Our Secret Lives On The Web

Jan 16, 2010 • Culture, web

I’m betting on the web.

I overshare more now on Twitter than I ever did while I drank. The digital is a powerful disinhibitor. When it comes to online interactions, it’s incredibly easy to let go and share ourselves. What is it about sitting at our computers, or with our phones in hand, that makes it so much easier to express ourselves?

Philosophy professor Aaron Ben-Zeév tackles this topic in a recent column on his In The Name of Love blog:

Two apparently contrasting features of online relationships are that they seem to offer both greater anonymity and greater self-disclosure. Anonymity is associated with concealment, which is contradictory to self-disclosure. However, greater anonymity typically allows greater self-disclosure, and in turn increases familiarity and intimacy. Intimacy is often quite considerable in online relationships and is often achieved more rapidly than in offline relationships.

Self-disclosure is significant in online relationships. Indeed, several studies have found that there is faster and more profound self-disclosure in online communication than in face-to-face meetings. The major reason for this is that greater anonymity reduces vulnerability.

In online relationships people can be partially or fully anonymous: people can conceal their true identity or important aspects of it. Anonymity in online relationships facilitates self-disclosure as it reduces the risks involved in disclosing intimate information about oneself. People can express themselves more freely since they are more anonymous, less accountable, and hence less vulnerable. Because of our sensitivity regarding our loved ones, the person closest to you may never know your deepest secrets or desires.

The conflict between openness and closeness (revealing-concealing, expressiveness-protectiveness) is typical of offline personal relationships. This conflict is considerably reduced in cyberspace. Take, for example, homosexuals who may experience anxiety in disclosing their sexual orientation, and yet for whom failure to disclose this endangers their true self. In the anonymity of cyberspace, disclosing one’s true feelings is much easier.

Hence, in cyberspace people may feel freer to act in a way that they would dare to do in offline circumstance.

Online self-disclosure resembles the “strangers on a train” phenomenon, where people sometimes share intimate information with their anonymous seatmate. Since anonymity in cyberspace is greater than on a train, revealing intimate personal details is more common in cyberspace. Online relationships enable people to hide behind a form of communication that is somewhat “removed from life.” It is easier to open up to a faceless stranger that you do not have to look at while revealing your secrets. For similar reasons, priests remain concealed when they hear confessions. All these cases support the notion that fear of being embarrassed or being the object of contempt is considerably reduced when the listener is not present or is not seen, or is unlikely to be seen again.

In other circumstances, the listener can be present and seen, but he or she is in a position that cannot hurt you. This is the case, for example, of a therapist, lawyer, or a priest. In the professional presence of such functionaries, you can freely express your emotions and whatever is on your mind without risking hurt. Hence, standard offline rules that guard and limit your behavior and emotional expression are suspended. This freedom enables you to open up and become closer to these functionaries. It is not surprising that people often fall in love with their therapist, lawyer, or priest. Online relations are similar in this regard: people can freely express their emotions and become emotionally close without being vulnerable. Accordingly, it is also easier to fall in love on the Net.

Anonymity in cyberspace can be compared to wearing a mask: in both cases, the sense of anonymity is powerful and makes you feel different. Great anonymity, however, often prevents closeness and the feeling of authenticity. Accordingly, as an online relationship develops, participants take off some elements of their online masks and reveal more of their true identities. This act of trust in turn further facilitates self-disclosure, but at the same time increases vulnerability.

Behaving differently in cyberspace does not necessarily mean that we are being hypocritical or that we have two separate selves, but rather that different aspects of our selves emerge in different circumstances.

To sum up, privacy, which is based on not disclosing certain information to other people, and self-disclosure, in which we reveal personal information to other people, are important in personal relationships. Although the right measure of each depends on many personal and contextual aspects, finding the correct balance is very important and is often easier to achieve in online relationships where there is a reduced risk of compromising our privacy.

Back when I first started online in the 90s, everyone was anonymous. Now, more and more people are using their real names and are being held accountable for their online behavior in their meatspace lives. It’s interesting to see how these trends in the social web are changing the amount of freedom we experience when we go online.

It used to be people had double lives, where they were a good parent and upstanding member of society in one and a kinky tyrant on the web. Now, more and more, people are leading triple lives, where they are upstanding members of society in person and on their primary Twitter accounts, but saucy sexpots in their secret Twitter accounts and anonymous blogs.

Always, it seems, we will seek a safe harbor to share our most vital selves, sexual and emotional.

There is a great how-to by Stacie Adams, via Regina Lynn, about how to use Twitter for clandestine fun, but it was written almost a year ago and a lot of steps have been simplified, so I’m going to take some of Adams’ key points and update them.

  • First, obviously, you need a secret Twitter account, which requires an e-mail address. Don’t use one you already use if you can avoid it. A brand new one may come in handy anyway, in the event you need to exchange more than 140 characters at a time.
  • Get a desktop Twitter client like Seesmic or Tweetdeck. Some clients require Adobe Air, though Seesmic recently came out with Seesmic Windows and Seesmic web, the first of which is a native app and the second being a web app, which enables you to manage your accounts from anywhere.
  • The web apps may be best for you. Other than Seesmic Web, you have Hootsuite and cotweet, all of which enable you to manage multiple Twitter accounts and, like the desktop apps, organize the people you’re following into groups or access your existing Twitter lists.
  • The desktop applications make uploading media easy via sites like Twitpic and links through sites like bit.ly, but if you’re opting for the web-based apps, you may have to do some of this manually.
  • If you have an iPhone, Tweetie is an incredible app for managing multiple accounts as well as existsing Twitter lists.
  • Now, if you need to take your digital a little further along into the analog and don’t want to give out your digits, you can use a service like Twalk.in, which allows you to conference several people at once–or just the one–with nothing but their Twitter usernames. Handy, no? They have an iPhone app, but you can use Twalk.in with any old phone.

Yeah, we know you liked that last one. You’re welcome.

Information from Psychology Today, inspiration from Sex Rev 2.0, knowledge of ways to maximize Twitter usage? My own trial, error, blood, cum and tears.