There is a meme going around, supported by some psychological experts, that the Internet has unleashed a torrent of disinhibition. This means that people are not taking the time to consider what they are doing or why they are doing it on the Internet.
The more staunch critics seem to think it’s the Internet’s fault that people behave in a rash, stupid, cruel or destructive manner. Some of this came up in a discussion on the Tricycle blog a little while back in a post called Why We Fight Online.
There is one article that outlines a whole lot of effects attributed to the Internet, on-line spaces and social media. The author John Suler writes in The Online Disinhibition Effect:
It’s well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world.
This little piece of folk wisdom, aka assumption, underlies much of the criticism of the Internet. It is my contention that what appears on the Internet is not much different than what happens in real life. The only factor that makes it more visible is that it is recorded in some manner.
So let me give you some of those recordings of real life situations to illustrate. The people involved were definitely not on the Internet and mostly did not know they were being recorded in these public places. There are tens of thousands of this kind of video. The disinhibition displayed is not Internet related.
There are signs in the buses in Vancouver, for example, which state that people will be removed from the bus for disruption which includes “No foul, insulting, abusive, or inappropriate language.”, spitting or disorderly conduct. Their complete list of rules and regulations is here. These buses are now equipped with cameras which capture the numerous incidents.
If such situations were not fairly common there would not be much reason to come up with codified rules and penalties and legislation to back them up.
How many times has someone given the finger to others on the freeway? Or engaged in other forms of road rage?
The incidents in classrooms are numerous and serious.
Sports is a catalyst for competitive disinhibition.
Hard to say who is disinhibited here. The anonymity of police uniforms, as well as the confusion of some of the people caught in a situation which they do not seem to understand and the tension caused by the security situation of the G20 conference are all contributing factors.
The point is that increasing disinhibition is a global phenomenon, prompted in some cases by the anonymity of crowds in general, and may be possibly influenced by media as a whole but it is just as likely to be influenced by local situations and people’s own confusion in those situations. To make grandiose claims that the Internet in and of itself has such effects is a very limited viewpoint and doesn’t take into account what people are actually doing on a day to day basis.
Disinhibition is hardly a new thing. There have historically been periods of more or less disinhibition. The 1920s had quite a disinhibited culture possibly as a reaction to the Victorianism of previous decades and the current situation came to the fore in the 1960s. Woodstock, Altamont, Vietnam, Kent State, civil rights movement, the Weathermen, radical academia, Hippies and Yippies all contributed to the larger Zeitgeist. And later movements and events in music, society and due to geo-political and economic situations added to this. That might include, just randomly, televised wars, the fall of the Berlin Wall, punk, domestic terrorism (Red Brigade, FLQ, IRA, etc.), sexual liberation, paparazzi, post-modern philosophy, hip-hop, Glasnost, the Lewinski-Clinton scandal, reactions to the stringency of Reagan and Thatcher, increasing globalization as well as the much later popularization of the Internet.
People have been throwing off social constraints over the past 5 decades. And conversely there have been reactions to the insecurity this has wrought among the more staid types of individuals and groups. This appears in the form of Moral Majority, increasing fundamentalism, over-legislation, censorship and other ways that the power brokers within the status quo (the term itself is a contradiction since nothing stays the same) establishment attempt to stifle change and disinhibition which is a characteristic of that change.
The main thing the Internet is doing is documenting what is going on in many people’s lives. If one has the luxury of not encountering such behavior on a regular basis then quite likely it may appear that the Internet is sometimes a wild place. Some even posit that cyberspace is something we are creating, as if it were something made from nothing. A creation with no origins. Those origins are in the off-line world. The world is a wild place and that realization may be brought to bear on the sheltered via the Internet but the Internet itself is not the cause.
The Internet may be contributing to the speed of change and it may be documenting change but it seems too often to be the scapegoat in the explanations for change, particularly behavioral change, itself.
We have to make some peace with our technology and look a lot deeper than that.
While I was taking a walk after writing this another thought occurred. There is an awful lot of hope and faith placed upon technology and science. The notion that somehow technology is a signifier of civilization, progress and advancement prevails. It is socially evolutionary. It is the future, here today. It is the next leap forward. Another giant step for mankind. Along with that is the assumption that somehow users of this technology and those knowledgeable and particularly trained in science have cornered the market on rational progressive behavior. There is a view that the Internet is supposed to be one of the greatest achievements of civilization. Users of the Internet are expected by many to tailor their behavior to fit into that delusional paradigm despite the context in which they happen to live outside of that. Cyberspace as holy ground for rationality and the evolved silicon-superman, the uber-cybermensch. Seems McLuhan wasn’t far off when he talked about the medium being the message. This medium, to which so many dreams, assumptions, delusions, expectations are pinned is shaping the message, but that message is only a distorted mirror constructed by the actuality of the users in their attempts to rebel against or escape from what passes for reality off-screen. [There will be more on this in an upcoming post.]
U2-With or Without You