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Adeela Shafi: The internet has diluted the boundaries we normally adhere to in real life - but people must be more accountable for their online activity

Adeela Shafi Adeela Shafi was candidate for Bristol East at the general election and is a lecturer in Psychology at the  University of the West of England. In the wake of recent "internet gossip" about William Hague, she explores how the internet has diluted the boundaries we normally adhere to in real life and how the internet takes on a life of its own…

Imagine travelling back in time 50 years where you try to explain the concept of the Internet to someone before it was invented.

Well, you might describe it as another world – a virtual world which exists ‘out there’.  Except that it does not actually exist, it’s just a virtual world that you ‘logon to’, hook up to, reach up to.  If you have read Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway tree, it is a bit like the land up there in the clouds, not really real, but when you are on there or ‘logged on’ it feels real.

They call it Windows and that certainly is what it is – a Window out into that virtual world.  Gosh, I might sound a bit bonkers to that someone I am talking to from 50 years ago!

But it is actually a Revolution. Revolution because it has changed modern life for ever.  Never in his wildest dreams would Alexander Bell have thought that his initial invention of the now humble telephone would lead to such a global communication tool and virtual world.  Another place that people would live in.  Not literally, but you could actually live a life through it, such as socialise and meet people, shop, pay bills, gain qualifications, research, play games, get directions, book travel arrangements…basically anything but procreate! 

The globe feels more like a tennis ball, opening up new ways of human interaction through social networks, instant messaging, international trade…the list is endless. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love the internet.  My laptop takes its equal turn with my kids at sitting on my lap.  I often imagine the real people that make shopping on the internet a reality.  Me pressing a few buttons has triggered off someone real getting something off a real shelf, packing it and delivering it.  It made a difference of some digits in their bank account and mine.  And I get an item without leaving my house or seeing anyone apart from the delivery man.  Cool !

However, on an individual level, through the medium of these screens we also lose our inhibitions and our sense of the identity we have in the real world. According to social psychologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982) life is like a theatrical act. We behave in certain ways according to the ‘stage’ we are on and indeed if we are front or back stage.  In the front stage we are often in front of an audience, in particular settings (scenes) and the way we present ourselves is governed by that.  When we are back stage we drop some of these acts to be more who we really are, especially those acts that are determined by social expectations.   It might explain why the internet has exposed an apparent increase in paedophilic or pornographic activity.  Before the internet, such people may not have been able to live out these fantasies and they would remain fantasies.  Think about the number of so called ‘respectable’ people found with indecent material on their home computers.

While there is much discussion on regulating content and access to certain sites, there is less discussion on the regulation of what people talk about on chat rooms or twitter.  For those of you who tweet, how many times have you said something you did not really mean. You delete it, but someone, somewhere can still find that record and it spreads like wildfire around the internet.  Think about the effects of gossip and rumour in a real office or the school playground and its well documented effects.

During the election campaign in Bristol East, my Labour opponent (and Labour Twitter Tsar!) twittered the results of the postal vote.  Within seconds it was all over the internet and all online news channels, all condemning her actions.  I should have been gloating but I was not.  Indeed I felt sorry for her.  Her excitement and haste landed her in trouble with the police with the potential of 6 months in prison and a hefty fine for breaking electoral law.  William Hague himself has been the victim of such online gossip.  Now whenever anybody looks him up on the net, that will always be there. It is gossip that will never blow over as it would in real life.  Basically we are ‘back stage’ in terms of how we are behaving, but very much ‘front stage’ in terms of audience – a lethal combination.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was one of the most influential (and controversial) thinkers of the 20th Century and his Theory of Personality Development proposed 3 components of our personality which work together to create quite complex human behaviours.  These are the Id, the Ego and the Superego.

This theory demonstrates the inextricable link between our inner desires, the development of personality and the social world. To use a simple example, your Id, which is the only part present at birth, would demand you have that latest gadget on the market.  If the Id could have its way you would just go and pick it up from the shop, money or no money.  Your Ego aims to satisfy the Id in more socially acceptable ways.  The ego might reason with the Id and say, ‘yes, ok you got no money but lets get it on the credit card and pay it back…whenever,’ The Superego, which is the final part of the personality to develop, then chips in and says, ‘Hang on.  You can’t afford to pay the credit card off so either save up or forget it’. The strength of the Id, Ego or Superego component would determine what the person might do in a situation and forms the basis of moral development.

Online, as we exit the real world, kept in order by our social surroundings, people are able to take on and entertain that part of their personality normally kept in check by the Superego.  The Superego would have its override button pressed and the Id and Ego get on with their business of satisfying all our inner desires.

The Internet is a bit like the Flintstones.  All the mod cons are there but we are back in the Stone Age.  Social norms, rules, morals and laws have evolved over the ages to make us resemble civilised society, where individuals have rights and responsibilities.  But does this yet extend to the internet?  Internet activity has to be more accountable.  Only accountability will ensure that individuals value their online identity as much as their real life integrity and where hiding behind a screen is a thing of the past.

It is essential that world governments take a more proactive and collective approach before this virtual world spirals out of control.  And Britain should take the lead in pushing this up the international agenda.  Perhaps William as Foreign Secretary might decide to bring it higher up the list…


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