How Do You Behave Online?

How many of us can truly say that we are utterly honest online? For those of you who can remember, the birth of AOL chat rooms and AIM instant messenger somewhat set the ball rolling in how to fabricate an online identity.

The now archaic question of “A/S/L (Age/Sex/Location)” gave us pause as we struggled to decide which answer to fill those blanks in with. In creating our online personalities we can all agree that we may have once (or twice, or multiple times) fudged the facts to pump up our age to seem older; change our actual location so as not to admit that we may have lived in a boring town; or, for some, live as the gender of our choosing.

Fast forward to present day: Myspace, Facebook and various other social media platforms allow us to continue to cut-and-paste our ideal images. This behavior is not always a dangerous one, but in the scariest of cases, it can lead to one losing a sense of reality.

After reading John Suler’s article on the Online Disinhibition Effect, his breakdown of the factors that contribute to the symptoms are ones that come into play in how we portray ourselves on the Web. In making the distinction between what is considered harmful versus harmless online behavior, we must first look at the signs.

Disinhibition: Benign vs. Toxic

Harmless, or benign, disinhibition drives people to share suppressed emotions, fears, and wishes; unusual acts of kindness and generosity, or go out of their way to help others. These acts can’t be deemed as hurtful to themselves or others and are often looked at as signs of an outgoing and bubbly online personality.

Harmful, or toxic, disinhibition on the other hand drives people to be rude, critical, angry, hateful, and threatening, or they visit places of perversion, crime, and violence – territory, Suler says, they “would never explore in the ‘real’ world.” Whether online disinhibition is benign, toxic, or a compromise formation of the two, several factors account for this loosening of the repressive barriers against underlying fantasies, needs, and affect.

Dissociative Anonymity: Hiding Behind Yourself

Another component of the O.D.E. is the hiding of your identity either partially or completely. Usernames and e-mail addresses may be visible; this information keeps a person’s true identity hidden to a degree. Usernames are often plays off of nicknames or may contain our real names but in reality others know only what we tell them.

When one’s anonymity becomes the norm for his/her online behavior this act often leads to a detachment. When people have the opportunity to detach their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing or acting out. They don’t have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of an integrated online or offline identity.

Invisibility: How a Lack of Face-to-Face Contact Keeps You (and Others) in the Dark

In many online environments people cannot see each other. Others may not even be aware of one’s presence at all. This invisibility gives people the courage to go places and act in ways that they otherwise would not. Online anonymity can also stunt interpersonal interaction and although this power to be concealed overlaps with anonymity, there are some important differences. In the text communication of e-mail, chat, instant messaging, and blogs, people may know a great deal about each other’s identities and lives. However, they still cannot see or hear each other. Even with everyone’s identity known, physical invisibility may create the disinhibition effect.

Asynchronicity: Delayed Responses Can Cause Confusion

In many online environments, communication is asynchronous. People do not interact with each other in the same moments of time. They may take minutes, hours, days, or even months to reply. Not having to cope with someone’s immediate reaction tends to disinhibit people. In e-mail, message boards, and blogs, where there are delays in that feedback, free association sets in and bypasses defenses. Some people may even experience asynchronous communication as “running away” after posting a message that feels overly personal, emotional, or hostile. A person feels safe putting it “out there” where it can be left behind quickly.

Solipsistic Introjection: Feeling Like You’re Talking to Yourself

Communication via text without face-to-face cues can alter self-boundaries. People may sense that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. One may not know what the other person’s voice actually sounds like, so in one’s mind, often unconsciously, a voice and visual image is assigned to that person.

Dissociative Imagination: When the Cyberworld Becomes the “Real” World

Bitstrips. Photo Courtesy of Crunchbase.com
Bitstrips Avatar Page. Photo Courtesy of Crunchbase.com

Combining the opportunity to easily dissociate from what happens online with the intrapsychic process of creating internalized characters, a somewhat different process emerges to magnify disinhibition. Consciously or unconsciously, people may feel that the imaginary characters they “created” in cyberspace exist in a different space. The blurred line between “make-believe” and reality can do harm as some people see their online life as a kind of game with rules and norms that do not apply to everyday living. Once they get up from the keyboard and return to their daily routine, they believe they leave that game and persona behind.

Attenuated Status and Authority: Where One Can Live as Big as Their Ego

Online a person’s position in the face-to-face world may be unknown to others or may bear less impact. Authority figures express status in their dress, body language, and the embellishments of their setting. The absence of those cues in the text environments of cyberspace reduces the impact of their authority. Although one’s identity in the outside world ultimately may shape power in cyberspace, what mostly determines the influence on others is one’s skill in communicating (especially writing skills), persistence, the quality of one’s ideas, and technical knowledge.

Individual Differences: Your Personality Determines Your Level of Disinhibition

Individual differences play an important role in determining when and how people become disinhibited. For example, the intensity of underlying drives affects one’s susceptibility. Personality types vary greatly in the strength of reality testing, defense mechanisms, and tendencies towards inhibition or expression. People with histrionic styles tend to be very open and emotional; compulsive personalities show more restraint; schizotypal individuals are more prone to fantasy.

Ultimately, one’s developmental level in object relations will determine the susceptibility to the experience of merging with the online other. The online disinhibition effect interact with these personality variables, in some cases resulting in a small deviation from the person’s baseline behavior, while in other cases causing dramatic changes.

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