For the layperson, personality is often defined in terms of social attractiveness. The person with a good personality is one who impresses others with his or her ability to get along well with people.
If I met you online and then met you in real life, would you be the same person? Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University psychiatrist and author of the book Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011) doubts it. He says we all have e-personalities, selves we portray online. They tend to be more impulsive, angrier and dangerous.
The e-personality is a set of qualities that we take on in cyberspace that includes traits such as impulsivity, grandiosity, the notion that we are much more capable than is warranted, narcissism, or how we tend to think of ourselves as the centre of the World Wide Web; and impulsivity, or the urge-driven lifestyle many of us are falling into. As a consequence of adopting these traits, we feel more potent, special, and spontaneous. Unfortunately these are more negative qualities. What is happening is that they do not simply disappear when we log off at the end of the day, but they seep into real life and we end up acting and behaving like our avatar even when there is no browser in sight. This is what he calls "virtualism" (in contrast to realism) in his book.
Is it our id that is acting here or is it what Hobbes, the English philosopher called "our state of nature" that is stripping away the forces of our inner nature?
His hypothesis is that one reason that we are becoming so uncivil is because we are spending so much time being angry on our social media. He thinks it's a shortcut to the instincts we have that over the course of civilization and with the forces of religion and culture, we have tried to control and now they have found a shortcut to resurface again and the Internet has just been a wonderful outlet for them.
Things on the Internet experience also cause us to be disinhibited. Anonymity is one factor but it not the only cause. The lack of any sense of true hierarchy online is another one. If you are a child communicating with your parent, or a student communicating with your teacher, there is not the usual hierarchy. There is not the usual hierarchy on the Internet, everyone is equal to the sense of their ADSL speed connection, so it makes it easier for the social contract that we normally live within to melt away.
"Society at large is becoming a more angry, uncivil place. We should ask ourselves if one reason we've become so uncivil is because of what we do online and how we act on our blogs and in our chat rooms," says Dr Aboujaoude.
He explains that the splitting of self is part of how we are evolving with a technology we are not readily equipped to understand. It does not mean we are all in a dangerous position of our e-personalities becoming a pathological damage, however Dr. Aboujaoude says that we all are vulnerable to be exposed to this danger. "Idealising versions of ourselves, and seeing ourselves as too big to fail can come to haunt us in real life". An extreme case portraying this would be the terrible incident that happened this summer in Norway, when mass killer, a 32-year-old admitted of posting online his 1,500 page manifesto whilst praising his favourite right-wing blogger Peder Jensen, a 36-year-old who claims Islam is over-running European culture, leading to the slaying of over 70 youngsters.
Facebook is a wonderful venue for anyone to project their identity, on the surface, an idealized version of a better self. Its focus on personalization and "friend" accumulation feeds narcissism. This collective psychological cost of our love affair with technology is overestimating our ability to switch between modes of interaction and there are dangers in subscribing to feeling incredibly grandiose and omnipotent. He is also concerned that these actions can exasperate neurotism, where we become alienated from the real self and from others and identify with our idealised self.
In another chapter in his book, he says that when it comes to online spending, technology has turned money into an intangible object. Things become easily affordable as we turn to our "one-click option". The immunity of bankruptcy is obscured by our impulsive notions as our alter ego is gratified instantly. Debt has stopped scaring us because money had stopped being real.
Being always connected to the Internet in a loose way, through our mobile phones, iPods, the more time we spend online, at work and at home, it is being imported into the offline setting. The evidence raises quite a number of red flags; however we know little how this will affect society at large in the long-term. There is though some benefit that the Internet experience might offer for someone extremely shy, to break the ice that they cannot break in real life and develop relationships. The moment we start acknowledging that our offline life is distinct from our online life, we are consciously aware of the difference and control our behaviour rationally.