You can tell how much the landscape of the internet has shifted in the 20 years since John Suler published his article about “The Online Disinhibition Effect”. This article was written in the age when the advice of “don’t give your real name to people online” was still prevalent. He writes about the disconnect people have from their so-called “real selves” while operating anonymously online.
In 2023, most people I know do not operate anonymously anymore. If you want to find someone’s online presence, it’s as easy as searching their full name in any of the major social media platforms. A lot of young people are increasingly blurring the lines between the online and the offline self. People present a skewed perception on what their life is actually like, but they insist it is all real. Not everyone does this, but I’m sure we all know people who do. All while using their real names, they make “my daily work routine” TikToks, post their extravagant meals, and make Instagram shorts about spending every weekend at the club. It’s a cry of “LOOK HOW INTERESTING I AM!”.
This is not a dig at people who post. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with regular posting. It’s the people who are more concerned with getting b-roll footage than enjoying the night with their friends. People who let the food get cold trying to snap the right angle. Just the people who so desperately want to seem interesting. If you want to seem interesting, maybe do something interesting, bozo. Spending every weekend getting shitfaced clubbing is pretty run-of-the-mill for 20-somethings, you’re not revolutionizing the industry by making a TikTok about it.
It’s not even the manufactured nature of it that I have a problem with. It’s the insistence/implication that it’s real. All of my content is manufactured. Bar maybe a handful of candid shots, most of what I put out has been planned beforehand. The difference is, I don’t try to pass this off as my genuine life. I don’t link my full name to my account, I don’t try to game the algorithm, I just fucking do what I enjoy. My personal online experience is so much better ever since I started treating it as Fun and Games. I don’t want people looking at my content for an insight into who I really am. If you want that, come talk to me. I want people looking at my page to see dope shit that I like putting out. Again, it’s all Fun and Games.
So back to Suler for a moment. The ideas brought forward in this piece remind me a lot of one of my favourite works, the 1998 animated series Serial Experiments Lain. If you haven’t seen the show, I would highly recommend it. From Wikipedia, “The series follows Lain Iwakura, an adolescent girl in suburban Japan, and her relation to the Wired, a global communications network similar to the internet”. Despite being 25 years old, it predicted much of the current online landscape.
The show constantly deals with themes of the online vs offline self, and how we present differently on the internet. The creators wrote the protagonist as multiple different characters, an “offline” version of herself and an “online” version. Both of these characters, although sharing the same physical traits, behave completely differently from each other. This goes with Suler’s idea of “dissociative imagination”, where someone’s online persona exists in a fantasy world of sorts. In the show, their version of the internet is portrayed as a “dream world” of sorts, an alternate plane where characters can interact with each other. The show deals with the implications this digital identity, and the harm that can come from blurring the lines between online and offline.
The biggest theme of the show however, is the idea that what you perceive is reality. At one point in the show, rumours start being spread through the internet about one of the characters. It never matters whether these rumours are actually true, as enough people believe them that it literally becomes the new reality. I don’t want to spoil the show, but the finale takes this idea of “what you believe is reality” to the extreme. As the show goes on and the protagonist interacts with the internet more and more, the lines become increasingly blurred as to what is actually “real”.
I think Suler touches on very important ideas about reality and the separation between different selves. We need to balance our online interactions with offline ones to avoid creating our own skewed sense of reality. This is why I think it’s problematic how many young people blur that line on social media. How you are perceived eventually becomes reality.
Suler says that many of the characteristics we may deem undesirable still make up an important part of who we are. If you are shy in person but extroverted online, both of those are equally “real” parts of who you are. If the online self continues to take over the “real” self, you will eventually lose these parts that make you, you. You become inauthentic, like a caricature of yourself.
This is why I like to separate my online and offline identities. Perception is reality. I can choose to create my own limited reality that only my online followers will know, a reality that is completely separate from those who know me face-to-face. That’s one of the reasons why I use a username that is not my own name. People who know me exclusively online know me by that username, even if my first name is linked to the account. I’ve had people recognized me before and call me by my username, because they only knew me online. A properly curated online identity allows you to be someone completely different. These people know me as no more than a concept, and I love it. For how public of a presence I have, I’d consider myself a rather private individual. To anyone but my inner circle, I’d rather exist as dripowensonline.
In the words of the great American hero, Patrick Bateman:
“There is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours, and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable,
I simply am not there.”