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Nice IRL, mean online: the reasons why we act differently behind a screen.

by Wendy Rose Gould

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We all know that person. The one who consistently posts impassioned, heated tirades across social media and is quick to engage in verbal combat with whoever falls into their keyboard trap. Many gawk from a distance, wary of getting directly involved, but happy to pass the time soaking up some internet drama.

Here’s the kicker: that person, and some of the people who engage, don’t act like that in real life. In fact, you might even describe that person as meek, endlessly gracious, or vocally silent or neutral on controversial issues.

This isn’t something that happens infrequently. We can all probably name some “dual personality” people in our friends lists who present themselves one way online and another way in person. Turns out, there’s a name for that phenomenon: the online disinhibition effect, or “the reduction or abandonment of social restrictions and inhibitions found in normal face-to-face communication when using remote electronic communications.”

In other words, it’s the tendency for otherwise sweet and wonderful humans to engage in aggressive online behavior. Seeing as how the internet hasn’t been around for long, this is a modern anomaly that we’re still trying to figure out. However, there are some theories that explore the reasons this “disinhibition” occurs.

There’s a false closeness and reduced boundaries

“Often, people will consider their online ‘friends’ and connections much closer to them than they really are,” explains L. Gordon Brewer, a therapist who specializes in working with individuals and couples. “This results in lowered boundaries, which makes people feel more comfortable venting and discussing controversial topics, and more likely to share intimate details that are traditionally reserved for their inner circle.”

The reality is that we’re more likely to “let our colors show” or vent openly with our closest friends and family members, as they’re quick to accept and forgive when we go off on a tangent or say something unsavory. But when this happens among online acquaintances with whom we barely converse with in real life, it comes across as straight up mean.

To be fair, feeling less guarded online can create the opposite effect. People can be much kinder on the internet, more compassionate, and more likely to open up about their intimate struggles and thoughts.

There’s a greater sense of control and power

While composing a post or comment on social media, the writer doesn’t have to contend with any arguments or interruptions, explains Brewer. Instead, they’re free to carefully word their post or reply—even if it takes an hour—and then share it with the world in a matter of seconds. Even more power is handed over via the “delete comment” and “unfriend” buttons once the replies start coming in. Naturally, some people are going to be more aggressive when they feel in control or empowered.

Some people are just mean

“There are just people who are mean-spirited and who will say something cruel just because they know it hurts,” says Brewer. “This is often caused by a sense of insecurity and, somehow, lashing out makes them feel more secure in themselves.”

While this person is more of an outlier in the general scheme of things, they exist nonetheless. But before you write them off as horrible, consider the possibility that they might be hurting pretty deeply. Someone who is so openly hurtful online likely feels a warped sense of pleasure when manipulating and getting a rise out of people, as it restores a lost sense of power and control.

Unhappy people are also less stable than their cheery counterparts, explains Brewer. This can make them quicker to respond in anger, quicker to get defensive, and quicker to spit vitriol in an attempt to protect themselves.

It can be cathartic

If we feel we’re unheard by our partner, if we’re angry about an interaction that happened with a stranger, or if we feel persecuted in a social group, it helps to vent. In the past, and even today, a common release in those harried moments is to write a letter that’ll never see the light of day, or talk with a close friend about how angry or hurt we are. We may lash out in the process, say things that are incredibly hurtful, and even act meanly toward the person who is trying to help.

Today, though, we don’t have to wait for a friend to show up, and we don’t even have to uncap a pen. Instead, we can get immediate satisfaction by writing a heated post and blasting it out through the social media cannon.

“The internet is a place where you can be heard and where people will listen to you,” says Brewer. “There’s something cathartic about that immediacy, and something cathartic about writing our feelings down, in general.”

Brewer explains that it’s natural for everyone to get angry, and that’s not what’s unhealthy or “dangerous” here. Instead, it’s the unfiltered sharing and spewing—where it may be taken out of context or misunderstood—that can hurt people or make us come across as aggressive or angry.

While there’s the occasional situation where people are mean for the sake of being mean, ultimately, we’re all human. We feel closer to online strangers than we should, we seize power when it’s a click away, and we try to find a release or a listening ear when we’re feeling hurt or angry. When we allow ourselves to do all the above, we’re giving strangers a first-row seat to the drama of our lives, and in the process that can make us appear hyper aggressive and socially unaware. Some are guiltier of this “spewing” than others, and these are probably the people who feel especially hurt, especially unheard, and especially angry.

As is often the case, a gentler assessment and softer response to a person who’s venting or lashing out will likely go further than throwing another angry response into the reply heap. And finally, before you compose and post, spare yourself the perpetuated drama and despair by calling a friend or jotting in an offline journal first.

Wendy Rose Gould

Wendy Rose Gould is a writer and photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. She covers women's lifestyle topics for numerous digital publications, including xoVain, Refinery29, Revelist, PopSugar and ModCloth. You can learn more about her at WendyGould.com.

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