Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality

Here are some excerpts from this 2011 book by the psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude:

* The compulsive nature of some people’s Internet use can be compared to OCD, and the euphoric “high” some experience is similar to what we see in impulse control disorders such as pathological gambling.

* The way we see and evaluate ourselves is changing as a function of new personality traits born and nurtured in the virtual world. These include an exaggerated sense of our abilities, a superior attitude toward others, a new moral code that we adopt online, a proneness to impulsive behavior, and a tendency to regress to childlike states when faced with an open browser. Together, these traits combine into a “whole new you.” However, unlike other experiences that pretend to deliver this transformation but are hardly transformative, the Internet is, indeed, fundamentally changing us. The ways in which we act, interact, speak, read, think, and negotiate urges and goals online are remarkably different from the ways in which we handled these activities offline. What may be more remarkable, however, is that our online traits are unconsciously being imported into our offline life, so that our idea of what a real-life community should be, for example, is being reconfigured in the image of a chat room, and our offline persona increasingly resembles that of our avatar.

* Yet for all of the change wrought by the virtual world and thoroughly incorporated into our lives at this point, the more subtle reconfiguring of our psychological landscape that has taken place along the way is often lost on us.

* I really like my college friend Laurie,* but it takes work. The challenge is to constantly separate the flesh-and-blood human being—with all the real memories attached to her real person—from the carefree spirit, blithely roaming through cyberspace, spreading unnecessary confusion and pain in concentric ripples that seem to originate somewhere near her laptop. I do mostly well with my challenge, phoning her, when possible, instead of e-mailing, never, ever cc’ing her on a message, and constantly reminding myself that there’s Laurie and there’s virtual Laurie, and that the person coming to my college reunion party, or inviting me to join her book club, or babysitting for her neighbors, is the real one, not her virtual cousin. But when an outsider unfamiliar with her dual personality falls in the gap between the two Lauries, and I see the repercussions in her life and in the lives of people around her, Laurie’s predicament comes alive for me again.

* The result of all these online interactions is the unwitting creation of an e-identity, a virtual whole that is greater than its parts and that, despite not being real, is full of life and vitality. Unfettered by old rules of behaving, social exchange, etiquette, or even netiquette, this virtual personality is more assertive, less restrained, a little bit on the dark side, and decidedly sexier. Its advantages cannot be underestimated: This “e-personality” can act as a liberating force for the real-life individual, allowing the person to transcend debilitating shyness, let go of stultifying inhibitions, and forge connections and friendships that would be impossible otherwise. In many cases, the virtual version nicely complements the actual person and acts as an extension of his real-life persona.

* …because the online self is also dangerous and irresponsible, running roughshod over our caution and self-control. It can encourage us to pursue unrealistic or unhealthy goals; it can make us feel smarter and more knowledgeable than is warranted; and it can encourage us to behave more selfishly and recklessly. By promising both immediate fantasy fulfillment and anonymity, the Internet makes it difficult to resist going to eBay and buying that unneeded leather jacket or waltzing into a “social network” and pretending to be thinner, more popular, and more successful than we really are. It allows us to reinvent the portions of ourselves we are unhappy with, and it offers the freedom to engage in behaviors that our more responsible selves might put a stop to in the harsh light of day.

* The cost of feeling too powerful or having too much fun online is typically felt away from the screen, in the form of tension at home, as when new Facebook friends start taking too much time away from family; conflict in the workplace, as when the boss reprimands us for tactless e-mails when we are otherwise rather tactful; or distraction in the classroom, because the pace of our online activities has compromised our attention span.

* …we often begin to prefer the online version of who we are. Our lives as we have known them, with our in-between IQs, so-so jobs, and bodies that leave something to be desired, now become boring in comparison with the online lives we have built or Photoshopped for ourselves, where the various details that make up our virtual identity (and seemingly everybody else’s) are all above average. In the worst cases, one of two outcomes follows: self-hatred, i.e., something that resembles depression, or a total immersion in virtual life, i.e., something that resembles psychosis.

* …the Internet can produce depression-like and psychotic-like states in many of us. The Internet responds to our need for escapism by helping us generate phantasms and illusions, but that online phantasmagoria can in some cases lead to low self-esteem and/or a divorce from reality.

* I would argue that mindless Web surfing, without forethought or plan, and without awareness of the passage of time or any real-life anchoring, is our era’s very common version of the symptom of dissociation.

