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.
That makes us both more reflective about the consequences of virtual interactions, and able to take more virtual social risk. We get the entertainment value without the social consequences of alienating our real-life friends, whom we generally value more. But it could also influence us negatively. If the attraction of virtual personalities without the interaction risk wins out over interaction with real people, can those virtual psychological responses also win out over those that work well with real people?
Susan Greenfield argues in her book Id, that what makes us individuals is precisely the plasticity of the brain. During childhood, we make the most incredible connections among ideas, concepts, perceptions, memories, theories, words, places, all the things we encounter. Child brains are like sponges absorbing as much as possible and associating everything with everything. Until, that is, we start weeding out the incorrect, the nonsensical, the contradictory, the unreasonable. That's something that takes place particularly during early adolescence and it results in a thinning out of the connections in the brain, until what is left is, hopefully, more rational and useful than before. It's one of the consequences of growing up.
Getting used to our own ideas, our own reactions, our own perceptions of other people and situations, is all part of establishing our own personality. Just 50 years ago that was all done in real time, but now things are changing. There are additional inputs to the process in which children routinely adopt different personalities and personas and explore the consequences of following different rules. They experience the consequences sometimes at a high pitch of visual and emotional response, certainly enough to influence those connections in the brain.
Steven Johnson in Everything Bad Is Good For You argues that computer games are in a sense preferable to normal human interaction for kids precisely because the rules are generally fair, in contrast to real life. That predictability and certainty insulate the child from the adverse reactions of real people. Johnson argues that the cognitive challenges of games and virtual interactions are beneficial. But Greenfield worries that such a substitution for genuine human interaction produces a quite different brain state, one consistent with the development of a nobody personality, with an inhibited ability to form connections and thin them out. Personality depends on becoming unique, which depends on the plasticity of the brain.
As a neurobiologist, Greenfield has examined the effects of "a fast-paced environment with strong sensory inputs", and found changes in brain chemistry normally associated with dementia and drug abuse. As she puts it, "for the first time human nature… could be obliterated in favour of a passive state reacting to a flood of incoming sensations." Being someone no longer matters, because we can be anyone simply by defining a persona.
It's possible that we are seeing signs of this effect, as more and more people export their privacy online, posting their every thought, tweeting about their breakfast, giving a running commentary to the anonymous horde of people following them. Is that a nobody trying to achieve an insulated identity as a somebody, or simply a well-adjusted personality keeping in touch?
That the effects on brain chemistry are real is not in doubt. The question is whether the additional ability to deliberately become a controlled online presence as nobody aids the development of a personality as somebody or not.
When we decide to share details about our real life online, we are just changing the balance of our privacy. We do that with different real people all the time. Deciding what parts of our personality to put online is a different choice and one which we did not have in the past.
Perhaps Greenfield is right to worry, but I'm not convinced just yet. Perhaps well-balanced individuals can simply extend their personalities and get the benefit of a deeper understanding of their own reactions and feelings. Perhaps the less well-adjusted will find the allure of anonymity addictive and such interaction will have negative psychological consequences. Perhaps we all need to be anonymous at times as a means of maintaining a balanced real-world personality.