repercussions in how [they] express their ideas.” In some cases—say expressing dissatisfaction with a government regime or calling out injustices—that can be good. But Ariely says that creating distance between communicating something, and the results of that communication, makes it easier for people to lie. “I think the Internet is creating a world in which you don’t see the consequences of your dishonesty.” Think back to the “does this shirt make me look fat” question—online, if you say “yes” you don’t have to face the person’s reaction.

He points to illegal downloading, something he says is “easy, morally” because we don’t see the penalties we would if we shoplifted a DVD, snuck into a concert or ate breakfast at a Waffle House and left without paying the bill. On his website, he even blogged about his own book on honesty being illegal downloaded over 20,000 times.

But Ariely also thinks #TBH might actually be a bright spot in online communication, serving as confessionals—a venue where all the dishonesty of the Internet is lifted away.

Ariely says dishonesty in all its variations—from outright lies to even the slightest misrepresentations of who we are—have a way of burdening us. And he says that what we’re seeing here with #TBH might just be people wanting to cleanse themselves. That online, being honest is a way of expressing who we are.

But what about the kids actually making these videos? Is it hot in middle school hallways to be honest?

On a Saturday morning, I called up my cousin’s daughter. Her name is Mackenzie. She’s a kid who skateboards around her neighborhood and bakes cookies with her friends. She wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up. Or a pro basketball player. Or a clarinet player.  

Mackenzie doesn’t have Facebook or Twitter, or her own phone yet. But she has Instagram, and makes videos on her parents’ iPads.

She calls Instagram is her “happy place,” and she’s obsessed with getting new likes on her posts. If she doesn’t get what she deems “enough,” she’ll take them down.

I ask her, what’s the deal with #TBH? She giggles. I feel old.

“I guess you just, like, you can put like a video saying ‘I’m bored’ or ‘we’re bored.’ ‘We’re bored, like for #TBH.’ And if they like [your post] you just post a video,” she says. “My good friends will like it and I’ll give them a #TBH. Some people I’m not really close to, they’ll like it too.”

For people she doesn’t know well, it’s hard to be honest. “You just say, like, ‘you’re pretty and you seem nice,’” she says.

Does that end up making you new friends?

“I think it’s just a thing. I don’t think it makes us better friends,” she says. “It might make us to talk more, but I don’t think better friends.”

There’s something, though, that irks her about this type of supposed online soul bearing: “Sometimes with #TBHs, I think people are just flat out lying. They will absolutely hate the person, but they’ll say all this nice stuff about them,” she says.

Yeah, I ask, doesn’t it seem like a lot of these #TBHs are actually kind of… not honest?

Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yesyesyes!” she exclaims. And she says something that makes me stop and realize that it’s not that honesty has changed. “[#TBH] is not completely honest. I probably wouldn’t say my honesty to some people,” she says. For 12-year-old Mackenzie, she seems to unknowingly grasp the age-old lesson: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But, to be honest, not everybody online follows that same rule.

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Leah Sottile is a writer based in Spokane, Washington.

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