* My clinical experience with heavy video and Internet game users suggests that they, too, experience dissociation phenomena and score high on dissociation questionnaires…

* We all have less inhibitions online and act out more frequently and more intensely than we would “in person.” The normal brake system, which under usual circumstances helps keep thoughts and behaviors in check, constantly malfunctions on the information superhighway. This chronic malfunction has been called the “online disinhibition effect.” It is the stably unstable foundation upon which we will stack the building blocks of e-personality.

* Several features unique to the Internet medium help promote online disinhibition, writes Rider University psychologist Dr. John Suler. Those include anonymity, invisibility, the loss of boundaries between individuals, and the lack of any real hierarchy in cyberspace. According to a New Yorker cartoon, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” When, by remaining anonymous, “people have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out.”

* Anonymity can make it possible for people to “convince themselves that those online behaviors ‘aren’t me at all,’” writes Suler. If they “aren’t me,” it follows that they don’t reflect on me and that I’m not responsible for their consequences. This gives us carte blanche to engage in them with more abandon.

* …people in real life will avert their eyes and look away when discussing something personal or embarrassing. Traditional psychoanalysts sat behind their patients—that is, outside their field of vision—to encourage them to open up about their most heavily guarded secrets and traumas. Similarly, the person we are e-mailing or texting is invisible to us. (People we wrote letters to were also invisible, but that experience was more solitary than interactive in that a response could not be expected in real time or near–real time.) Not seeing who we are interacting with increases the chance of a heart-to-heart and of unrestrained effusions of the very personal kind.

* Finally, the lack of true status differential in cyberspace also encourages disinhibition. Typically, authority figures, such as parents, teachers, and police officers, announce and assert themselves through various visible trappings of strength and influence that arrive with them. Those include age stigmata, costume, body build, body language, and the many details that define one’s environment and create a “halo” of power. Online, however, people are separated from the real-life markers of their authority. On the Internet’s level playing field, everyone is equal…

* …against this background of disinhibited, dissociated personhood, five psychological forces will vie to assert themselves: grandiosity, or the feeling that the sky is the limit when it comes to what we can accomplish online; narcissism, or how we tend to think of ourselves as the center of gravity of the World Wide Web; darkness, or how the Internet nurtures our morbid side; regression, or the remarkable immaturity we seem capable of once we log on; and impulsivity, or the urge-driven lifestyle many fall into online. Those are the transformations (and fractures) that occur in our identity as we sit in front of our browsers, and that is the “Net effect.”

* Grandiosity, in the manic and bipolar sense, is as applicable as “historical innocence” here. For somebody suffering from bipolar mania, it might mean thinking he can excel at a number of unfamiliar endeavors for which he is unqualified, or that he can drive against traffic because he is too talented and above the usual rules. For Webvan’s “grocers,” but also for countless Internet wealth, thrill, and fame seekers, it means operating outside the realm of history, economy, rationality, and, in some cases, the law. Such “innocence,” and on all these fronts, recalls other moments of discovery in our history that also brought out the grandiose trait in people’s personalities, most recently the Wild West.

* the online quest has become more personal, and often involves a search for the best possible version of something or someone—and an unshakeable conviction that that version simply must exist somewhere in cyberspace, and that with the right search engine and the right search terms we will undoubtedly hunt it down. A subscriber to Match.com, for example, has access to fifteen million potential matches. For a man looking to meet a woman, the site allows him to specify her geographic location, ethnicity, height range, body type (many gradations from “slender” to “big and beautiful”), eye color, hair color, religion, educational level, languages spoken, job, salary range, marital status, whether she smokes or drinks, whether she has or wants kids, and whether any kids live with her.

With such a large pool of candidates to choose from, and such sophisticated tools to help him narrow down his search and zero in on the perfect match, a man is justified in feeling that he can find exactly what he is looking for. His dream of finding that perfect someone—or that perfect anything—is now within reach, or so it seems. The Internet has become the sure means to almost every brilliant goal, the one common road to myriad things we fantasize about and want to see realized. The conviction that the virtual world will help us “get there” justifies our lack of moderation: If our online expedition is expensive, time-consuming, or even of questionable morality or legality, at least it can be rationalized as a quest for a state of perfection that we now know exists and can be found…

* a cult of fame often marks people’s approach to the Internet, only in cyberspace it is typically short-term, disposable fame that one is after—more grandiose than grand. Most of us, of course, will never achieve any significant degree of recognition from our blog, Facebook page, Match profile, or other virtual endeavors. Still, overnight celebrity stories can stoke our own dreams of the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. But even if we do not become a breakout Internet celebrity, chances are we are participating in the creation of one. For instance, who among us has not watched, or marveled at, the fame and reach of such online celebrities as gossip blogger Perez Hilton, YouTube superstars Obama Girl and lonelygirl15, and Christian Lander of the wildly successful satirical blog Stuff White People Like?

