The Internet is a bunch of interconnected computer networks, senseless and indifferent to the types of messages they transmit. It is capable of spreading love as quickly as it spreads hate. It doesn’t blame and it doesn’t absolve. It provides, however, fruitful ground for social experimentation, often fueled by our hard-wired desire for status, social approval and authority. The recent tragic death of 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi shows the dark side of such social experimentation.
We might as well have a sign pop up on our screens every time we load a browser, “Leave your inhibitions at the click of a mouse.” Psyhologists have a name for it – the “online disinhibition effect.” In its negative expression, it may go as follows:
“I feel important when many eyes follow, read, and watch. If I can get your attention, it must mean, I am worthy of your attention, so you will acknowledge me. I prefer to be invisible, though, because that way, if things go wrong, I won’t lose my face…because you won’t see my face. Every act needs an audience, and I know you are there somewhere. I can’t see your reactions, but I can conjure them up in my mind. That makes me bold and even reckless, and I like it. Nobody would describe me as bold or reckless in my real life. What’s real, anyways? I’ll role-play a little. I’ll be a villain. Villains are powerful, and I want power. I want to dominate and control. I hope you like my show, and if you don’t, chances are I will never know because you won’t have the time or feel the need to tell me. You may say, “That’s just awful,” or “I am confused,” or “Somebody must have already reported this stuff,” and click away. I can handle that. Now, I just need a victim because “How can I be a villain without a victim?” All of cyberspace is a stage, after all. Why should I feel responsible for what happens online? Watch my avatar in action.”
Fortunately, the “disinhibition effect” is no defense to malice, hate, or stupidity online. We, human beings, are given a wonderful gift of awareness and consciousness that we might as well use to rewrite the discourse above and make social networking a safer and more empowering experience for all of us. The safety of our social networks is everybody’s responsibility. Perhaps, a better approach would be…
“I feel my connection to the larger world out there when many eyes follow, read and watch. I will work hard to share my best with you because your attention is a precious gift that I honor and will never take lightly. Although you cannot see me right now, you will know my name and I will carry responsibility for everything and anything that I choose to share with you. I promise to treat you with integrity and respect that you deserve. I speak to all as I would speak to every single one of you face-to-face. It is my choice to use the Internet to nurture relationships and collaboration. I will take time to state my intentions clearly, to communicate in a sensitive and respectful way and to avoid unnecessary conflict and hurt feelings. I will speak my mind and encourage you to do the same. I will listen and acknowledge your opinions even if I may disagree with you. I will be fair. I will intervene when I see an injustice. Perhaps, together we can make this social network a welcoming place.”
How can we make our social networks safer and better for everybody?
P.S. For a positive example of what social networks can do to counteract bullying, visit the It Gets Better project on YouTube, created to show the LGBT teen victims of bullying that “it gets better” through personal stories.