Back in the 90ies when the internet started to conquer our private computers many people were afraid that people would pretend to be someone else and no one could keep control on that. There were no limits set to our imagination. We could transform into superheroes or talking dogs.
But in fact people hardly change any of their characteristics in their cyber personalities. Maybe we spice up our profile pictures a little to appear more attractive, but women stay women, men stay men and Europeans stay Europeans. We do not even use the picture of a different attractive, European woman for our cyber-selves – we upload our photos or take the most similar avatar.
There are serval scientific studies dealing with this topic by using for instance Facebook posts and likes. Not only information on age, sex and free time activities can be gathered from our cyber activities, but also our ethnics, political view and even sexual orientation or family background are uncovered in our cyber track. Companies use this information for their perfectly custom-built marketing that let us feel creepy when we scroll through our profile pages (…and find advertisements that fit our personal interests or attitudes).
In real life we would never shout out loud such private information the way we do online. On one hand we feel unobserved and on the other hand we are really searching for contacts and try to make friends out there. That’s why we share out interests, comment on posts and open up for the huge group of people out there.
Containing ourselves? We can’t!
For our mind it is important to know what others think about us. The opinion of others makes us what we are. Our tendency to follow the group’s persuasion is well investigated and has brought us in so many a conflict.
Unfortunately the group’s opinion drowns our gut feelings in many decisions what can get really bad when it comes to exclusion or mobbing. The leading of the group carries along some people in real life but plays an even bigger role in the virtual world. Cyber mobbing outranges the selected few we know personally and make it harder to react immediately. However the emotional distress is real and is located at the same brain area as physical pain.
The possibilities in the virtual world to try out different things can also have a positive effect. One effect is shown in a study about the choice of avatars in an online game. If the player chooses a big, strong, fast or just attractive character and meet with approval from the other players his/her confidence raises in real life too.
The social system we use in real life is not only working in terms of exclusion but also in terms of appreciation. Even in virtual soccer teams the players (avatars) which seem faster and more athletic were selected to the team first. The only difference is that the player behind this mask does not have to be sporty in real life but rather an excellent gamer to earn the credit for winning.
Even in the virtual world personalities grow from experiences and feedback but we get feedback sooner and from many people who do not know us personally. On one hand it bears the risk to get hurt some day but on the other paves us the way to a whole new world with new changes and opportunities if we are brave enough to take it.
Kosinski, M., et al. (2013). Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 110, 5802-5805.
Sabella, R.A. et al.(2013). Cyberbullying myths and realities. Computers in Human Behavior.
Yee, N. & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus effect: The effect of transformed self-representation on behavior. Human Communication Research, 33, 271-290.