The Minds of Others

After the tragic Boston Marathon bombings last week, the Internet was abuzz with tweeters, bloggers, and posters filling cyberspace with information. Like many recent world events, the social media response to the bombings became a part of their story. Links to news articles, charity websites, and up-to-date informational websites spread like wildfire through all sorts of avenues of the Internet. When the FBI released their photos of the two bombing suspects, those were spread by internet users as well. So was an image of a 22-year old student from Brown University who had gone missing a month ago and appeared to bear a likeness to the man in one of the released FBI photos. As the unsubstantiated rumor that this student was in fact related with the incident in Boston spread across the web, his family began receiving hate calls. Hate speech also began appearing on a Facebook page set up by the family to try to find their missing son. Overnight, what began as a rumor had created a massive and unjustified call of anger.

Here at Swarthmore, the Internet has also been a forum for vehement conversations this semester. From angry Facebook statuses, to exchanges among students on Twitter, to the anonymous posts on the Daily Gazette website, many Swatties have witnessed other students lashing out against one another over the Internet. While many people have good conversations, facilitating real dialogue about campus politics, the use of online mediums for less-than-constructive conversation has been hard to miss.

Research has shown that people communicating within online communities tend to be more deviant than they otherwise would be in real life. Other research has pointed to the potentially detrimental effects of the social media and other forms of online communication to mental health. Psychology has begun asking questions about how people act in these novel situations, but has a long way to go in exploring how people participate in online communities.

One perhaps obvious observation is that the things people say or do online may not be things they would say or do in real life. This is known as the online disinhibition effect. This disinhibition  can have effects that are benign, such as allowing people to better open up and reveal more about their feelings or identity than they are comfortable talking about in person. Such comfort in sharing the details of our lives has driven most personal blogs and social media pages. However, this disinhibition can also lead to more rash decision making when speaking because of anger or disappointment.

The factors leading to online disinhibition are many, and the existence of these many factors supplement one another — creating an even greater effect on internet users. One such factor is dissociative anonymity, the ability of Internet users to not fully identify with their actions online. Individuals may be able to convince themselves that they are not as responsible for their actions, and disassociate themselves from them. This effect is compounded by the effect of the physical invisibility of the actor to those reading her or his posts. This effect has long been exploited by psychoanalysts, who will sit behind the patients in order to make them more open to share details from their lives.

Some have claimed that the openness fostered by online communities allow individuals to be more like their “real selves” than they can be in face to face situations. However, this claim has been psychoanalytically and philosophically argued against. For one thing, the content of online posting may reveal less of our personal and cultural values. These values are generally seen to be positive sides of one’s self, and there is little reason to believe they are less important to an individual than their more deviant side is to them. Furthermore, while some people feel more able to access deep feelings or may take on different personalities online, these sides of them are not necessarily more genuine than the more awkward and spontaneous interactions that people have in face-to-face situations.

Online interactions may allow people to interact in more disinhibited ways online, but many of the ramifications of online interactions follow Internet users offline. Studies have shown use of certain communication sites such as social media to be correlated with greater levels of depression, ADHD, and narcissism. Large amounts of Facebook use are thought to lead to feelings of social isolation, and of envy of the social life of others. A team of German researchers found that, of frequent Facebook users who felt dissatisfied with their own lives when using social media, the most common cause of dissatisfaction was “envy” of the lives of others.

Cyberpsychology is a budding field, but one that is in high demand in our society. With the rapid growth in users of Facebook and other social media sites, and the power of those sites in today’s popular culture, there is much work to be done to understand what drives the users of these popular social media sites. Such an understanding is important not just for our health, but for how we think about what goes on the web and respond to the deviant comments of others. No understanding will excuse those who post hurtful and vehement comments and rumors on the internet, but a better knowledge of what motivates this behavior can help us as individuals to respond to and curb these rash, emotional comments.

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