Disinhibition With or Without the Internet

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.]

Musical Accompaniment

U2-With or Without You

12 comments on “Disinhibition With or Without the Internet

  1. Yeah, how about the later period of the Roman Empire? I honestly think the whole internet is allowing more “bad behavior” argument is absolute bullshit.

  2. Interested persons should get and read The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley. He examined a ghastly case of alleged demon possession in a 17th century French convent—disinhibition that was massaged and fostered by a combination of cultural and religious assumptions and by a group of persons bent on vengeance.

    Huxley was haunted by both world wars, and wrote that whoremongers and moneygrubbers rarely have cause to feel proud of their activities, but only the most advanced practitioners of insight and meditation have ever understood the dangers of egotistical indulgence exercised at one remove for reasons of patriotism or to advance a political or religious ideology. People can do utterly hideous things to save humanity from itself, disinhibition rationalized by ideology.

    The Italian novelist Manzoni wrote, ‘Cries for mercy may possibly dissuade your enemy but will not dissuade a surgeon.’ (Manzoni, author of I Promissi Spozi/The Betrothed, wrote prior to the invention of surgical anesthesia, a time when surgeons had to numb themselves to the screams of those persons they operated upon.)

    Huxley has a second book, Grey Eminence, which is his biography of a 17th century French monk who ended up becoming foreign affairs advisor to Cardinal Richelieu–a man vowed to the Franciscan rule and who functioned in a role similar to that of Henry Kissenger–except this monk found religous cause to prolong a war because it seemed the best way to support a cause that monk considered holy–the augmentation of the French monarchy.

    Huxley wrote that this monk was personally humble, had seemingly renounced personal ego driven ambition. But–he satisfied all these afflictive emotions vicariously, not on his own behalf but by laboring on behalf of a Noble Cause.

    These are the less famous of Huxleys books, but they are more timely than ever before.

    The Devils of Loudon and Grey Eminence. Do all you can to get them and if you can, find a way to get them hard copy, because they are items you will read and re-read again and yet again.

    • That book was the basis of the movie The Devils (1971) with Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave directed by Ken Russell. It totally freaked me out when I saw it years later (I think it was actually rated X in my town when it first came out-like much of Russell’s work). I got a copy of the book after that. The movie was intellectually tame but more sexually oriented (as is Russell’s style) by comparison. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066993/

      “disinhibition rationalized by ideology”

      Both inhibition and disinhibition seem to be rationalized by ideology in any context.

  3. Perhaps the Internet just gives more opportunities for bad behavior. I’ve behaved badly on the Internet, when a debate turns into an argument turns ugly.

    However, I’ve also gotten this close to pouring my beer on a postmodernist in a debate that turned into an argument that turned ugly at a student pub.

    The difference is that on the Internet I can get into a debate about politics, religion, or philosophy at any time I choose, whereas in meatspace I have to physically go somewhere to find someone who’s willing to have that debate. Fewer opportunities for debate, fewer debates, fewer debates that turn into arguments, fewer arguments that turn ugly.

    But now that you mention it, I don’t think I’m much more, or less, of a bastard online than off, if you look at how I behave in any given situation. So, speaking only for myself, I think you’re right.

  4. “Should devout Christ Tards be allowed to have Children? Or interact with children..? I say NO.”

    “just a little reminder you’re all batshit crazy!
    P.S. there is no god”

    It took me about 20 seconds to find these on a popular religious forum. I have to wonder if there was a discussion on religion happening in a local bookstore or bar, would some atheist walk in and just blurt this out in front of a group of believers?

    However, the fact remains that the person has these thoughts and intentions, whether or not they would choose to act on them face-to-face or not. So maybe it’s less about disinhibition, and more about the filters we choose to apply while online (or maybe that’s just an abstract version of disinhibition, I don’t know). The intention is there regardless.

    • Some people will inevitably take the opportunity even if it is not given to them.

      It seems that strangers do actually do this kind of thing in person on a regular basis. And even plan to do it. Outside of abortion clinics for example. Or groups like Fred Phelps’ who picket at soldiers funerals and berate the grieving. Or the recent Andrew Shirvill case where an assistant attorney general not only wrote an incendiary blog against some university student but went and picketed in front of his house, called him all kinds of names and was basically stalking him in Michigan. http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/09/28/michigan.justice.blog/index.html?hpt=C1

      There are probably lots of other cases like this but the news doesn’t usually cover that many.

      In person people may not be as articulate, if you want to call it that, and may just resort to general slurs. That’s happened to me more than a few times just generally. For example one time I was crossing the street and apparently blocking some assholes way as he was trying to turn. He started shouting “Move your ass bitch” and nearly hit me with his car. He and his friends laughed when I had to jump out of the way. These weren’t kids but guys in their 30s.

      It may be a different set of filters but I think the level to which one would be inclined to get involved would be similar.

      And if you notice with commenters there are a persistent few who do most of the damage. It’s not often generalized and there are always a bunch who jump in to try to keep the peace. It seems to be that those few generate so much noise that it appears like a hostile crowd has gathered.

      • “It seems that strangers do actually do this kind of thing in person on a regular basis.”

        Yes, this is true. This both amazes me and puts me in my place when I think about
        A) that people would actually do some of that shit
        B) that I am naive enough to believe people won’t do some of that shit sometimes and still get shocked at this type of behavior

        However, I’m still wondering about those people you see comment on blogs/forums/Huffpost/whatever. There is a large part of me that believes these people would never act that way in public, around strangers. Of course there really isn’t any way to tell, and I suppose I’m just going with my gut feeling on this.

        But I’m not immune from this either. I certainly put on different filters when I’m using the internet or talking to a family member or at work. It just appears to me that people seem to loose certain filters a bit more easily whilst on the interwebs.

        • Your comment got me thinking about things the other way around. What about those people who seem so kind and nice and understanding online (or in person too it they’re real good at it)? Rarely upset at anyone, knowledgeable, generous with their time, willing to answer anyone’s stupid questions. The picture of perfect peace. There’s a lot one can hide online should one choose to do so. And it can be a hella good way to manipulate people for both fun and profit. People in general, bless their hearts, are pretty good, slightly naive, often too trusting. Even so it’s one of the most endearing things about people, that willingness to be both open and trusting. I am not trying to come off as cynical but circumstances relieved me of that innocence quite some time back.

          That’s one of the reasons I tend to get suspicious about teachers online. I am sure there are more than a few putting up some kind of facade. (*cough*, Barry Graham, *cough*)

        • Oh I would totally agree there as well. Maybe they see it as their opportunity to be/project the person they’d really like to be, and use the Internet as their stage to play the part, hiding their true nature from everyone.

  5. In the middle ages and beyond, there was a term for the savagery with which mudslinging took place in the name of religion:

    ‘Odium theologicum’– the hatred between religous factions and theologians was so very great that this term became proverbial.


    If either of you has read Huxley’s The Devils, I heartily encourage obtaining and reading his less famous but very pertinent book, ‘Grey Eminence: A Study in Religion and Politics.

  6. i know i’m late to comment here but i really loved this blog post – people will always blame the tools they use instead of looking to their own behaviour… why should the internet be any different? And you know, Rock and Roll makes people worship the devil as well. (sigh)

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