First we had the WIMP environment – windows, icons, mouse and pointer. Then came voice-activated software. Gradually our devices became multimedia, first with the ability to play sound files, then video. Then we had wireless so we could move around, cameras and messaging, and phones that could take photos and send text and access the internet.
Initially we could just download, with only the most rudimentary means of sending anything. But soon we could stream, and get access to live material whether it was news feeds or the latest videos from YouTube. Blogging gave literally anyone the opportunity to broadcast instantly to an unknown number of anonymous people.
Our devices evolved from what were essentially receivers into broadcasters. Instead of getting our feedback about ourselves only through face-to-face interaction with friends, relatives, and colleagues, there was now another source of validation. We could use forums, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, and a host of others. We could make friends anonymously, project an imaginary personality, adjust and modify aspects of ourselves to suit the environment and the audience. In short, we could design the personality we wanted, and experiment with it.
A social experiment in which we go to a new place, adopt a different personality, and explore the consequences for our relationships is now simply a matter of a new email address and a registration form. We have the opportunity to experiment with personality itself. Of course, the way we take advantage of this opportunity isn't entirely arbitrary, being based on our real psychological history and the mix of people who respond. But our projected personalities are becoming more fluid than they used to be.
The private, inner world of our own personal thoughts can be added to, accentuated, changed, by exploring our own online personas. We can give physical appearances to them in virtual worlds like Second Life or Entropia. For some people, this provides interaction with others free from the social risks of embarrassment, rejection, hostility and conflict. For others, it allows them to explore precisely those feelings without any real social consequences. If it gets too much, you just change yourself or your environment. We can have as much intensity as we like, without any real physical risk.
But what does that do to our real personality? Is our real personality the sum of all our personalities in all of our environments, both real and virtual? Certainly, all of our interactions influence us in some form, but the level of control we have over our virtual interactions effectively insulates us as individuals, and in a real sense we can now choose how to react without the pressure of real time.