What is a kind word worth?

That’s the question that spurred the anonymous moderator of the Facebook group Greenwich Compliments to launch her page three years ago.

The 20-something finance worker, who posts on Facebook under a pseudonym to maintain her anonymity, chose to take action one day in 2013 after her hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut was rocked by the suicide of a 15-year-old boy after years of bullying.

A Polish immigrant with a thick accent and a little awkward as a 6-foot-3 high school sophomore, he was a favorite target for bullies at Greenwich High School.

Before his death, the teen had made several posts on social media threatening to kill himself.

After hearing of the teen’s struggle, the founder of Greenwich Compliments wondered — how would things have gone if he’d found compassion for his feelings online?

“I have this idea that people plant a seed,” she said. “You say this one thing on someone’s timeline and someone makes a similar comment and that seed can blossom into a big problem. If you water that idea through comments and likes, even if it’s not meant negatively, you’ll fixate and you become convinced it’s true.”

Greenwich Compliments aims to use that idea for good — to plant “seeds” of positivity with anonymous kind words and compliments to people in Greenwich through Facebook, as evidenced by the viewable compliments on the page:

Courtney Riddle please don’t ever forget how much you mean to me

Hope Chilton you make me so happy it’s incredible

Kenny Romaine you inspire me every time I see you

There’s some evidence to support the value of being positive online. A 2014 Cornell University study found that negative experiences or exposure lead to more negative content online and led users to engage in negative online behaviors. Another study published in 2008 in BMJ, a British medical journal, found that positive content, like heartwarming pet videos, has a “contagion” effect online and often go viral.

In a time when anonymity is more often associated with online trolling and cyberbullying and social media is increasingly linked to downsides like depression and other mental health issues, using social media for positive change is a groundbreaking idea — and an idea that’s becoming more popular as other groups champion it.

“Students flock to places of online positivity because we’re sick of seeing so much negativity in the world anytime we log onto the internet,” said Anthony Saltarelli, a 20-year-old computer science student at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts and the founder of positivity app Chin Up. “Small acts of kindness do go a long way — it’s easy to forget that. We’re just harnessing the power of positivity.”

‘Noble’ anonymity

While online anonymity is usually associated with negative behavior like cyberbullying and trolling, it's also an essential for positivity sites.

Anonymity feeds into vicious online behavior through a theory social scientists call “deindividuation,” or the tendency to behave immorally in a collective atmosphere. It’s believed anonymity makes people more likely to go along with this group behavior.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, said social media is the ultimate venue for deindividuation, especially when some platforms like Twitter allow for anonymous accounts and do little to promote accountability for inflammatory content.

“I don’t think there’s sufficient evidence to claim that there’s more bullying or deviant behavior online,” Simon-Thomas said. “But there is more anonymity, which has long been associated with a willingness to behave less in tune with your moral standards.”

This begs the question: If anonymity is typically associated with amoral behavior, why do positivity services rely on it?

The answer is similar to why internet trolls use anonymity — it frees people of their inhibitions. Saltarelli said positivity sites also use anonymity to focus on others.

“People on social media are just posting about themselves, trying to build up their presence online,” said Saltarelli. “Chin Up is unique in that your identity is never revealed and you’re only posting about other people. It’s about spreading the positivity around instead of focusing on yourself.”

“It makes people think differently,” the moderator of Greenwich Compliments said. “It makes it easy to say things about people you wouldn’t say otherwise, people who you might not know very well, but you think might need it.”

Simon-Thomas says equating anonymity and altruism is a social norm in American culture.

“There’s a perception that there’s something superior about kindness that is anonymous vs. kindness that is seen,” Simon-Thomas said. “If you give away a million dollars and it’s anonymous, we think it’s somehow more virtuous.”

This idea of “noble” anonymity is also rooted in Western ideas about morality.

Jewish and Christian cultures both take a dim view of people being congratulated for their charitable behavior, as Mark Oppenheimer wrote for the New York Times’ Beliefs column.

“Medieval Jewish sage Maimonides wrote, it is best that the giver and receiver not know each other’s identities — in this way, the poor person’s dignity is preserved,” he argued in a 2013 column. “In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches that ‘when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets but rather ‘do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.’”

The Book of Acts also memorably teaches that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” meaning that offering compassion without the promise of reward is to emulate God.

Emotional range

Simon-Thomas recognizes the need for services like Greenwich Compliments and Chin Up, but she said the ideal solution isn’t to make the internet more positive or negative, but to have a better balance of emotional expression.

“Having a diverse emotional range that reflects authentic life experience is associated with well-being,” Simon-Thomas said. “I wouldn’t advocate for trying to make it all positive or negative because it’s going to be the most useful and health promoting when it reflects the emotional versatility of life.”

Some platforms are already trying to do this, like Facebook — Simon-Thomas helped the social media giant create its emoji reactions, an addition to the ubiquitous “like” button launched in 2015. She also worked with Facebook’s compassion team to refine the company’s content reporting tools, making scripted requests to take down objectionable content less confrontational and more nuanced.

Rather than complaining to Facebook directly, the new system offers users a prepared message to send when someone posts something unflattering or hurtful, using language that makes the users feel empathy for one another rather than inciting a conflict.

These changes may sound minuscule, but Simon-Thomas says they make users feel less defensive in their online exchanges because they better mimic how such a request would happen in real life. Being able to express one’s feelings clearly is also linked to better health because it reduces stress associated with extreme mood swings or emotional distress.

“There are a lot of data that show when I feel stressed out, mortified, or embarrassed by something happening on Facebook, that activates old parts of the brain, like the amygdala,” Greater Good Science Center founding director Dacher Keltner said in a presentation in 2012 at Facebook. “The minute I put that into words, in precise terms, the prefrontal cortex takes over and quiets the stress-related physiology.”

If online interactions became more balanced to move beyond “positive” and “negative,” the need for anonymity may fall away as well, which could make confronting negative comments and bullying easier.

“If we can enhance our expression toward our honest or vulnerable moments online, that’s valuable,” Simon-Thomas said. “The blatant hostility we see online isn’t that far afield from what we see in real life. It’s better in either setting if we can address it and confront it constructively.”

A better mode of emotional expression online would be a welcome change for Saltarelli and the founder of Greenwich Compliments. Until that happens, they’re happy to provide a venue where the only currency is kind words and the payment is a few minutes of unexpected happiness for someone who might need it.

“Compliments aren’t big enough to change lives, but it might be enough for a smile. That’s why I do it — the little moments that make somebody smile,” the moderator of Greenwich Compliments said. “I like to think those small moments matter.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson