By Steve Kelman

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Against online disinhibition

speech bubbles (Petr Vaclavek/Shutterstock.com)

Just yesterday I saw someone use the abbreviation STFU in a Facebook post. A few months ago, I would have been totally clueless about what the person was talking about. In what I would hardly regard as a sign of progress, I now was able to figure out what the person met, although often I have to Google such phrases to get a translation into, usually, disrespectful and often obscene English. I now know, thanks to Google, that FYYFF means ”f—k you you f—king f—k.” Sometimes, though, I can’t even find these phrases on Google – two recent examples are LHU and GEFTO – so I don’t know the reference.

These outbursts, believe it or not, almost always come from people who are otherwise civilized and polite, which is what makes them even more surprising and disconcerting. I definitely feel I am seeing them more than I used to (which was never). What is going on?

These people definitely are behaving in a way they would not behave offline. It appears that the online environment itself disinhibits many of us, and the picture of what we are like when so disinhibited is not pretty.

This happens in significant measure because we are not in the physical presence of others when we make gross statements. “Conscience,” in the words of H.L Mencken “is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.” That lack of physical connection – of someone looking – promote disinhibition. This is why it is plausible that these kinds of outbursts have increased during the pandemic, when we are not physically seeing each other very much. The fevered atmosphere of Twitter, where people pile on others and the victims don’t know anything about the identity of the victimizers, is an extreme example of an environment where people don’t know who you are.

I think frankly that Donald Trump plays a role here as well. As even many of his supporters moan, Trump has no inhibitions – he is like a child who has not yet been socialized by their parents. And he brings out incivility in others, including of course his opponents. I – who like to pride myself on being polite and respectful – confess that sometimes I go overboard with Trump-hostile statements, as my online friends more sympathetic to Trump frequently remind me. He contributed to an atmosphere of online venom long before the pandemic.

Some people criticize as “political correctness” the point of view that lambasts others for saying unpopular things. These people often praise Trump for opposing political correctness. I am no friend of political correctness or the “cancel culture” when it attacks people for expressing unpopular political opinions. But sometimes what people criticize as political correctness is not about genuine political opinions, but simply about asking people to show respect and decency towards others. Sometimes PC stands for “polite and considerate.”

I am writing this because I think we all need to look ourselves in the mirror. If this is what we are becoming, we are in bad shape. And this needs to be toted up on the negative side of the ledger for the impact of the Internet.

I like being online, and I like social media. But I think this creates a responsibility for me and others like me to be mindful of how online disinhibition can hurt us and our society, and consciously fight it. Let’s all work on that.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Dec 09, 2020 at 6:33 AM


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