Technology: 'They said what?!'

The online disinhibition effect makes it imperative companies educate their employees on social media policies.

Why would an employee come home and post on Facebook that she hates her job and boss (with a fair amount of specificity)? Is it the same reason that someone feels comfortable sending sexually charged messages and photos on Twitter to strangers? What about calling-in sick to work while posting pictures of the beach on Facebook? Or, what makes a person post defamatory comments “anonymously” in a chat room? Why do some people feel comfortable saying things in an e-mail that they would never say face-to-face? Lawyers are often charged with either helping to avoid or fixing problems caused by these—and other—scenarios. As with many legal issues, it may come down to understanding basic human psychologies that lead to seemingly aberrant behavior.

One explanation as to why some people do things using technology that they wouldn’t do in person could be the so-called “online disinhibition effect.” (To see an explanation in detail and the related six principles, as well as proper attributions, click here to read about it on Wikipedia.) One of the principles of the online disinhibition effect involves the feeling of anonymity. In some forums, such as chat rooms, a user does not have to divulge their identity and, in fact, often provide false credentials during a registration process. This can make a person feel protected and possibly more likely to say things that they would not normally say in person.

Similar to anonymity, invisibility creates a sense for the user that no one is watching and, therefore, it is easier to—for example—send a bizarre e-mail from home late at night. Further, unless you are on Skype or another audio/video messenger, no one will see body language or hear the intonation of the voice.

One more principle of the online disinhibition effect involves asynchronicity. The general concept is that some technologies, message boards and chat rooms, for instance, allow a person to make comments without receiving or reviewing replies. This creates fewer inhibitions as a person signs-in, drops an “emotional bomb,” and then logs out without having to, at least immediately, deal with the aftermath.

What is the moral of the story for companies? It may simply be the realization that while there are certain things that can be done to modify or suggest behavior, we won’t be able to completely avoid the problems provided by technology. And, moreover, the benefits of technology still clearly outweigh the risks. But we can still find solutions understanding the underlying causes.

Training can help educate both employees and employers, especially by providing real-life examples of text messages, instant messages and social media sites “gone wild,” and the often-painful results. From the employer’s standpoint, the creation of social media policies and training for both management and employees is helpful and often warranted. One thing is certain: Because technology often allows us all to feel disinhibited, people will continue to say things that they would not say in person.


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Jason Epstein

Jason I. Epstein is a shareholder and chair of the Business and Technology Group at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC (Nashville, Tenn.). He...

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