Are You Meaner Online Than in Real Life?

meaner online

Today’s big idea is that it’s really easy to be meaner online than you are in real life.

You’re reading the transcript of an episode of the How to Be a Better Person podcast. If you’d rather listen, click the play button below.

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There’s multiple reasons for being meaner online. I’ve got four of them for you, including:

  1. The internet can make you feel kind of invisible. (Although, we know enough about data mining and tracking to know that you’re really not truly anonymous when you’re online.)
  2. You’re not interacting with people face to face, which can make it very easy for tone to be misread. And more tempting to let something snarky or mean fly. 
  3. Being online can feel like a video game, like it’s not the real world. So normal rules don’t apply. It’s not like there’s an authority figure, like a boss, or a teacher, monitoring our behavior, so it can feel like anything goes. 
  4. It’s so easy to hit submit on a comment or a review before you’re really had time to process what you truly think.

In fact, there’s a scientific term for the phenomenon of acting differently or meaner online than you do in real life

It’s called the internet disinhibition effect.

Like most things in life, this disinhibition can be positive or….less positive. You can get disinhibited in a way that gets you to say meaner things and be more likely to stir up arguments and fuel angry exchanges. That’s toxic disinhibition. Or, you can open up more online than you might face to face and it actually helps bring you closer to other people. That’s called benign disinhibition. 

We’ve all done something toxic online, right?

Fired off an angry comment, or left a bad review after getting bad service. I remember one late night we flew into Boston airport with the kids. And this was a few years ago, so they were still kinda little. Let’s say 7 and 9. We had parked at an offsite parking lot that you had to take a bus to. It was the final leg in a day-long journey, and we were all feeling tired. That parking lot that was so chill when we dropped off our car was now thronged with people. And they could not find our car. One by one, everyone else in the crowd got their cars and drove home and went to bed.

Finally, one of the attendants realized that our car was right by the front. It had been about 15 feet away the whole time. I was so frustrated that once we got in the car and drove away I used my phone to get online and leave a bad review on Google or Yelp. Ugh, I still feel bad about it. Also, how privileged was I, to have just come back from an airplane trip with my family of four, and to get huffy that my car wasn’t ready and waiting for me? It was a real Karen moment. Although one I never would have made a stink about in real life. I felt emboldened by the relative invisibility of being online. 

So I’m not proud of it

But you know, that gross feeling that still lingers has really shown me how important it is to have compassion in those moments of quote unquote bad service. And just remember that in the vast majority of cases, everyone is doing the best they can. Now, I try to shout out instances of great service, whether directly to the person who’s delivering it or online. Like in this recent tweet to apple, who made the process of getting my laptop battery replaced so easy, quick, and cheap, it blew me away. They never responded, but hey, that’s OK. 

Daily Tiny Assignment

Your tiny assignment is two fold–one thing you can do right away, and something to do the next time you feel some toxic internet disinhibition arising, lol. 

Your tiny assignment is to go post a positive comment somewhere. If there’s a small business you appreciate, review them on Yelp. If there’s a podcast you love, leave them a review. Or if a friend or neighbor did something nice for you, publish a gratitude post on your feed. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or super gushy, just… the person helped me out and I appreciate it, or this business got it right. What you appreciate appreciates. 

And the second thing is, next time you are tempted to fire off a nasty comment, you can go ahead and type it out (I believe in getting things off your chest), but then cut it out of that reply box and paste it into an email that you send to yourself. That should give you enough distance to be able to read it objectively after the heat of the moment has passed and assess if there’s something in there that is important to communicate, and perhaps tweak it to be a little more responsive and a little less reactionary. Or maybe you’ll read it and be like, yeah, there’s really nothing constructive that could come out of this so I’m not going to post at all. 

Come back tomorrow when we’re going to tackle how to be more mindful of how much overall time you’re spending on screens. 

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