To whom am I speaking?
Chelsea was bullied. And she wanted revenge. She wanted to feel some control. A fake Facebook profile of a handsome, confident guy that she could use to message her bullies seemed like the way to do that. And then she messaged more people. Over four years she chatted with lots of people who wanted to get to know “Jamison”, Chelsea’s alter ego.
One of those people was Sunny, a nursing student and star of the Catfish TV show’s first episode. When Sunny found out that Jamison was really Chelsea she vented her feelings, saying Chelsea must have a personality disorder to have done what she did. But pretending to be someone else online, or saying things we wouldn’t say in person, isn’t the same as having a mental illness.
It’s called the online disinhibition effect. When we feel anonymous, or even just hidden behind a screen, we feel less restrained, more able to express ourselves in ways we might not feel comfortable doing in person. It affects all of us. It can be good and it can be bad.
One study published in the journal ‘Computers in Human Behavior’ in 2014 found that young people can get emotional relief by sharing their feelings or telling secrets they had been holding onto through anonymous messaging. And another, in the Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace in 2015, showed that the online disinhibition effect had a positive effect on people who found communicating in face-to-face situations more difficult.
But we’re probably more familiar with the negative things that we hear about anonymous online messaging. Bullying, harassment, grooming, fraud. Feeling anonymous sometimes leads people to make poor choices about how they treat others. Not sure we can blame the online disinhibition effect for that.
For good or bad, messaging apps are the most used apps on our phones. Most of the time we’re messaging with people who know who we are, and who probably ignore the effects our own online disinhibition has on us when we get frustrated or annoyed a bit too quickly. But there are hundreds of anonymous messaging apps on Google Play and Apple’s app store. And with more than 42 million messages sent every minute, many of those messages go between people who don’t know each other.
One-to-one online communication is fraught with difficulties we’re not really equipped to deal with.
Robert Epstein also got catfished. Not by an American teenager, but by a Russian chatbot. After two months of romantic messages from Ivana, Robert got a bit suspicious. Perhaps it shouldn’t have taken him quite so long to realise as he’s one of the founders of an annual prize in which chatbots try to convince the judges that they’re talking to a human. If he can be misled and become confused by chatting online, anyone can.
When it comes to chatbots, it seems that knowing you aren’t talking to a person helps to extend the online disinhibition effect. In the 1960’s, Joseph Weizenbaum working at the MIT Computerized Reasoning Laboratory created Eliza, the first ever chatbot. Eliza was programmed to respond to people by repeating back to them what they had said as a question, much like a non-directional psychotherapist would. From the anecdotes, people seemed to really appreciate being about talk to something that wasn’t going to judge them.
And a more modern version, Woebot, which calls itself a mental health ally, not an online therapist, also helps people by prompting them to share things they might not feel comfortable talking about either in-person or to another person. The online disinhibition effect not only works if you know you aren’t talking to a person, it might even be stronger.
The more we rely on chat messaging for staying in touch with family, arranging things with friends, contacting customer service departments, coordinating with colleagues, etc., etc., the more the online disinhibition effect becomes embedded in how we behave online. Good and bad, there’s no avoiding it. But perhaps we can be more considered about it.
Is that the lesson Chelsea from Catfish learned? She founded ‘Win From Within’, an anti-bullying organisation to help people find self-acceptance and get support for bullying issues. I wonder if they offered support over online chat.