Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 31;   August 2, 2023: The Six Dimensions of Online Disinhibition: II

The Six Dimensions of Online Disinhibition: II


The online disinhibition effect appears in computer-mediated communications. It is due to relaxation of inhibitions that demand civility. It's still impactful 20 years after its identification, but it might be less so in today's workplace cyberspace.
A well-camouflaged mule deer being attended to by its mother

A well-camouflaged mule deer being attended to by its mother. In cyberspace, and especially in the text-only reaches of cyberspace, we're only partially visible to others. Sensing this, we feel free to do or say things we might not do or say if we weren't so well camouflaged.

In Part I of this exploration, I examined three factors of computer-mediated communications (widely known as CMC) that tend to suppress inhibitions that demand that we treat each other with respect. In this Part II, I examine three more. [Suler 2004][Kraut 1999] In describing each factor, I provide reasons why these factors might have significantly less ability to induce disinhibition in the context of workplace cyberspace than they once had in the context of public cyberspace.

Three more factors that support the online disinhibition effect

Below are descriptions of three factors that support the online disinhibition effect. In Part I, I discussed three other factors, commenting on how we can reduce the effectiveness of their support for disinhibition. But because the workplace cyberspace environment already attenuates the support offered by these next three factors, I instead emphasize the reasons for this attenuation, and how to enhance that attenuation.

Solipsistic introjection
The term solipsistic introjection is a bit science-y for everyday use, so bear with me while I create an everyday equivalent. Outside the context of philosophy, solipsism is self-centeredness or selfishness in the extreme. In psychology, introjection is the unconscious adoption by one person of the values or attitudes of another. Combining these ideas with the idea that the environment iduces the introjection, I arrive at this alternative to the term solipsistic introjection: "Reflexive internalization of the other." Whether we call it solipsistic introjection or reflexive internalization of the other, the idea is that over the course of a correspondence by text-based exchange of messages, we develop internal representations of our correspondents. Those representations might consist of pseudo-audio (the voice in my head) or pseudo-photographs (still images of what the other person looks like, in some imagined setting), or pseudo-video (imagined full-motion imagery).
When the exchange between two people is text-based (text messaging, email, and the like) we're free to create our own imagery and sound. But it's all imagined. And because it's all imagined we sometimes — and quite naturally — ease into imagined interactions. Unless these imagined interactions also include imagined inhibitions, the risk of disinhibition in the course of the text exchanges can be significant. This is an example of how reflexive internalization of the other can elevate the risk of disinhibition.
But notice Especially in a text-only online environment,
we're only partially visible to others.
Sensing this, we feel free to do or say
things we might not do or say in real life.
how dependent this mechanism is on text-based exchange. Because the exchange is text-based, we internalize the other in imagination. In more modern computer-mediated communications, we do have photography, audio, and video. Presumably this constrains the imagination as we internalize the other, and that reduces the disinhibition effect.
This suggests a strategy for limiting the online disinhibition effect in workplace cyberspace. Ensure that photos and video are widely used to make people familiar with how their colleagues look, sound, and behave. For example, in organizations where videoconferences are common, encourage everyone who participates to participate with cameras turned on. Make people familiar with how their colleagues look, sound, and behave.
Dissociative imagination
In the context of public cyberspace, dissociative imagination denotes the sense that all of us — our cyberspace selves and our imagined representations of the people we meet in public cyberspace — all of us are living in a separate, imagined space. This imagined space is distinct from the real space in which we lead our real lives. It makes no demands of us. We're free to exit whenever we want to. And it is this separateness that amplifies the disinhibition effect. In this imagined space, if we transgress in some way, if we offend someone, or if we feel harmed ourselves, we can exit the imagined space and return to "real life." Or, possibly, sign in to another imagined space.
This picture of life in public cyberspace was applicable in 2004 to much of the computer-mediated world. In particular, it's a very good fit to public cyberspace communities known as forums. But it's far less relevant to workplace cyberspace. Compared to public cyberspace, workplace cyberspace is closer to real life in many respects. First, and most important, is the fact that it overlaps with "real life." For many of us, the people in workspace cyberspace are real. We know them. We've met in person. One of them is sitting in the cubicle next to mine. Another is my supervisor.
Second, we can't just sign off workplace cyberspace, because if we do, for most of us, the financial consequences are severe — no more paychecks.
Finally, with respect to the jobs we have, there is only one workplace cyberspace. If we transgress, or if we are harmed, there is no other workplace cyberspace to sign in to, unless we seek employment elsewhere. It is for this reason, for example, that targets of workplace cyberbullies feel trapped.
These factors, taken together, dramatically weaken the ability of dissociative imagination to support online disinhibition. And we can exploit this weakness to reduce the incidence of the online disinhibition effect by establishing communities of practice that draw from all parts of the organization. This strategy supports the internal propagation of a person's reputation. If we do what we can to unify all corners of workplace cyberspace into a single whole, we ensure that there is nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide.
Minimization of status and authority
Twenty years ago, in the text-heavy environment of email and web forums, as Suler writes, "While online a person's status in the face-to-face world may not be known to others and may not have as much impact." Even if someone were relatively well known and had high status, dissociative anonymity would attenuate the effect of fame and status if the individual chose (or was assigned) a cryptic handle. Even if famous individuals wanted to use relatively "transparent" handles, they might be relegated to something like wfoster897 if their own names were already in use. Status and authority were therefore often hidden from view.
This situation fit well with the ethos of the early Internet, which held that "we are all equals." And adherents to this belief could be forgiven for taking it a step further to gain comfort enough to speak their minds on a range of topics they would be much less likely to address in real life. That's how minimization of status and authority supported online disinhibition in public cyberspace, and even in early forms of workplace cyberspace.
The story is rather different now in modern forms of workplace cyberspace. Status and authority are usually evident. Senior managers, who benefit from this configuration, are well positioned to make certain that their own status and authority are clear. They can bring this about by policy, of course, but if that option isn't available to a senior manager, sending email messages to large groups with regularity is sufficient to make that manager's handle well known to everyone.
For these reasons minimization of status and authority no longer support online disinhibition as well as they once did. This suggests a strategy for limiting the online disinhibition effect in workplace cyberspace. Ensure that the actual names of all participants are well known and visible to all other participants.

