Sometime last year, I wrote about the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory in the context of John Suler’s online disinhibition effect thesis. Today, there is growing interest in adding the conceptual form of Internet addiction in DSM-V, mostly because of real social problems brought about by translations of real-world behavior online.
The sociologist William Isaac Thomas, in his statement on the definition of the situation, sets it out clearly: if people define their situations as real, they are real in their consequences. For the longest time, we’ve considered the “online universe” as something disjoint from society: in reality, all our actions online, no matter how anonymous, have a direct effect on our offline lives when it has a consequence.
I’m not a practicing social scientist (although I make a science out of social media every now and then), but I know enough of psychology to say that deviance should apply to the Internet. Some people simply cannot control themselves; it is the task of socialization and social interaction to make sure that people toe the line in society, that any nonconformity with social norms, rules, and guidelines are not taken lightly.
This is where danah boyd makes a rather convincing case about socialization practices in social networks. It is not networking that takes place (i.e., following people on Twitter), but creating a presence on the network to socialize. We all exist in trusted networks: for example, my Plurk is a trusted space for me. Therefore, some degree of control is executed there: I don’t take too lightly on people leaking out private Plurks or Twitter DMs.
Again, boyd makes a clear elaboration on an mistake some of us make when we study social media. It’s not completely anarchical: people always exert some measure of control of what they say. Privacy is NOT dead because of some degree of searchability or the “permanence of things online;” rather, in my view, privacy is put out of context in increasing modes of mutual surveillance online. The increasing de-contextualization of text and conversation creates that illusion that everyone behaves in the same way, every experience is similar, and everything has the same meaning. While we create the conversations among ourselves, we also watch those conversations independently of making them.
The problem – and this is where online disinhibition and all-around Internet asshole-dom takes place – is when behavior and conversations on the Web are de-contextualized. Since we take everything on face value, the regard we have for things like context – the why’s of these conversations and behaviors – are taken aside, and the text is taken as is, extending the medium beyond just conversation and into surveillance
Granted that all of us are in control of stupid things we say online, but the aptitude needed to establish social media controls exists not in the network, but in very real, tangible, perceptible social environs. Whether it’s Tweeting while having dinner or mobile Facebooking in the privacy of your comfort room while doing your business, deviance online is a manifestation of deviance in the real world. The deviance that manifests itself in the medium is a reflection and a magnification of things that happen offline: a lack of good manners, the absence of breeding, or perhaps even oversights and lapses in what is said.
For me, the ubiquity of search and caching online has assimilated a great part of our offline lives into growing modes of surveillance. While we’re a long way towards 1984 and all that, I guess…
All of that is another story.