In the good old days, celebrities used to get drunk at awards ceremonies, hurl insults and occasionally punches at each other. But these days the internet is the virtual bar where they brawl.
Just recently, British columnist Julie Burchill accused Lily Allen of being an “over-privileged cry-baby”. The pop star retaliated on Twitter by accusing Julie of being “an ignorant and bitter old troll”.
But it’s not just celebrities who are using social networking sites for public slanging matches. Cuckolded plumber Ian Puddick used the internet to circulate graphic details of his wife’s affair.
This might be an extreme example, but it seems online spite is growing.
My friend Sarah was horrified at being described in a chatroom as “hideous”, “ugly” and “chunky” after her photo was used in an online article.
A colleague, Beth, received a message from someone she did not know telling her “the world had enough of her inane Facebook updates”. Beth says: “I felt physically sick when I saw it. It was so hateful and unexpected. Maybe my updates weren’t that interesting, but is that a good enough reason to be horrible?
“The fact that someone went to the effort of creating an anonymous e-mail account to send the message made it more sinister. I cried for the weekend.”
So why is the internet bringing out the worst in us? Elias Aboujaoude, a doctor at Stanford University’s school of medicine in the US, believes it is transforming our personalities. He warns many of us are developing “e-personalities” that are like the worst, drunken versions of ourselves.
“Our e-personalities are an uninhibited version of who we are, a collection of personality traits that make us more child-like, impulsive, darker and narcissistic,” says the author of The Dangerous Powers Of The e-Personality.
“It comes alive in our e-mails, tweets, texts and choice of Facebook friends. We binge-shop on Amazon and eBay because it’s so easy, routinely lie about ourselves on Facebook and get into nasty fights in chatrooms.
“We are anonymous, so it’s so easy to think that what we say has no consequences. Online stalking of ex-partners is also becoming common. It feels rewarding, until you realise you’re probably being stalked, too.
“This distorted version of who we are doesn’t just stay online; it seeps into our real lives, too.”
One of the more disturbing results of this mindset is online bullying.
“We are quicker to bully each other in chatrooms or on Twitter, as there is this notion that what happens online is all a bit of a game – that it’s not real,” says Aboujaoude.
“Cartoon graphics and childish language add to this illusion. We are often anonymous and always invisible, so we state things we would not say to people’s face. We lash out with no thought for the hurt we might cause. The speed of the internet means we act before taking time to engage our brains and consider the consequences. It’s too easy to fire off a rash e-mail. When we are online, we bypass the part of the brain that would normally make us count to 10 before reacting.”
But these incidents of lashing out aren’t just something that last moments or are confined to the internet.
“Society is becoming more uncivil – people are ruder,” adds Aboujaoude.
“We should ask ourselves if one reason for this is because of what we do online and how we act on our blogs and in chatrooms. How can manners be conveyed in a tweet?
“Is this affecting the way we communicate with people in the real world?”
ACT NOW, THINK LATER
Another trait encouraged by the internet is impulsivity. This is why we fire off rude e-mails without thinking and spend hundreds on clothes we don’t need.
“These are impulsive gestures and we live to regret them,” says Aboujaoude. “Online shopping, gambling and infidelity are the most common examples of impulsivity online. These impulses have always been there – they’re just much easier to access now.
“Virtual money makes it easier to be financially reckless, while dating sites make it easy for anyone – especially people in urban areas – to have casual relationships.”
The idea that everything is at our fingertips is fuelling delusions of grandeur.
“Anything we want, from a recipe to a partner, can be found at the press of a button,” says Aboujaoude.
The notion we can accomplish anything spills into our opinion of ourselves, which is why we get frustrated when things don’t happen instantly or go our way.
“I’ve seen people who throw away real relationships because they are living under the illusion that love is easier to find – you just log on to a dating site and have thousands of options.
“Why work on what you have now when you can get something new?”
IT’S ALL ABOUT ME
The narcissism brought on by the internet – the feeling that the world revolves around you – can make us less inclined to make real relationships work.
“The feeling that the world is our audience is intoxicating.
“We have 300 friends on Facebook and 2 000 people following our tweets, which makes us feel the world can’t wait to hear what we say,” says Dr Aboujaoude.
“And then there’s the i-centric nature of the internet. From iTunes to the iPhone, the digital world is geared for you.
“More than ever, technology aims to satisfy our every need. Not only can you choose an online news source, you can specify which type of story you want on the front page and which ones you want filtered out. As we get accustomed to having even our most minor needs accommodated to this degree, we are growing more needy and feel more entitled.”
BACK TO THE PLAYGROUND
While part of being mature should mean restraining our worst instincts, Aboujaoude believes the internet is stopping us from doing that because it makes us more childish.
“We use e-language, which is a childlike version of adult language. Look at your e-mails and compare their grammar and vocabulary with the language you were taught to use at school.
“Look at emoticons – the smiley or sad faces people use at the end of texts or tweets – they show we’ve become more childlike. This regression is trickling into everyday life.
“It’s why it’s acceptable for adults to play computer games for hours instead of following more mature pursuits.”
THINK BEFORE YOU CLICK
If you think that this affects only people who are on their phone and laptop day and night, think again.
“You don’t have to be a twenty-something online all the time,” says Aboujaoude. “We are all behaving differently – both offline and online – because of the internet.
“We spend about seven to eight hours a day on a computer on average and during that time we talk in a certain kind of way and follow certain principles.
“But while we may think we are different when we’re offline, we are not as good at compartmentalising as we believe.
“Right now, all around us is the clamour of the latest Apple or Google breakthrough, demanding more of our time, wallet and consciousness. All I am doing is raising a red flag that we need to think about this rush of changes and look at the bigger picture.
“There is no turning back, but we have to recognise that this social experiment has consequences.
“We have to acknowledge that we actually act differently online and see that this is affecting our real lives, too.”
So the next time you’re about to buy something you don’t need online, post a poisonous comment on Facebook or fire off an e-mail with poor grammar and no polite greeting, take a moment to consider this: what you do and the self you create online could be changing the person you really are for ever.
Think before you click. – Daily Mail