This has not hindered Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University psychiatrist, from making a powerful and heartfelt claim in ‘Virtually You’ (Norton, 2011) that the internet has already begun to change our interior landscape. Emailing, aimlessly surfing, gleaning information, playing games, searching for love, joining online communities and more pernicious online activities like gambling and pornography, are such an important component of human life today that Aboujaoude claims a new e-personality is being formed – a ‘virtual whole that is greater than its parts’ which is ‘more assertive, less restrained, a little bit on the dark side and decidedly sexier’.
According to psychologist John Suler, there are four key features of the internet which promote such disinhibition: anonymity, invisibility, the loss of boundaries and the lack of any real hierarchy online. Mostly these attributes are treasured. People like the secrecy and the delicious temptations the internet affords. It is a place to express a different kind of personality to the one we are stuck with in reality; where timidity, hesitancy and drabness can be supplanted by courage and directness. The most vivid example of this lies in the virtual word of Second Life where people can create confident, sexy avatars which live out the life they wish they could from day to day.
There is a place for the dreamy and uninhibited, as this is the milieu out of which human inspiration and creativity emerge, but the risk of immersion in online culture is a certain kind of possession, where the personality we bear is moulded by a force beyond our control. Aboujaoude will be deemed alarmist by the internet’s cheerleaders but, while there is much further to go in the exploration of this topic, there is enough anecdotal evidence to hand to raise concerns.
Two developments spring readily to mind. The first is the tendency for some people to resort easily to viciousness in their interactions, using vocabulary and punctuation which would amount to a fist in the face in real life. Many of us have rehearsed in our minds what we would like to have said to someone who was asking for it in real life as a catharsis that keeps us from being anti-social. In many ways, the internet has become this fantasy forum – only the other person gets to hear us loud and clear. All of us, at one time or other, have opened an email whose language and tone has made our stomach turn sickly. The inner bully is released, though sometimes people are stunningly unaware of their effects because the internet draws a veil which seduces people into thinking they are an invisible party to a social interaction.
A second development is the way social networking sites pander to narcissism. This aspect of Aboujaoude’s thesis will be resisted heartily by the many people who have found in Facebook and its imitators a delightful way of connecting with people we might otherwise neglect. Yet self-promotion and the invitation to chase more ‘friends’ than the next person risks reducing the beautiful allure of human relationships to a tawdry competition where exhibitionist postings receive the most acclaim. In real life, informal rules of etiquette and social exchange inhibit those who would impose their voice endlessly on others; in cyberspace, no-one can hear you scream that you’ve heard enough.
Aboujaoude is especially worried that aspects of our online personality are beginning to emerge in real life, bubbling up the surface in unsettling ways. These are such subtle processes that only qualified conclusions can be drawn. If they prove true in the longer run, it may be to the detriment of our common life.
There are inherent risks in Christian discipleship of creating separate boxes to ease the burden of following Jesus. Often this is done unwittingly: an unfailingly polite person becomes a fiend behind the wheel but does not recognise the especial claim that Christ might have over their lives when propelling a large lump of steel at high speeds! In a similar way, authentic Christian faith should pay assiduous attention to its online manifestation. Digital communication robs us of the complex cues which looking someone in the face offers. The call to kindness and generosity can more easily be ignored when we cannot reach out and touch the person we are talking to.
The beauty of grace is the way it seeps into life like water on the ground; the internet may prize invisibility but its lack of boundaries make it possible to express grace quickly and effortlessly. The printed word, after all, can encourage another person and enable them to keep a record of it while the human voice fades in the memory.