Why are we so willing to confess all online?

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To view the original article published online in the Telegraph please click here.

We’ve all heard stories of employees who leave derisory Tweets about their client’s hometown or teenagers who slate their job on Facebook and get fired. We are more open, expressive and less inhibited when we communicate online, often forgetting that anyone could be reading.

What makes us so inclined to online openness? And, as the distinction between what happens on and offline continues to blur, how will this change what we can and can’t say?

To answer these questions we need to go back in cyberspace and time to the mid-nineties when the Internet was still a relatively new phenomenon, connection speeds were painfully slow, and the only people online were ‘geeks and freaks’ or more accurately, ‘early adopters’.

The idea of strangers meeting online fuelled the stereotype of the Internet being a place for the sad and lonely – a legacy which, bizarrely, persists to this day. However, with so few people online it was highly unlikely that you would meet anyone you knew. That may be the biggest factor influencing what we are able to say online – and how we say it – ever since.

Online or offline, we’re often more willing disclose private, personal information to a stranger than to a friend or family member because we know there will be no repercussions; we’ll never see that person again. This tendency was labelled by two researchers in the 1950’s, Thibaut & Kelley, as the ’stranger-on-the-train’ phenomenon.

The idea was expanded further to explain our behaviour in cyberspace by John Suler. He described the ‘disinhibition effect’ that makes us more likely to express ourselves more freely online because we can be anonymous, invisible and untraceable.

Online we can express emotions, fears and desires we might struggle to express elsewhere. We can be kinder, more positive and more open with each other or we can be ruder, more unpleasant and aggressive.

However, our online openness is only partly explained by the remote and anonymous nature of our interactions: the reduction in ’social context cues’ we receive from the physical environment and body language, is also important, as are ’social presence’ and ’social information processing’. These concepts cover our awareness of other people and our ability to process social identity and information cues over time.

But it is online anonymity and the extent to which our actions online impact our lives offline which I believe are key in explaining our tendency to disclose more information online that perhaps we should.

These days a good number, probably most, of the people you communicate with online are not strangers. They are work, school or college friends – heck, even your Gran’s online these days.  But this is a recent development driven in many ways by sites like Facebook and now, to a degree Twitter, which encourage off to online relationships.

The Internet is no longer a homogenous other-worldly space full of strangers and far removed from ‘real life’. More than ever, what we do and who we are online is an extension of who we are offline.

And as our work, social and family worlds collide and we are no longer anonymous, invisible or untraceable, the old rules of Internet communication have been turned on their head: we can’t disclose in the way we used to anymore, and this is confusing.

But we learn fast and this confusion won’t last long: we’ll soon adapt to and embrace the new rules of online engagement.  And when we do, stories of employees bad mouthing their boss on Twitter will be few and far between – for those looking for a quick laugh at someone else’s expense, more’s the pity!

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On 14th May 2009
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