Explaining Our Online Behaviour

Culture Explaining Our Online Behaviour

It’s commonly accepted that people’s online behaviour is separate from their ‘real’ life, but has anyone ever stopped to ask ‘why’?

We all have friends and relatives on social media whom we can’t stand, we’ve all guiltily shared the odd funny video of a 3 week old kitten, and we’ve all either experienced or read about the effects of cyberbullying and ‘trolling’ online. It’s commonly accepted that people’s online behaviour is separate from their ‘real’ life, but has anyone ever stopped to ask ‘why’?

The answer, quite simply, is yes; there’s been a whole host of work from various psychologists and sociologists into users’ online behaviour . These papers and journal entries etc. all use impressive terminology like ‘asynchronicity’ and ‘solipsistic introspection’, but don’t do a very good job of explaining online behaviour in the words of you and I, the actual everyday internet users.

Boundary Issues

One of the most popular explanations for people’s online behaviour is that, in general, there’s a distinct lack of boundaries when we access the world through a computer screen. Obviously this depends in the large part on where we live, but the chances are that if you’ve grown up in a typical western society, the defining aspect of the internet is that it allows anyone to have their say on pretty much anything. Scratch the surface of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook and you’ll find, quite literally, a world’s worth of opinions on the latest news stories and events.

What this ultimately means, and what the growing amount of research tells us, is that the internet removes people’s inhibitions and therefore qualifies behaviour that would be deemed unnatural in person. If we were unhappy with the service at the local Aldi, the vast majority of us wouldn’t dare go in and complain, but we’d happily go home and have some pretty strongly worded thoughts about doing so. On social media however we tend to disassociate the pages with the people behind them, which is why so many companies’ Facebook and Twitter Feeds have become online arenas for public criticism.

This becomes a real issue when it isn’t brands that are being attacked but rather individual people. Video sharing sites like YouTube and Vevo are filled with vloggers, budding musicians and general internet personalities, people trying to climb the ladder by placing one foot on the desktop. These sites however are also populated with ‘trolls’, internet users who make a habit of sharing their opinions in an unhelpful and at times controversial manner. Psychologists suggest that the main reason for this type of behaviour is that they have come to disassociate the profile or video they’re berating with the actual person behind it. And if you think about it, there’s a lot of logic to this train of thought; would you ever go and publicly criticise a performer on the street?

Sharing is Caring

Sharing, or perhaps, more accurately over-sharing, is another aspect of online behaviour that has been the subject of a lot of internet debate. We all know people on social media who constantly give us seemingly redundant updates about their day, telling us how many raindrops have fallen outside, or just what shade of beige they like their tea to be. But again this behaviour largely goes unnoticed, and we never stop to question why this person actually feels the need to do it? Experts suggest that sharing thoughts with the world via social media is actually emotionally rewarding, because it offers people the chance to join in their practices and increases the possibility of them meeting someone who holds a similar world view.

Closely Guarded or an Open Book

The common belief is that at the end of the day, internet users fall into one of two categories; those who are open to sharing a large chunk of their life with the world, and those who keep their internet ‘self’ separate from their everyday life. This theory then explains why some of us feel the need to share a litany of facts about our day with our friends, and others prefer to read these updates whilst quietly considering why they’re still friends with said people on Facebook.

It also offers an explanation for examples of offensive online behaviour like trolling and cyberbullying, as the internet affords individuals a realm in which they can be powerful and opinionated, a freedom that they might not be granted in ‘real’ life. The fact that they disassociate themselves with their online presence also offers some reason for their offensive and at times abusive behaviour towards others, whom they similarly see as online avatars who are in a sense removed from real-life humans.

The effect of the web on mankind’s patterns of behaviour and sociological understanding is unprecedented, so it’s not hard to imagine that the current studies and findings will change and transform as access to the internet grows. What we’ve put together here is a brief summary of the leading professional opinions, hopefully designed to make you think the next time you read a boring status, or consider that controversial ‘comments’ section.

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