Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 30;   July 26, 2023: The Six Dimensions of Online Disinhibition: I

The Six Dimensions of Online Disinhibition: I


The online environment has properties that cause us to relax the inhibitions that keep us civil. And that leads to an elevated incidence of toxic conflict in public cyberspace. But workplace cyberspace is different. There is reason for optimism there.
A schematic of a symmetric virtual meeting

A schematic representation of a virtual meeting mediated by electronic means. Image (cc) Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic by SEO.

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 performance
in 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.

Last words

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 Go to top Top  Next issue: The Six Dimensions of Online Disinhibition: II  Next Issue

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Suler 2004]
John Suler. "The online disinhibition effect," Cyberpsychology and Behavior 7:3 (2004), 321-326. Available here. Retrieved 22 April 2021. Back
[Joinson 2001]
Adam N. Joinson. "Self-disclosure in computer-mediated communication: The role of self-awareness and visual anonymity." European journal of social psychology 31:2 (2001), pp.177-192. Available here. Retrieved 22 June 2023. Back
[Kraut 1999]
Robert Kraut, Tridas Mukhopadhyay, Janusz Szczypula, Sara Kiesler, and Bill Scherlis. "Information and communication: Alternative uses of the Internet in households," Information Systems Research 10:4 (1999), pp. 287-303. Available here. Retrieved 19 July 2023. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Virtual and Global Teams:

Apples and Oranges, by Paul CézanneOutsourcing Each Other's Kids
Outsourcing is now so widespread that it has achieved status as a full-fledged management fad. But many outsourcing decisions lack the justification that a full financial model provides. Here are some of the factors that such a model should include.
Power poles after Hurricane Rita, 2005Email Ethics
Ethics is the system of right and wrong that forms the foundation of civil society. Yet, when a new technology arrives, explicitly extending the ethical code seems necessary — no matter how civil the society. And so it is with email.
Mess line, noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: II
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings — meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video — encounter problems that facilitators of face-to-face meetings do not. Here's Part II of a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
Young chickensToxic Conflict in Virtual Teams: Dissociative Anonymity
Toxic conflict in teams disrupts relationships and interferes with (or prevents) accomplishment of the team's goals. It's difficult enough to manage toxic conflict in co-located teams, but in virtual teams, dissociative anonymity causes toxic conflict to be both more easily triggered and more difficult to resolve.
Agricultural silosDisjoint Awareness: Assessment
When collaborators misunderstand each other's work and intentions, they're at risk of inadvertently interfering with each other. Three causes of misunderstandings are complexity, specialization, and rapid change.

See also Virtual and Global Teams and Effective Meetings for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938Coming March 6: Six More Insights About Workplace Bullying
Some of the lore about dealing with bullies at work isn't just wrong — it's harmful. It's harmful in the sense that applying it intensifies the bullying. Here are six insights that might help when devising strategies for dealing with bullies at work. Example: Letting yourself be bullied is not a thing. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
The S.S. Eastland, in Cleveland, Ohio, around 1911And on March 13: On Anticipating Consequences
Much of what goes wrong when we change systems to improve them falls into a category we call unanticipated consequences. Even when we lack models that can project these results accurately, morphological analysis that can help us avoid much misery. Available here and by RSS on March 13.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIyeJIiAfnGdKlUXrner@ChacsxirZwZlENmHUNHioCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.