Last words

The modern workplace is increasingly dependent on computer-mediated communications. And experience has shown that this configuration is vulnerable to the online disinhibition effect. But by understanding how the online disinhibition effect depends on text-based interactions, we can more easily devise policies and strategies that interfere with the processes that produce the online disinhibition effect. Those policies and strategies also have the effect of strengthening relationships between co-workers. And that's a good thing. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Recapping One-on-One Meetings  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing Conflict Are you fed up with tense, explosive meetings? Are you or a colleague the target of a bully? Destructive conflict can ruin organizations. But if we believe that all conflict is destructive, and that we can somehow eliminate conflict, or that conflict is an enemy of productivity, then we're in conflict with Conflict itself. Read 101 Tips for Managing Conflict to learn how to make peace with conflict and make it an organizational asset. 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
[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:

Time is moneyCosts of the Catch-Me-Up Anti-Pattern: I
Your meetings start on time, but some people are habitually late. When they arrive, they ask, "What did I miss? Catch me up." This is an expensive way to do business. How expensive is it?
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upDisjoint Awareness
In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk.
A bedroom in a log homeVirtual Meetings: Then and Now
Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to stay-at-home orders that affect many of us, more of our meetings are virtual, and the virtual meetings we used to conduct are somewhat changed. How have they changed, and what can we do about it?
A pair of pearsMastering Messaging for Pandemics: II
When pandemics rage, face-to-face meetings are largely curtailed. Clarity in text messaging and email therefore becomes more important. Some sources of confusion that might not be noticeable in speech can cause real trouble in messaging.
A schematic of a symmetric virtual meetingThe 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.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

What most of us think of when we think of checklistsComing February 28: Checklists: Conventional or Auditable
Checklists help us remember the steps of complex procedures, and the order in which we must execute them. The simplest form is the conventional checklist. But when we need a record of what we've done, we need an auditable checklist. Available here and by RSS on February 28.
Adolf Hitler greets Neville Chamberlain at the beginning of the Bad Godesberg meeting on 24 September 1938And on 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.

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 tweet 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.