Image courtesy of Striatic
Have you ever entered a chatroom and found yourself sharing things (that you could never discuss face to face) with a bunch of strangers? Have you ever poured your soul out on your blog, writing about your deepest fears, most powerful dreams, or secret shames? Have you ever stayed up long into the night, chatting to people online – without even knowing their real names, ages, genders or anything about them?
You’re in good company; most other internet users have done the same. Online space acts as a disinhibitor; like alcohol, it encourages us to be more sociable and less wary than we would be normally.
“Cyberspace is a disinhibitor. … People from many cultures find that online they are more open, more chatty, less reticent than they are face-to-face or even on the telephone.” - Kate Fox, Watching the English (book), pg 226
If you’re a shy, reserved person, but find yourself opening up to the world online, this explains why. It can be a huge delight – but also a danger. Here’s how to make sure you avoid the problems that can arise from the lack of inhibitions you feel online – and how to make the most of it instead.
The Dangers of Disinhibition
Because cyberspace can seem unreal, separated from everyday life, it’s unfortunately all too easy to do things that you might later regret. Online communication may seem ephemeral, but emails, messenger conversations, blog and twitter posts can all be recorded – and easily shared.
With People You Already Know
When you find yourself sharing details with your colleagues by email that you’d not want to discuss at the water cooler, it’s time to stop and think before you hit “send”. It’s easy to disclose a bit too much in an email – and you may risk serious damage to your reputation if you speak your mind too freely. People have lost their jobs by sending inappropriate emails.
“We can all remember incidents of embarrassing e-mails that had been sent to one person and ended up going halfway around the world and being splashed across the newspapers. A study by Employment Review found that most organizations had to take action when employees sent inappropriate e-mails (76 per cent) or accessed inappropriate e-mails (68 per cent).” - How the Internet Can Get You Sacked
If your managers and boss are your “friends” on Facebook, you can’t be too over-cautious when you leave messages on their wall, or even when you update your own status. Mentioning your hangover and your illicit “duvet day” is probably not such a good idea…
“The actions of a call centre employee who was caught on Facebook bragging about “chucking a sickie” will be the subject of an internal investigation, after the scandal was revealed in the Daily Telegraph Online.” – Probe over call centre man’s Facebook sickie blooper
Be careful, too, about conversations with platonic friends. It’s easy for online chat to become flirty and silly; this can be harmless fun, but if you’re in a relationship already, steer well clear. Cyber-sex, or just cyber chat-up lines, might seem like no big deal, but it could be a devastating betrayal to your partner if s/he finds out.
Although you’re unlikely to risk losing your job or partner by getting overly familiar with strangers, you still need to be cautious. It’s easy to feel close to people very quickly online, especially if you meet through some shared interest (forums for your favorite webcomic, an online game, a blog, etc).
Be wary of forming attachments too quickly. People come and go a lot online, and someone who you chatted to every day for weeks may just vanish – they’ve lost interest in the forum you’re on, they’re busy in real life, they’ve taken up a new hobby. They may even have lied about their gender, age, job, marital status, or other details.
“A new study by researchers at Cornell University to be published in Proceedings of Computer/Human Interaction has found that online daters usually lie about either their height or weight but less often misrepresent their age. Men systematically overestimated their height, while women more commonly underestimated their weight.” - Lying for Love Online
You often can’t trust what people tell you online. Here’s a not-so-pleasant scenario: you strike up a friendship with someone who says she’s a single mum with two kids, trying to get back into education. You chat for a few days, she shares her goals and dreams with you, and you offer what advice you can. Then she asks, hesitantly, whether you might be able to lend her some money … she tells you she hates having to even ask, but she’s desperate. She can barely put food on the table.
Now, you might well be skeptical about her claims, but a lot of people would be taken in. I’m certainly not suggesting that you don’t form friendships online, and my rule of thumb is to simply take people at face value – but do be a little cautious about people preying on your good nature.
The Delights of Disinhibition
After all the gloomy scenarios above, you might want to become an internet lurker, reading forums and blogs, but never interacting with anyone. There are, though, lots of advantages to feeling a lack of inhibitions. If you’re shy, the internet may be a place where you feel free to “be yourself” for the first time.
With People You Already Know
In my last job, when the small group of us in my team decided to use Twitter, I felt like I knew more about my colleagues than I’d learned in months. We did have msn for internal communication, but Twitter had a different effect: people would write about how they were feeling and what they were thinking about. It was a fun way to stay in touch with what mattered in my colleagues’ lives (and to realize that I wasn’t the only one who probably had things other than work on my mind, most of the time…)
“Immediate, real-time feedback from others tends to have a very powerful effect on the ongoing flow of how much people reveal about themselves. In e-mail and message boards, where there are delays in that feedback, people’s train of thought may progress more steadily and quickly towards deeper expressions of what they are thinking and feeling.”- Psychology of Cyberspace – The Online Disinhibition Effect
You might find that you’re able to put thoughts into an email that you’d struggle to say face-to-face. An email doesn’t seem nearly so formal as a letter, so could be an ideal way to communicate with a difficult friend – perhaps someone who you struggle to talk openly with because of his/her anger or confrontational personality.
Reading people’s blogs can be a huge insight into what matters to them. I’m always fascinated by reading family members’ writings: you might realize you have more in common with a sibling or cousin than you previously thought. It’s odd but true that sometimes we find it easier to share our deepest hopes and secret dreams with strangers rather than family.
So, what about those online strangers? There are millions of internet users out there who you don’t know – and feeling less inhibited online can help you to make connections. Friendships can blossom quickly over the internet: just a few emails back and forth is often enough to start off a strong bond.
Many of us introverts find it difficult to go up to people at a party, or in a coffee shop or bar and start a conversation. The online world can make things much easier; commenting on a blog or posting on Twitter isn’t nearly so scary as greeting a complete stranger in public.
“Just as we abandon the conventional rules of spelling and grammar in our emails and other cyber-talk, so we ignore the social inhibitions and restrictions that normally govern our behaviour.” - Kate Fox, Watching the English (book), pg 226
The internet can be a huge help if you live in an isolated situation – whether geographically, or by nature of the people around you (i.e. if you feel you don’t have anyone to discuss “things that matter” with). However outlandish your interests, there’ll be websites, forums, blogs and chatrooms devoted to them: the internet is a great way to find likeminded people.
A few guidelines
In summing up, I’d like to offer a few guidelines to using the internet disinhibition effect to your advantage, rather than letting it cause problems for you.
- Be very cautious about putting confidential or personal “real life” details in round-robin emails. (You don’t need to tell your entire company about that amazing girl/guy you pulled last night.)
- If you’re in a relationship, avoid “flirty” online conversations full-stop. It might seem completely harmless, but it’s not: it’s very easy to take things further than you mean to, and many people log messenger conversations.
- Connect with “real-life” friends online, and use the internet to stay in casual contact with them. You might find out that they have goals and dreams that are in alignment with your own.
- Look for websites, forums and other “places” online where people with the same interests as you gather. Even if no-one in your small home town shares your passion for obscure comic books, there’ll be plenty of people on the internet who do.
Have you ever run into dangers – or delights – because of the online disinhibition effect? It would be great to hear some of your experiences in the comments!
Written by Ali, who runs the blog Alpha Student: helping students get the most out of university.