Sunday, August 29, 2010

Facebook, Twitter, Myspace... Oh My!

Ok, us old people have accepted the media is here to stay. But those of us who have ventured into the wild and wacky world of social media posts are always amazed at just what people will post on such a public venue! Some people post details about an affair.. do they think the spouse they are cheating on suddenly has forgotten how to read? Or how about posting those really stupid and not too flattering photos from that weekend spent in a drunken haze? Just what is it about social media that renders  seemingly intelligent people devoid of common sense and sensibility? Much of it has to do with something called online dis inhibition. This is the very strange thing that happens when people are on line.. they suddenly think conventional laws of the universe don't apply. When logged on people tend to feel much less inhibited by social conventions. There is no person sitting right in front of you and no eye to eye contact. John Suler, an Internet psychologist, wrote about 6 characteristics of the Internet that lead to radical changes in what we do online.
 The first characteristic is Anonymity.  For whatever reason, people feel they can not as easily be identified online as they can be in person. The Internet allows them to change who they are right down to their sex. The ability to completely divorce yourself from the real you, allows you to act and speak in a totally different way. Some people even consider their online behaviors arise from their alter ego or who they wish they could be. The truth is people are much more easily identified online than in real life. It is easy to tell who you are and where you are by the info you post. The grocery store you frequent, how you drive to work, and the make and model of your car. We are very easily traced by what we do and say. Type your own name into many clicks before you find the real you?

Invisibility is the next characteristic. We don't have to work about what we look like and what emotional signals we send through facial expressions.  This actually is one of the few positives we will talk about here. Support groups online rely on this to allow participants to disclose things they may not be comfortable doing in a real life support group. No disapproving glances, no smirks. This works beautifully as long as the participants privacy is maintained.

Next comes start/stop communication. Face to face , we see the impact of our words very quickly. People find it difficult to hide how they feel about something you have said or done if you are right in front of them. Online, there is no such feedback loop. We post something a thought or a question and it may take 24 hours for a response. Perhaps the person we meant it for never reads it at all. This is potential trouble. There are people called "Internet Trolls" who post to discussion groups and other online groups with the full intent of stirring up controversy. They are experts in the art of emotional hit and run.  Some people genuinely do have difficulty communicating in a face to face manner. These folks can become very eloquent and polite when online. The majority of the world falls somewhere in the middle. Without the feedback loop of real life conversations, there are many breakdowns in communications. Friendly pokes at pokes at someone can be easily misunderstood and interactions become treacherous.

This one may sound a little off to you...voices in your head.  Women will probably understander this immediately as we tend to have running conversations in our heads 24/7. Just the act of you reading the words I have typed here can create a surprisingly intimate connection! Do any of you consider you know me by reading what I write here, or on Twitter or Facebook?  What I saw here as you read it and the voice in your head becomes mine, will it blend with your own internal monologue? Posts are much more informally written than a novel or article. I write the way I talk. So what you are getting here is basically a living letter, with all the implied intimacies of  a Dear John or a love letter.

The world we are involved in online is not real. It is totally imaginary.  The anonymity, invisibility and fantasy elements of online activities encourages us to think that the usual rules do not apply here. We are who we want to be both good and bad. How many of you are involved in online gaming? Do you have a gamers identity? Remember Second Life? That game allowed you to design and build your own avatar, have a job, have a family, have sex, get paid, build a home and furnish it.  The avatars were very lifelike and you controlled what they did and to whom.  When life is a game and all that implies, we are able to create complete worlds and then dismiss then with  the click of a mouse. Very heady stuff.

No police completes the final fantasy. Everyone fears punishment and disapproval. Imagine a world where there are no authority or or police. Of course there are people with authority online, but it very difficult to tell who they might be. There is no government for the Internet and  no one person is the ultimate authority, so people feel freer online, away from authority, social convention and conformity. Police exist online as they do in the real world  because they exists in all of us. Our morale compass compels us to act in accordance with our culture. But what of the groups of people who have no morale compass? A person who lacks a conscience is a dangerous person on the unlimited boundaries of the Internet.

The Internet is a relatively fresh tool that undoubtedly will bring us many more wonderful and exciting experiences. We just need to remember the niceties and social expectations of the old fashioned world have not made it into the ether's of the Internet. Perhaps it will in the future, but until it does, we need to be sure to remind ourselves that what we say and do, even f never spoken face to face to another human being has an impact. We need to always remember this and try to be one of the undesignated police of the Internet.

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