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

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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

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