The online disinhibition effect is the relaxation of social inhibitions that many experience when interacting with others through electronic media. The term, originated by John Suler in 2004 [Suler 2004], is generally regarded as being associated with computer-mediated communications (CMC). The effect had been studied and reported earlier under other names, such as CMC disinhibition. [Joinson 2001] It was of interest generally because, beginning at about the turn of the century, Internet usage had become widespread and the disinhibition effect had become well known in the general population of users.
These observations have now acquired unexpected importance for organizations, because so much knowledge work is now conducted online. But as I note in this post and the next, there is some cause for optimism about the impact of the online disinhibition effect in organizations.
Public cyberspace differs from workplace cyberspace
Early research on what we now call the online disinhibition effect was based on observations of computer-mediated communications between and among users of the early Internet. [Kraut 1999] For purposes this discussion, I call this context public cyberspace. Of greater interest for organizations today are manifestations of the effect among members of — or employees of — one and the same organization or business. And I call this context workplace cyberspace.
Both Suler and Joinson carefully note that their observations pertain to what I am here calling public cyberspace. This is important for two reasons. First, electronic communication technologies have made great advances in the nearly 20 years since Suler's work. Although some communications remain all-text — free of video, audio, and photos — the text-only fraction of communications has declined dramatically and continues to decline in both public cyberspace and workplace cyberspace. But this change has advanced furthest in workplace cyberspace.
Second, in workplace cyberspace, much online interaction occurs among people who know each other. For example, it's reasonable to suppose that people conducting interactions within a team, department, or business unit aren't anonymous to one another. Either they know each other, or they know of each other.
To the extent that these two factors apply to a given interaction, we can expect the online disinhibition effect to be somewhat mitigated, especially in workplace cyberspace.
With these differences in mind, let's now consider why there might be cause for optimism about the online disinhibition effect in workplace cyberspace.
Benign and toxic disinhibition
The online disinhibition effect has been observed as both benign disinhibition and toxic disinhibition. Benign disinhibition can actually improve interpersonal interaction in computer-mediated channels relative to face-to-face channels. For example, the relaxation of inhibitions can encourage self-disclosure, which can be advantageous in educational environments. Or clients in a computer-mediated psychotherapeutic setting might be more willing to disclose feelings than they would be in a person-to-person configuration.
Similarly, If we can find ways to limit the frequency and
intensity of toxic conflict in virtual teams, we can
significantly enhance virtual team performancein toxic disinhibition, attendees in workplace meetings might be more willing to engage in verbal personal attacks on each other than they would be in face-to-face meetings. Toxic disinhibition can thus be a root cause of toxic conflict in virtual teams.
To limit the frequency and intensity of toxic conflict in virtual teams, three interventions come to mind:
- Offer training in recognizing toxic disinhibition
- Meet often face-to-face to enable relationship building based on benign disinhibition
- Intervene early when toxic conflict seems about to erupt in CMC channels
Limiting the incidence of toxic disinhibition
Suler identified six elements of CMC channels that tend to support the online disinhibition effect. Three of them are described below, along with suggestions for interventions to limit their toxic effects. In the next post, I provide the remaining three elements of Suler's collection.
- Dissociative anonymity
- Dissociative anonymity, as described by Suler, denotes the use of sometimes-cryptic user names at Web sites, in chat rooms, and in other online forums. Anonymity tends to create a sense of safety, thus suppressing inhibitions. These conditions were nearly universal 20 years ago, and they persist today in much of public cyberspace. But in workplace cyberspace, this factor is less significant, because most team members know each other, and because most channels provide personal name identification to at least some extent.
- To limit the effects of dissociative anonymity, take whatever steps are necessary to expose the names of all team members in all channels in which they interact. And exposing familiar names or nicknames can make this policy more effective in reducing the incidence of the online disinhibition effect.
- Just as dissociative anonymity conceals the person's name, invisibility conceals the person's visage, voice, and presence. When team members know that others in the conversation cannot see their faces or hear their voices, they experience a deeper level of separation from other conversation participants. That separation enhances disinhibition.
- To limit the effects of invisibility, arrange for video, still images, and audio to be mandatory components of online interaction. For example, require attendees of videoconferences to activate their cameras. In text-based exchanges require that the "avatars" of team members be portraits. Finally, discourage "lurking," which is the practice of attending without participating or otherwise making one's presence known.
- Some online environments are synchronous, meaning that all participants can interact with each other in real time. The ordinary telephone conversation, for example, is synchronous. In asynchronous environments, events that occur in the shared communication channel are delivered to the participants at some time after they occur. For example, an email conversation is asynchronous, because a participant's comment might not be received until minutes or hours after it was sent, and might not be read for days after receipt.
- Asynchronicity enhances the online disinhibition effect because interaction participants need not cope with the reactions of their interaction partners. They're free to press on with whatever they were saying or writing, without concerning themselves with how their contribution is landing with others. Even if they are concerned, they're deprived of access to that information because of the delay in its arrival.
- Moreover, in synchronous face-to-face interactions, we read each other as we speak. That continuous feedback enables us to temper our messages while we're speaking. In asynchronous environments, tempering what we say by reading reactions as we speak is impossible.
- To limit the effects of ansynchronicity, make synchronous environments readily available. And encourage the custom of refraining from engaging in conversations about controversial topics in synchronous environments.
The last three of Suler's elements that support the online disinhibition effect are solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority. I'll explore them next time. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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