Sometimes I look at the things that some of my friends and acquaintances posts on Facebook and I ask myself, “Why are they posting this?” Whether it be too personal, caustic, disturbing, inappropriate or just plain redundant, it makes me wonder how these thoughts, unfiltered; have originated from the same soft-spoken people I know in real life. I know these people to be thoughtful, intelligent and considerate individuals, so what gives?
Is there some kind of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” phenomenon that occurs as soon as we gaze into our screens? I have been guilty of the same. My index finger itching to hit send as soon as someone pisses me off on Facebook. But we cannot all have split personalities, so why does it seem so online? It reminds me so much of when I used to teach children and when I used to bartend because essentially, you’re dealing with the same kind of people: the uninhibited. Granted, children will not shout out curse words and make inappropriate remarks at you (well, some might) and inebriated men at a bar won’t pee their pants and burst into tears (again, some might). Though they both have absolutely no problem telling you what they think and act upon it. Such is not the case with most people in our day-to-day lives… until Social Media stepped in.
Now we have a whole new social and cultural paradigm to explore. The untamed digital frontier is at all of our fingertips and our inhibitions have not yet been developed well enough for this brave new realm of thought and communication. We can literally watch porn while reading an article on the Huff Post, while watching a web series on YouTube and chatting with your friends and family on Facebook, and all with the same machine. Was this even conceivable twenty or thirty years ago? I don’t think so. So it should come as no surprise that we are all very much in our infancy of social media etiquette.
Like infants, we are clumsily grasping at everything we find online. We sometimes naively confuse satire articles from The Onion as actual news and frantically re-post our outrage. Like belligerent drunks, we spill our personal problems, expose ourselves publically and engage in pointless and damaging arguments that we regret later when we come to our sobered senses. And then we ask ourselves, why did we do this? Why did they (others on social media) do this?
A more comprehensive look at the why’s of our duality in social media behavior and inhibition is explained in academic articles such as Dr. John Suler’s The Online Disinhibition Effect. In essence, he gives us insight on people’s self-disclosure online in comparison to that in face-to-face interaction with others. He has identified the following values that influence our online inhibitions such as, Dissociative Anonymity, Invisibility, Asynchronicity, Solipsistic Introjection, Dissociative Imagination, Individual Differences and Predispositions, Minimization of Status and Authority and Shifts among Intrapsychic Constellations.
To paraphrase, these values show us that we become uninhibited as a result of how we perceive the relationship between us and others online. We may disassociate ourselves from other perceived anonymous people online since to us, they are just an avatar or email, and not actual people in our physical presence. We may feel somewhat invisible in that we cannot be directly identified online therefore giving us more confidence to speak freely. We may imagine the responses of those online conversations in our heads and confidently respond to our own internalized conversations in our own time, possibly delivering a more uninhibited response. We do not see the facial and verbal cues online that we do in face-to-face interaction; hence our reactions to sarcasm, irony, wit and various social nuances can become misinterpreted. Responses to authority cues, such as dress attire and face-to-face presence are sometimes lost, allowing us to see everyone in a more evened-out communicative playing field. We may ultimately find it easier to let go of those every day defenses in a place where we have more control of certain parts of our personality.
Is this control perceived or real? I believe it is both. We ultimately decide what to make out of social media, but sometimes the effects of what we say and do are very real. I believe that like infants, we can grow. We can identify previous pitfalls in our own defensiveness, aggression, and reactionary behavior that have gotten us in trouble or have just annoyed others. It takes time. It takes patience and self-awareness, just like growing up. I believe that like drunks, we should know when to stop drinking and shut up. The way I like to look at interaction on social media (especially on Facebook) is, walk into it as if knowing you are already four drinks tipsy and are cautiously aware that anything you say now will be reminded upon you the next day when you are sober. Avoid the embarrassment. Ask yourself, “What am I getting out of this?” “Do I need to win this argument?” “Do I have to make this joke at the expense of this person?”
The better we become at monitoring our own social media behavior, the better we become at identifying those faux pas that annoy us in others and their own motivations and eventually, the more patient and understanding we become with those people because ultimately, they are learning too.
Suler, John, Ph.D (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior Volume 7, pages 321, 322, 323, 324,325,326.