Tag Archives: online etiquette

Why do people behave differently online than they do in person?

I was recently asked via Google Buzz:

@Wes Widner unfortunately I think that some people when hidden behind their computers do not fill obliged to follow accepted social norms, however I think that compromising such rules here is completely inappropriate, why should people be allowed to say more or behave differently here than in real life?1

This is a very good question. One that comes up fairly often, actually. At first I decided not to reply, figuring the question was largely rhetorical. But then I ran across this quote from Marshall McLuhan, the czar of communication.

So here is my response as to why people act differently in person than they do online (or even on the phone):

I would argue that the medium, and how we interact with it has a lot to do with it.

In many ways I would argue that our interaction in non-physical mediums such as the internet or on the phone where we are a disembodied mind or voice respectively invites a sort of coarse frankness we would otherwise have given the necessity of transferring our thoughts to our mouths and forming words.

In other words, it is so easy to communicate our thoughts in an electronic medium so we tend to do so much more freely than if we were in person. This, I believe, tends to create a condition wherein we place more of a value in what they say than in communication as a whole. The latter being only the content of their message whereas the former combines the content being communicated plus the method in which it is communicated along with the parties involved in the communication (sender/receiver).

And here is the quote from McLuhan:

By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth, will be translated into information systems. Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. We must serve our electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which we once served our coracle, our canoe, our typography, and all other extensions of our physical organs. But, there is a difference here. Those previous technologies were partial and fragmentary. The electric is total and inclusive. An external consensus or conscience is now as necessary as private consciousness. With the new media, however, it is now possible to store and to translate everything; and as for speed, that is no problem. No further acceleration is possible this side of the light barrier. –Mcluhan, Understanding Media – The Extensions of Man, 1963

  1. emphasis mine []