* While not everybody is looking for fame, many amateurs are competing to be the next Tila Tequila, the MySpace celebrity who was given her own MTV reality show, or, especially, the next Justin Bieber, the sixteen-year-old whose homemade videos, posted on YouTube when he was twelve, launched him into superstardom, eventually sweeping up the world with a highly infectious case of “Bieber fever.” Not to mention the thousands of “citizen journalists” posting their work on CNN’s iReport.com—where the banner reads: “Your stories. No boundaries. You won’t believe what people are uploading”—and hoping to make the jump from the Web site to the cable news channel.

* A Google search of Matt Harding today yields 541,000 results. Rudolf Nureyev, considered by some the best ballet dancer the world has known? A mere 300,000. As Harding’s story indicates, online fame is easier to attain and is uniquely democratic; everyone is entitled to grandiose dreams, and everyone’s grandiosity stands a reasonable chance of being “rewarded.” No birthright privileges or special qualifications, like talent or looks, are required.

* To reacquaint oneself with memes of days past is to realize how evanescent Internet fame is and how suspect the online grandiosity that fed it. It is a lesson in how Warhol’s fifteen minutes, fleeting enough in pre-virtual readymade culture, have been further condensed by the Internet, metaphorically reduced to a “flicker” of relevance…

Because it is easier to copy and reproduce big dreams online than in real life, everything from celebrity status to discovery to second homes to “going public” seems that much closer and that much easier to close in on. The price we pay for online mimetic propagation, however, is twofold: the usually ephemeral nature of whatever it is we are propagating, and its typically inferior quality.

According to Gary Marshall, of London’s Middlesex University, there is, in cyberspace, “a premium on short, catchy memes as opposed to more complex [ones]. Infectiousness assumes an importance far greater than that of attributes that may well have greater long-term value such as utility and authority.” The grandiose objectives that mark many people’s online lives tend to lie on the superficial side and are more preoccupied with reproducing short-lived attention than something substantive or lasting—a “flailing chicken step” will always generate more hits, which is the goal, than any intelligent contribution in an online forum of ideas. A Web site’s utmost goal may be for users to bookmark it and add it to their list of “favorites.” It will do anything in its means to catch our attention and earn that distinction. Many of us take the same approach, and do not mind if our contributions are not meaningful enough to last beyond those fifteen minutes. Everything online is transient anyway. No teenager in my extended family would be caught dead on MySpace today. They have all migrated to Facebook…

* online grandiosity tends to have a limited shelf life. Nearly fifteen years into the Internet revolution, this should be rather obvious, yet we still approach virtual life with supersized notions and the Napoleonic conviction that, while glory is fleeting, obscurity is forever. Never mind that so many of our online pursuits are hardly imperial—in our new value system, it is better to be a passing meme than an unknown soldier.

* CLOSELY LINKED TO grandiose thinking is narcissism, another character trait that is nurtured by the Web and that marks many people’s e-personalities. According to the DSM, people with narcissistic personality disorder not only are grandiose but have a “need for admiration” and a “lack of empathy.” DSM-certified narcissists usually believe they are “‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people.” Their attitudes tend toward the “arrogant” and “haughty,” and they have an exaggerated sense of entitlement, with “unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with [their] expectations.” They are often “interpersonally exploitative,” which means they will ignore the needs of others and even manipulate them in order to achieve their own goals.

Narcissists are self-worshippers who want you to worship them, too. They can only conceive of themselves on a pedestal, and can only conceive of you in the audience, preferably in the backseats. They are “full of themselves,” like some grandiose individuals can be. In addition, they are often full of low regard for the other, because of the other’s inferiority and inability to measure up. While grandiose people can fly so high and be so removed from reality that they make the observer feel unanchored himself, a narcissist will make you feel exploited and taken for a ride. One gives you vertigo; the other, a bad taste in your mouth. According to epidemiological studies, less than 1 percent of the population meet criteria for pathological narcissism as defined in the DSM. (Studies also suggest that men are more likely to be afflicted than women.) However, with the Internet encouraging and sustaining some of the features that make up narcissistic personality disorder, it is quite possible that this figure has now become an underestimate.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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