Yesterday, after attending Hardcore Dharma class with Ethan where we talked about right speech, I stumbled across an article on entitled Anonymity Can Turn Nice People Nasty. Whether it’s yelling at a customer service representative over the phone or posting nasty comments on blogs, folks seem much more likely to engage in wrong speech when it’s directed at a disembodied voice they’ll never actually meet or they can remain completely anonymous using an online alias.

The MSNBC story references an interesting article by John Suler called The Online Disinhibition Effect (originally published in CYBERPsychology & Behavior v.7, #3, 2004, but available in an abbreviated format here) that looks at the factors that contribute to people’s altered behaviors in cyberspace. The online disinhibition effect refers to the tendency for people to self disclose more quickly or intensely online than they normally would in person. Suler points out that this doesn’t always have to be viewed in a negative light. For instance, some people use formats like blogs to explore their identities and it can become a helpful part of the self actualization process. He refers to this as “benign disinhibition” (right speech?). On the other end we have what he terms “toxic disinhibition”. This is when people engage in what we would probably consider wrong speech- hurling insults, harshly criticizing, cyber-bullying, spreading hatred, and even making threats. He also includes the tendency for people to explore areas online that they wouldn’t in the real world- pornography, violence, crime, etc.

Two of the biggest factors he looks at are dissociative anonymity and invisibility. Dissociative anonymity refers to how people come to think of their online selves as different from their “real” selves- it’s compartmentalizing. Suler writes, “In the case of expressed hostilities or other deviant actions, the person can avert responsibility for those behaviors, almost as if superego restrictions and moral cognitive processes have been temporarily suspended from the online psyche.” Invisibility refers to the disembodiment made possible by communicating online. Even if your identity is known and you’re e-mailing a friend, you don’t have to look at them when you say whatever it is you’re going to say and they can’t see you. We completely remove the nonverbal elements of communication which allows for further disinhibition. Suler compares this to traditional psychoanalysis where the therapist sits behind the patient to facilitate increased freedom of expression. Invisibility also fosters a lot of mis-communication. Something meant to be sarcastic becomes insulting without the smile with which it was paired while someone was typing it.

I find the psychological aspects of online communication fascinating, but to bring it back to right speech, it seems internet communication requires some extra vigilance. While most of us don’t experience split personalities when we enter cyberspace (I hope), it certainly does foster a bit more openness…in both the negative and positive aspects, which probably means we should slow down and really think about what we’re typing before we post or hit send. Maybe a good test is to ask ourselves, if this person was standing in front of me right now, would I say this to them…or say it in this way? I worry about the potential for us to become emotionally callous or overly reliant on online communication as a way of avoiding difficult conversations or true intimacy (but that might be a different blog post).

In addition to being mindful of our own expression, I think it’s also important to slow down when we’re consuming information online- whether it’s an e-mail, a chat, blog post, etc. While talking about right speech, Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes deep listening as well. I think this is key, especially online where we have the tendency to skim and respond. This is not deep listening…nor is it good for our shrinking attention spans. And perhaps most importantly, let’s get off line a little more often and have some good old fashioned face time…it works.

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