We message on Facebook but in-person I'm awkward and you're shy. When our Twitter conversation went from @ messages to direct messages, you seemed more reserved and I felt more open to speak my mind. Let's follow each other on Pinterest and share the pictures that are in our mind. I just want to be in your head. I just want to feel what you're feeling. I want to be inside of you, truly. But in real life, I can barely look you in the eye. I know too much about what you know I know.
Social networking sites give us portals into another person's (user's) mind, so far as that person (user) makes public their thoughts, ideas, feelings and desires. At times, we are perhaps more honest online, and especially on social networks, than we are in real life. Recent studies suggest that we are exactly the same on Facebook as we are in real life, but that might not be true. We might actually be even more of who we are online than in real life.
Social networks are both a space of freedom and a place of imprisonment. We are free to say whatever we think and feel. That is the first question Facebook asks us when we go to our profiles.
Yet in speaking our minds on social networks, we not only share information we also embody the medium itself. Or, as Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, "the medium is the message." And we cannot detach what we say on Facebook from Facebook itself.
The Medium is the Message
There is a symbiotic relationship between message and medium, and that medium influences how the message is perceived. If a user posts that he or she just got married on Facebook, they are essentially encouraging all of their friends to accept and react to that status update on Facebook. The medium embodies this message - you are married, on Facebook. The translation to offline conversation may not happen as smoothly. "Hey, just noticed that you were married, um, that's what Facebook told me. Congrats!" This sentence could be followed by an awkward pause, then silence. That conversation might best continue on Facebook itself. We cannot divorce the medium from the message that's being conveyed. Our entire idea of communication shifts.
"As society's values, norms and ways of doing things change because of the technology, it is then we realize the social implications of the medium," writes the anonymous author(s) of "The Medium is the Message"'s Wikipedia page. "These range from cultural or religious issues and historical precedents, through interplay with existing conditions, to the secondary or tertiary effects in a cascade of interactions that we are not aware of."
Don't Look at Me, I Won't Look at You
When we do not have to look each other in the eye, we are more honest with each other. Such is the case with social networking sites. But why? The Wall Street Journal's Matt Ridley story takes a look at the ways that other species interact in order to deduce a bit more about human behavior.
"In monkeys and apes, face-to-face contact is essentially antagonistic. Staring is a threat," writes Ridley. "A baboon that fails to avert its eyes when stared at by a social superior is, in effect, mounting a challenge. Appeasing a dominant animal is an essential skill for any chimpanzee wishing to avoid a costly fight."
What happens when you put two monkeys in a cage, or two humans in an elevator? The pair, confined to small quarters, will do their absolute best to avoid eye contact and confrontation. Similarly, two human strangers trapped in an elevator or cab together might discuss something as banal as the weather. Even conversation about sports might bring up too many emotions. But the weather is one thing we can discuss with minimal emotional reaction.
You Are a Liar, a Bully and a Freak! You Are Honest, Kind & Generous.
In his article in the journal CyberPsychology and Behavior, Rider University's John Suler coins the "disinhibition effect," which suggests that people on social networking sites feel free to share very personal things about themselves - secret emotions, fears, wishes. Conversely, social networkers show "unusual acts of kindness and generosity," which is known as "benign disinhibition." Suler also defines "toxic disinhibition," the idea of people online exploring sites of pornography and violence, places that they wouldn't visit in the real world (strip clubs, bathhouses, scenes of crime and abuse) but feel free to do online. Suler points out that the overall effect of online disinhibition is caused by several factors which interact with each other, and result in something far more complex.
"When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up. Whatever they say or do can't be directly linked to the rest of their lives," Suler writes.
The stuff you do or say on social networks in some way feels dissociated from the rest of your life, so, in effect, it feels like it has no consequences. But in terms of its emotional effect, there are reprecussions. Behaviors are still behaviors, whether they happen online or off.
Is what we show about ourselves online more true than what we share with others in our every day lives? Maybe. Or maybe it's just a pathway into our imaginations, our mindscapes. And if the user feels safe sharing those ideas, then the space in which this happens is not as important.
"In their imagination, where it's safe, people feel free to say and do all sorts of things that they wouldn't in reality. At that moment, reality is one's imagination. Online text communication can become the psychological tapestry in which a person's mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usually unconsciously and with considerable disinhibition. All of cyberspace is a stage and we are merely players," Suler writes.
But still, it is important to be careful what you reveal in those spontaneous moments of cyber freedom. Be prepared to defend your thoughts and ideas, to be an open book in a public space. Be safe, be vulnerable, be aware of what you say.
Online honesty cuts both ways," writes Ridley. "Bloggers find that readers who comment on their posts are often harshly frank but that these same rude critics become polite if contacted directly. There's a curious pattern here that goes against old concerns over the threat of online dissembling. In fact, the mechanized medium of the Internet causes not concealment but disinhibition, giving us both confessional behavior and ugly brusqueness. When the medium is impersonal, people are prepared to be personal."