It's well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the "disinhibition effect." It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. We may call this benign disinhibition.
On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats. Or people explore the dark underworld of the internet, places of pornography and violence, places they would never visit in the real world. We might call this toxic disinhibition.
On the benign side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes, in toxic disinhibition, it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.
What causes this online disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace that loosens the psychological barriers that block the release of these inner feelings and needs? Several factors are at play. For some people, one or two of them produces the lion's share of the disinhibition effect. In most cases, though, these factors interact with each other, supplement each other, resulting in a more complex, amplified effect.
You Don't Know Me (dissociative anonymity)
As you move around the internet, most of the people you encounter can't easily tell who you are. System operators and some technologically savvy, motivated users may be able to detect your e-mail or internet address, but for the most part people only know what you tell them about yourself. If you wish, you can keep your identity hidden. As the word "anonymous" indicates, you can have no name - at least not your real name. That anonymity works wonders for the disinhibition effect. When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up. Whatever they say or do can't be directly linked to the rest of their lives. They don't have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of who they "really" are. When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn't have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviors "aren't me at all." In psychology this is called "dissociation."
You Can't See Me (invisibility)
In many online environments other people cannot see you. As you browse through web sites, message boards, and even some chat rooms, people may not even know you are there at all - with the possible exception of web masters and other users who have access to software tools that can detect traffic through the site, assuming they have the inclination to keep an eye on you, one of maybe hundreds or thousands of users. Invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn't.
This power to be concealed overlaps with anonymity, because anonymity is the concealment of identity. But there are some important differences. In text communication such as e-mail, chat, blogs, and instant messaging, others may know a great deal about who you are. However, they still can't see or hear you - and you can't see or hear them. Even with everyone's identity visible, the opportunity to be physically invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect. You don't have to worry about how you look or sound when you say (type) something. You don't have to worry about how others look or sound when you say something. Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can slam the breaks on what people are willing to express. In psychoanalysis, the analyst sits behind the patient in order remain a physically ambiguous figure, without revealing any body language or facial expression, so that the patient has free range to discuss whatever he or she wants, without feeling inhibited by how the analyst is physically reacting. In everyday relationships, people sometimes avert their eyes when discussing something personal and emotional. It's easier not to look into the other's face. Text communication offers a built-in opportunity to keep one's eyes averted.