Karen Pollock explores the idea that online identities are somehow less real, or less valid than meatspace ones
If you follow me on Twitter you will have seen a rant recently about the idea that getting young people to give up social media for a week has any value other than reinforcing the idea that an older generation will always find something to criticise about a younger one. Regency England worried novels were making young women mentally ill, the waltz was condemned as immoral, coffee drinking warned against in stern tracts. I am pretty sure that the first cave man teenager who tried to explain to their father what this thing called the wheel was all about was met with a “feet were good enough in my day” response.
There is nothing new in one generation looking at another and deciding difference is an issue. With my therapeutic hat on I wonder about regret, the stage of life Errickson described as generativity versus despair, where looking back if we are not content with our lives, we wonder what the point was. There is most certainly an element of this in many of the criticisms and fear of the internet and social media. Interestingly research has shown that there is very little difference hours wise in time spent online and time spent watching TV 20 years ago. I wonder why passively staring at the screen in the corner is seen to be morally superior to engaging with people online. There is also some research which suggests that families are spending more time together now everyone has mobile devices, the internet bringing them together as televisions in bedrooms separated them in the past.
Regency England worried novels were making young women mentally ill, the waltz was condemned as immoral, coffee drinking warned against in stern tracts. I am pretty sure that the first cave man teenager who tried to explain to their father what this thing called the wheel was all about was met with a “feet were good enough in my day” response.
Another aspect of the fear of the internet and social media , the fear of difference, of something new of necessity being wrong, purely because it’s not the way we did things, is in the false distinction of the real world and the internet. It is common for people to speak of online identities and relationships as somehow inferior to those spaces designated as the “real world.” It ignores how for many people with disabilities the internet has allowed freedoms abled society so often denies. It also ignores how the ability to explore online has helped so many LGBTQ+ people.
In a society which still so often polices LGBTQ+ identities, and where prejudice is all too common, the ability to explore online is vital to so many. Simply because someone’s profile is pseudonymous does not mean it is any less valid. People can present as the gender or sexuality they have to keep hidden in other spaces, discover acceptance, community and support. “Ah but it’s not real” comes the response, without ever saying what quality of realness is acceptable. Are telephone calls more or less real? Love letters sent from the front in World War 1 are sold at auction as examples of “true” love, how real are they? If you skype is that more meaningful than emailing, even though it’s all transmitted using the same methods? Many of the people who dismiss “tumblr identities” will themselves have slipped out of the house, unsuitable clothes hidden in the bottom of a bag. Others will have lied, deliberately or by omission about the gender of their partners, preferring to be perceived as heterosexual. Are these deceptions or beginning steps in becoming the person they want to be?
It is common for people to speak of online identities and relationships as somehow inferior to those spaces designated as the “real world.” It ignores how for many people with disabilities the internet has allowed freedoms abled society so often denies. It also ignores how the ability to explore online has helped so many LGBTQ+ people.
The therapeutic value of not having to repress your sexual expression or gender identity is not controversial, you could even call it a fundamental all agree on (which in therapy is as rare as hen’s teeth). Why therefore do we decide that if this exploration, this journey towards self acceptance, takes place online it should cause concern? I may have come full circle, to the fear of the internet as new, different and therefore worrying.
However in exploring this issue we must not erase the fact that there are dangers around identity online. Not around expressing yourself, but around some of the others you may encounter. The attacks on gay young men in London and the women raped by someone they met on Match. com have caused many to wonder about the safety of people meeting from online sites. The actual issues here are complicated, rape and murder were not invented by Tim Berners Lee. In both instances there was certainly an element of slut shaming and victim blaming, that people should know better than to meet someone online, and most certainly should never have sex with them. This same attitude has been shown towards what was dismissively known as “date rape” and still persists in many quarters.
Part of the problem is this false online/real world split. Some people are abusive and dangerous to be around, this is the case if you meet them in the pub or on tinder. However the disinhibition effect is a particular feature of online communication which is rarely mentioned, and I think needs to be. The disinhibition effect is well known to online therapists, it’s a state of mind where people more easily reveal things because of the security, and layer of protection the screen offers. An example of the effect many may have come across is trolls, who act in a way they never would offline. (Although of course this is not always the case, and some are abusive to all they know, the internet just giving them a new forum). Disinhibition means people are more likely to share, more likely to feel close to someone, to reveal intimate details, when they are getting to know someone online. This can be heightened if they are communicating across different platforms, speeding up the getting to know you process from weeks into days. As a society we are so caught up in deciding what is real, what is acceptable, and warning people against cyber bogeymen that we don’t actually discuss the things people may need to know. We need to accept that safe calls and safety advice should be part of any dating, regardless of how we meet. In order to do so we must stop the online/real distinction. We also need however to talk about where the internet is different, how it might affect behaviour, and make sure people are aware of issues such as the disinhibition effect. We cannot blame the internet for rape or violence, and we cannot demand that everyone online post their full life history before we allow them access to social media or any other platform. What we can do is educate ourselves, and others, and that education needs to go further than panics about the internet corrupting young people.
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