Editorial – Virtual Schizophrenia

Hand someone a sales contract, and she’ll probably give it a quick scan to make sure there’s nothing amiss. But let that same person make an online transaction with a similar set of terms and conditions, and chances are good she’ll click ?accept? without giving the contract a further thought.

Case in point: an April Fool’s Day prank pulled by British gaming store GameStation. As The Huffington Post reported, last April the store’s online sales department included in its standard buyer agreement a clause in which buyers agreed to transfer the rights of their souls to GameStation, promising delivery upon request by the gaming store or its ?duly authorized minions.? Although the clause included an opt-out link, 88 per cent of buyers failed to click it?and apparently lost their souls.

A little April Fool’s fun? Perhaps, but although GameStation subsequently relinquished its rights to the imprudent buyers? souls, the whole situation illustrates a somewhat disconcerting truth: people’s conduct online is drastically different than what they’d consider standard behaviour in the real world.

It’s no secret that Internet users frequently project different personas than their real-life selves, and not just by overinflating their dating ?resum├ęs? or Facebook profiles. Encouraged by the anonymity and lack of physical barriers, a user might converse more comfortably and confidently?or argue with more vitriol and less sense.

But It’s perhaps a little more surprising that people’s online actions outside message boards, chat rooms, and social media are equally estranged from what they’d consider normal in everyday life. And shockingly, this disparity is becoming more and more acceptable in society.

An example is online shopping. A recent British study showed that the peak time for the relaxing pastime is 4 p.m. on Wednesday?when most would-be shoppers are still at work. But as The Toronto Star reported, top management not only acknowledges the practice, it even pooh-poohs the idea of banning online shopping during the workday. Would those same bosses respond kindly to employees taking a mid-afternoon break to hit up the bookstore or jewellery shop? Unlikely.

Why the double standard?

Dr. John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University, has some interesting thoughts on the matter. In his book The Psychology of Cyberspace (available in hypertext format), he suggests that a number of factors may be involved in lowering the inhibitions of web users. But the two that struck me were what he refers to as solipsistic introjection (the online interactions are ?all in my head?) and dissociative imagination (the whole online world is ?all a game?).

According to Dr. Suler, the impersonal nature of online dealings and the fact that online interactions are divorced from the physical cues to which we’ve become accustomed in real life can cause us to behave differently once we log on. Rather than bringing our real-life selves and society-created inhibitions with us, we often leave those outside the doors of the online world and create new, imaginary selves?like characters in a role-playing game.

In essence, as Dr. Suler wrote, when a user gets online, he may begin acting as though his ?online persona along with the online others live in an make-believe dimension, a dream world, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world.?

It makes sense. Without the boundaries that person-to-person interaction creates in live society, It’s easy to slip into the mentality that no-one’s watching, that it doesn’t matter what we say or do online. We get careless?It’s virtual, so how real can it be?

Hence the cavalier attitude toward sales contracts and shopping while still on the clock?and the proliferation of online bullying.

Because if It’s all a game, why should we care what happens? We can’t experience it with our senses, so it doesn’t seem real. And because we usually act alone, with no-one watching, consequences are rare. Contracts won’t be enforced, we think, and we can get away with saying things we’d consider inappropriate if we were engaged in a face-to-face debate. So does it matter how we behave online?

It does. Regardless of the possibility?or not?of consequences, the more careless we are about our online personas and their dealings, the more we trap ourselves in a Matrix-style web of virtual life.

Sci-fi literature and film often contain a reiterated theme: someday, if we’re not careful, computers may overtake the world. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we maintain control of our dealings online, keep hold of our true identity, and carry with us our social and personal codes of conduct while we navigate what might seem like an alternate reality, we remain in charge of our electronic destiny.

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