The readings by Craig Mod last week raised an interested question: could you manage to go offline for an entire month? The answer for me is a clear no. Although growing up that was a regular occurrence, it’s fair to say that this is an increasingly difficult thing to do.
Almost all of our entertainment, friends, and work have gradually shifted online over the past 2 decades. All of my movies and games are digital only – not on physical discs. Most of my books are e-books, not in a traditional print medium. My current mobile provider doesn’t even have physical storefronts.
It’s not even a question of my own personal choice anymore; even if I could make do with offline entertainment, I would still need to be plugged in to keep up with schoolwork or even bills. Being connected online has become such a vital part of our lives, almost like having running water or electricity. In fact, the Canadian government has acknowledged that through their proposals, with funding to extend broadband internet coverage to rural areas that are currently underserved.
However, just as the internet has increasingly become a larger part of our lives, there doesn’t seem to be enough discussions about its impact on people and their behaviour.
John Suler’s article about the online disinhibition effect raises very real problems that we seem to have discussed so little about.
For example, the issue of asynchronicity is certainly something that I have noticed before, and people have talked very little about.
It’s part of the convenience of online communication – that messages can be received at any time and it’s something that we’ve all taken for granted.
But there have indeed been times where I need an answer or clarification about what someone said, and that asynchronicity is what creates a significant barrier.
Talking in real time provides a unique level of instantaneous feedback and understanding that is sometimes lost in messages or emails that are left to sit for a while. When I talk in person, there are cues that people can pick up on, whether it’s something that I don’t understand, or a certain feeling that I want to convey. Online communication often removes some of these information streams and makes it more difficult to communicate with the same level of depth.
Another issue that Suler notes, and I have also certainly noticed, is the tendency for the internet to be an equalizer of authority. Sometimes that’s a good thing. For example, the internet has allowed us to communicate with some of our favourite brands more directly, or voice our displeasure at them which, without the internet, would be a difficult undertaking.
However, the darker underbelly has been the rise of misinformation that also comes with equal authority. It’s become far too easy for anyone, not just those who have the credentials, to speak with no sense of accountability, and sometimes with malicious intent. And in a world where few people have the time to fact check every little claim, the ability for some to muddy the waters is an issue that has a real impact on our lives.
The points that Suler brings up are very relevant, and definitely things we should be paying more attention to, since a better understanding of these issues would allow us to take advantage of the positives that the internet can bring, while keeping its problems in check.
This can also help us build out our online selves more effectively, and better establish its role in our society particularly as more and more of our lives shift towards the online space.