The Psychology of Cyberspace
Dr. John Suler, a clinical psychologist, computer enthusiast and professor at Rider University in New Jersey has written prolifically about the psychology of cyberspace. In his book of the same name, he offers some very thought-provoking questions for us to consider1:
Does online anonymity and freedom of access encourage antisocial personalities?
Do narcissistic people use the access to numerous relationships as a means to gain an admiring audience?
Do people with dissociative personalities tend to isolate their cyberspace life from their face-to-face lives? Do they tend to engage in the creation of multiple and distinct online identities?
Are schizoid people attracted to the reduced intimacy resulting from online anonymity? Are they lurkers?
Do manic people take advantage of asynchronous communication as a means to send measured responses to others, or do they naturally prefer the terse, immediate, and spontaneous conversations of chat and IM?
Are compulsives generally drawn to computers & cyberspace for the control it gives them over their relationships and environment?
Do histrionic people enjoy the opportunities for theatrical displays that are possible in online groups, especially in environments that provide software tools for creative self-expression?
After five years of being a member of, as well as managing, a couple of EFL forums for foreign teachers in China, I’d say the answer to all these questions is a resounding yes. The problem, as I see it, is a multifaceted one.
As discussed in the aforementioned article, foreign teachers in China can accurately be thought of as an oppressed group who engage in negative behaviors towards each other that are collectively referred to as “horizontal violence.”2 These behaviors include but are not limited to devaluing, discouraging, scapegoating, backstabbing, sabotaging, cheating, exploiting, and conspiring. To varying degrees, depending on the particular individuals involved, these behaviors are tempered or constrained through face-to-face contacts and the eventual establishment of personal acquaintanceships. However, the anonymity that the Internet provides induces what researchers refer to as the “online disinhibition effect.”3 That is, in the absence of face-to-face contact and under the veil of anonymity, these aggressive behaviors become uninhibited and are unleashed—and clear evidence of this can be found not only among these forums’ registered members but among their moderators and administrators as well. To the degree that the “fellow patients” are running the “asylum,” so to speak, these forums can be (and typically are) very toxic environments, psychologically speaking.