The online disinhibition effect

On a quest to find out how the technologies we use change and shape our character and values, I stumbled across an interesting theory. It is known as the online disinhibition effect and it involves the social restrictions we have in a normal face-to-face environment and how they can tend to get thrown out the window online. It is a known cause of many problems with the internet such as cyber bullying and trolling, but I believe it also relates deeply to other aspects such as piracy and fraud. I was looking into whether or not people able to compartmentalize and become “different people” when working in a digital rather than physical space and I believe the online disinhibition effect gave me exactly what I was looking for. The idea that we have a form of  dissociative anonymity on the web means that people don’t feel threatened with the consequences of their actions . This points mainly to trolling on message boards but also can be applied to our more questionable decisions. Can I really be punished if nobody knows I did it? This question applies to real life as well as the internet and my thought is no. An unnoticed crime wouldn’t be punished in real life unless you turned yourself in from guilt and many believe this attributes to why people feel comfortable doing illegal things online. Apparently a lot of people don’t realize how easy it is to track you down over the internet thus they feel comfortable behind their screens saying and doing whatever they please. John Suler speaks to this in his article “The Online Disinhibition Effect” where he goes into great detail about the many aspects of what being anonymous does to people from a psychological standpoint. In fact his article does a great job of linking my two inquiry questions: Are people able to compartmentalize and become “different people” when working in a digital rather than physical space, and in what ways does being anonymous make us feel safe about making ethically questionable decisions that I feel I need to search for a new question. For the time being however I want to delve deeper into how anonymity affects us.

It doesn’t seem to be a topic of debate that being anonymous changes the way we behave. The psychology community appears to unanimously agree that something changes when we get the freedom to not be ourselves. Popular theories relating to group dynamics such as Group Polarization relate partly to our ability to de-individualize ourselves in large groups. When you apply this to the internet and see groups as message boards or communities it makes sense that people are able to say things beyond normal logic. Add to that the fact that many feel completely anonymous and its no wonder there is such a trolling problem online. Trolling, for those who do not know, is making a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them. As it so happens trolls are prime examples of decent people compartmentalizing themselves in an online space. Maria Konnikova addresses anonymous commenting in her article for the Newyorker “The Psychology of Online Comments” where she notes that the internet isn’t the first time we see these actions but it increased the rate of them alarmingly. I think there is a lot to be said about the “freedom” the internet offers and with that freedom come great responsibility and it will take a lot more scientific studies before a definite conclusion is reached. In the mean time I will collect the current information we have and try to make sense of what is happening in the society that is the internet.

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