The psychologist John Suler calls it the “online disinhibition effect,” but I’d rather call it what it’s supposed to be called: The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. In many ways, it’s true: whatever normalizes the psyche breaks down because the sense of identity is not very well-articulated online. After all, it’s just text and images: the mode and method of articulation is limited to what can be used, and what is understood. In the words of Deleuze and Guattari: the paranoid body-without-organs. In short, “fuckwad.”
The Internet is like Nietzsche’s abyss: you look long enough into it, you become it. Cyberspace becomes the interpersonal Disneyland, so much so that personas, personalities, and avatars developed in it could become as real as “real” could be, even if they’re not real. It becomes a repository of things and relationships we find in physical society. It is true, what William Isaac Thomas said, that when people define their situations as real, they are real in their consequences.
On the one hand, the ability to create a virtual self (a persona) bypasses responsibilities and exigencies required of people in real world situations: there is no need to talk real-time, there is no need to be visible in the real world, and real-world cues and such need only be projected into online space. Yet those things that make dissociation possible – and yes, even fun – can highlight and underscore things that would be considered social ineptitude in the real world. It’s like being Little Mister Internet, or Little Miss Internet; the fuckwad being made possible by that anonymity taking over one’s personality.
Suler summarizes the disinhibition effect in factors that interplay with each other, amplifying the effect:
- Dissociation. No one knows who you are, so much of the interaction is anonymous.
- Invisibility. No one knows where you are, so much of the interaction is mediated.
- Asynchronicity. Everything is delayed, so the game – or the protocol – is to wait.
- Introjection. Everything is projected, so you make new characters with voices in your head.
- Dream world. Read: “it’s my blog, so I can write whatever the hell I want.”
- Breaking barriers. Status and respect break down because of the freewheeling nature of the Web.
It’s not my business to tell what other people should do with their lives, and it certainly isn’t my business to preach. Many people are perfectly comfortable with their lives defined by Internet usage and yes, Internet drama. Some people like proclaiming fandom to particular sites, and to a certain extent (certainly applicable to me) the personalities of some people change because of the Internet. It all boils down to a definition of the situation: how real is real? Where do we draw the line between what’s acceptable on the Internet, but not acceptable in society, if there is such a thing? What is ethical? What is acceptable?
On many different levels, disinhibition is a sign of social ineptitude. It shouldn’t even be; rather, it should be a wake-up call for us to take control of avatars, personas, brands, and whatever, to ensure that reality takes primacy and precedence over the figments of our own imagination.
That would make a terribly long entry.
I guess it’s very important for us to put things in their little boxes, that we don’t have two different selves, so ethical behavior offline should apply to ethical behavior online. When we expect someone to be of credence, we expect them to break the veneer of mystery when necessary, where necessary, and that necessity happens all the time. In short, it’s better to be an imperfect person than to be a total fuckwad.