Me, Myself and I

 |  April 1, 2009

Welcome to the internet personality explosion, where crippled orators are transformed into slick-wrist wordsmiths, where acutely shy teenage virgins bang on about tits, ass and pussy, and where BangkokBaz and NoExit99 are best of friends despite their disparity in age, background and wealth. Some beef up their personalities, some abandon rectitude and replace it with scathing hubris and arrogance, embellished of course, with a gutter spiel they would rarely utter in front of another person. There are also those who discover titillating pleasure in scatology cinema or wax tearful to anyone who will listen to them about their traumatic bedwetting days.

This is the age of the internet, where there are no hiding places, where the world’s dirty laundry is aired out in the open for anyone to see. With online friendships beginning to outnumber real life friendships and profiles usurping handshakes it seems we are living, partly, in a kind of unreal world, and in this world ‘you’ often assume an anonymous identity, or create a nom de plume. A negative consequence of this you might say, if you spend enough time reading forums or comments left for others at various sites (YouTube is particularly fractious), is very often a total lack of propriety, overt snobbery, caustic criticism, racial slurs, jingoism and general abuse. There are the voyeurs, the non-participating posters who engender no such negative traits, although you might question if BukkakeBoy’s compulsion to post 27 pornographic videos a day is salubrious to him or any of his 67,364 recipients. Who is now behind the wheel, under the mask of the moniker, if mal-communication, fetishism, violence is so often the modus operandi of the anonymous user? Are we not ourselves behind the silver screen? Are we all cyberdrunk?

All cyber-users are created equal

Professor John Suler, author, and professor of (internet) psychology explains that by ‘minimising authority’ we often engender a different personality, explaining that the face to face world is always influenced by status, wealth, race, and this determines the way we interact, “we start off on a level playing field in cyberspace,” says Suler, though he also admits that this can soon become quite un-level, depending on factors such as your writing skills or sense of humour. He writes about the change in our online personality. Suler calls it the ‘disinhibition effect’, explaining that this modern international idiosyncrasy is a ‘double edged sword’ being that there is both a ‘toxic disinhibition’ and a ‘benign disinhibtion’. The toxic encompasses such negative traits as hatred, threats, coldness, obsession with the darker aspects of pornography, violence. The benign disinhibtion is defined by people helping others, kindness, educating each other. Suler writes that disinhibition can be rewarding in the growth of an ulterior personality, another part of us we didn’t know existed, though he also states that what often occurs with anonymity is anger, blind catharsis, venting and being unsavoury.

“When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from the real world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up,” says Suler and adds, “they can’t be directly linked to the rest of their lives.” Though ironically he says, “They feel more authentic in those online relationships, and this becomes a viable lifestyle alternative.” He expands by saying that people on internet forums in fact often don’t associate their online character with themselves, this is called dissociation. There are many reasons for this change in personality, the feeling of detachment from the real world. Internet communication is asynchronous, this gap in time is less intimidating for some, by magically suspending time people feel free to say things they never usually would, sometimes insulting others or acting especially cold. Kali Munro, an online psychotherapist describes this as an ‘emotional hit and run’.

The unexamined cyber-life is not worth living

In French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre’s keyhole theory, a man looks at a woman undressing through a keyhole, he is completely focused on the woman, and then he hears something which makes him recompose himself, the noise being a reference point, he becomes self-conscious of his actions. Sartre believed there were different levels to what we call self, ‘I’ takes on an objective and subjective form, the ‘I’ for yourself and the ‘I’ for others.

Does cyberspace reveal your other self? In cyberspace we are continually looking through the keyhole, but how conscious are we of what we are doing, or rather, who we are? Suler explains that a shy person can express his love of a woman online and so has a chance to actually state his true feelings. Possibly a woman who has long repressed her anger finally lets vent online, the one outlet she can release the pent up tension. This can also work in the opposite way, some people face-to-face can be aggressive yet formal and polite when writing online; some are more taciturn online than they are in public. What is true is that most people do change in the two mediums, and to know this, to know ourselves, is of the greatest importance.

One downside to this are the negative consequences when anonymous writers decide to air barbarous, damaging or hurtful missives, when the internet is used as a weapon in a fight where the attacker has a cloak of invisibility. On, easily Thailand largest, and arguably best, internet forum community, daily posts might be littered with snobbery, bitterness, superciliousness, and even rage. ThaiVisa does have a stringent censorship policy, but what exactly should they censor? Hostility towards businesses or other posters is often left uncensored while intelligent social observations or political remarks are sometimes edited or disappeared. In a letter to The Nation in February a Chiang Mai resident blasted ThaiVisa for their lack of ‘freedom of speech’ saying that ThaiVisa’s “Brown shirts”, are “anything but impartial.” “The big rule is that no one can question the moderators’ decisions under any circumstances, and posters are often thrown off the site permanently for doing so,” said the writer. As with Thailand’s Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, the busy censorship bureau, people are often baffled by what censors leave in and take out. Murders of expats – always a cause célèbre – are often met with comments sour and spiteful, almost always spurious, the defamatory comments are quite often left un-edited for the family of the deceased to view. But who is to say what should be edited and what shouldn’t? Is freedom of speech really viable when poisonous comments can destroy lives, where ‘emotional hit and runs’ are subject to no – real world – accountability? Cyberspace anonymity – or even the anonymity behind a car windscreen, can definitely bring out the beast in us, it can also allow us to expand, to let loose. The question will no doubt remain an issue for years to come: just how free should the internet be? If that question were asked right now to the Thai Ministry of Information, they’d probably show you a pair of metaphorical shackles.

One thing we can be certain of, the world’s population is growing faster than it ever has before, each day thousands upon thousands of voices are born into cyberspace. Suler writes that the online environment can become a ‘laboratory for understanding human personality dynamics’. Perhaps the mal-communication is part and parcel of what essentially is human, the internet allows people to step into the shoes of their alter-egos for a while, realising that they are not one, but many, a whole cast of characters. Author Philip Roth in the aptly named novel, ‘Counterlife’, writes “I am a troupe of players that I have internalised, a permanent company of actors that I can call upon when a self is required…I am a theater and nothing more than a theater.”