Most of us know someone who has said something they shouldn’t online or revealed a little too much, whether verbally or visually! We’ve heard the stories about people who have been fired because of things they have shared online (read more on that here) so why do some users continue to share too much?
Well, there is something known as the… Online Disinhibition Effect.
Suler (2004) identifies 6 key reasons why internet users may disclose too much information and/or act in a way that they would not otherwise do, e.g., by displaying more intense emotion. Suler proposes that the 6 factors of online disinhibition are:
The online environment can be similar to wearing a mask at a masquarade ball, it often gives the wearer an additional ‘confidence’ that they may not have had without it. The mask provides an opportunity for the individual to dissociate themselves from their offline identity and allows them to act in ways they may not otherwise be comfortable doing. Suler suggests that individuals may feel no need to account for their online behaviours as they simply regard it as “not being really me” (this could perhaps explain some malicious or deviant behaviours such as trolling).
Note: – Clearly, some online environments are more grounded in reality that others, and this is especially true in the years since Suler wrote his article. For example, a Facebook profile is largely tied to a user’s offline identity and they are connected to their offline friends, making anonymity difficult and ensuring that the users behaviour is more inkeeping with their offline persona. However, there is still the opportunity to elaborate or embellish upon life events etc as the Facebook profile depends largely upon what the user uploads, e.g., statuses and photos, so this still allows for a little creativity and image control in relation to the type of persona the individual may like to portray.
Being ‘invisible’ online means that users can express sentiments and opinions, and share life events, without worrying about their tone of voice or their facial expressions as they say these things and/or how the person they are ‘talking’ to receives the news. This may make users more likely to share upsetting or controversial material, e.g., if they are sharing a traumatic event they can do so without worrying that they will start to cry. Likewise, if they are voicing a controversial opinion they do not have to worry about the immediate anger or disgust that they may receive if they expressed this with someone face-to-face.
Online communication is asynchronous, i.e., it is not in real time. Unlike a face to face conversation, there is time for the user to think about what they say and how they respond to the reaction it may receive. They can post a message and decide when they will look at the responses, or whether to even look at them at all (perhaps they just want to get their message across and ignore the consequences altogether). Not having to cope with someone’s immediate reaction can make people more disinhibited and therefore more likely to act in a manner that they would not usually do. Social norms (i.e., what is socially accepted and/or expected) may be weakened when communication is asynchronous.
4 & 5. SOLIPSISTIC INTROJECTION & DISSOCIATIVE IMAGINATION
This refers to the online world becoming part of an imaginary world inside our heads. Suler proposes that some users may see the online world as fantasy and outside of the boundaries of the real world (including what is, and is not, socially acceptable). Internet users may read the information on websites or social media sites in the same way that they would read a novel, imagining the characters within the head and creating a fantasy world within their mind (Solipsistic Introjection). The problem with this is that individuals will often behave differently within their imagination, e.g., they may imagine telling their boss exactly what they think of him/her after a particularly bad day but they would not dream of doing this in the real world. Suler suggests that the online world can become intwinned with a users imagination and fantasy and this can lead to disinhibition, “Cyberspace may become a stage, and we are merely players”.
Further problems can occur when the individual regards the online and offline environments as completely distinct (Dissociative Imagination), i.e., they feel that their online behaviour has no impact or consequence upon their offline behaviour (and as such their offline morals and perceived social norms do not apply). However, in reality our online behaviour can often influence our offline world.
6. MINIMISATION OF AUTHORITY
Online there is often no obvious authority presence. Although there may be moderators, these often lack the authority of offline equivalents, e.g., the police. Offline authority figures often express their status and power through their uniform/dress, body language or setting. In the online world none of these cues exist. Users may also feel that it is more difficult for authority to ‘punish’ them for any unacceptable behaviour. Furthermore, as ‘punishments’ may be a text based reprimand and/or removal of the offensive material, users often do not respect online authority. Online authority figures also seem more like peers (i.e., everyone feels like an equal) rather than superiors – this could make users more likely to engage in inappropriate behaviour.
Of course, this is just one view on why some users may share too much online. There are countless other possibilities out there…
There is also much debate on whether this online disinhibition represents users revealing their true selves, i.e., the person they would be without social norms and expectations keeping their behaviour in check, or whether their online persona is completely distinct to their offline persona and does not portray their true self in any way but is merely a consequence of the environment and/or identity experimentation (Suler touches on this towards the end of his paper).
What do you think? Do you feel less inhibited online? Or do you actually feel more inhibited? Have you ever revealed too much online?