At a moment when the Facebook film The Social Network leads the Oscar race and the movie Catfish delves into the repercussions of online fabrication, it’s worth taking a step back to assess what it really means to live online. In Virtually You, Elias Aboujaoude, director of the Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at the Stanford School of Medicine, applies his expertise in psychiatry to the virtual world by examining how people behave online and what the repercussions are in the real world for those who believe that their avatars are more real than reality.
How did you come to launch this ambitious investigation of the “Online Self?” Did this grow out of your practice or was it something you wanted to actively examine?
I would say both. Patients I saw in my psychiatric practice left me baffled by how extreme the effects of online life on our psyches can be and made me want to understand the online condition so I can better help them. At the same time, living in Silicon Valley during the dramatic time of the Internet bubble and bust got me intrigued early on by the medium and planted a question in my head that I wanted to try to explore some day: “What does it really mean to go online?”
Virtually You seems very much to sound a warning bell about the transformative power of the online world. What are the dangers users should be looking out for?
We should ask ourselves whether our behavior is different online vs. off, and whether we are starting to behave in real life the way we do in a chat room. Are we growing more impatient offline because of how fast-paced our cyber-life has become? Are we more impulsive because of the ease of satisfying our every impulse—from shopping to gambling to sex—online? Do we work less on our marriages and friendships because of the perceived ease of finding a mate on Match or a “friend” on Facebook? Are we starting to write the way we tweet and read the way we surf? Basically, are we acting more and more like our avatar?
Is it possible to strike a balance that makes the Internet as a productive tool, or are some people naturally prone to the types of behaviors you describe in your book?
There is no doubt that the Internet and the virtual experience overall can be a force for good in the world, but it is very hard to stop the negative personality changes I talk about in my book from taking place. Nobody “teaches” us how to be impulsive, uncivil or childlike in front of a browser—it just happens, and it happens to all of us, like it’s the most natural thing. And once these changes take place, and we practice them in front of our computers for as long as we do, they automatically seep into the real world and make society in general more impulsive, uncivil and childlike. If we are to mitigate their effects and maybe do something about them, we have to start by pausing and recognizing them.
Virtually You delves into a great variety of subjects, from impulsivity to privacy issues. As you started crafting this narrative, what were the essential questions in your mind that you wanted to answer about this subject?
I wanted to understand the e-personality. But the more I explored it, the more struck I became by how developed and “complete” it is. It seems to have a life of its own—and a full life at that. So, in my attempt to be comprehensive, I visited places I never thought I would visit, like the 13 countries considered “enemies of the Internet.”
The concept of Virtualism still seems to be a relatively new idea for people, particularly in terms of their self-awareness. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that people have about their e-personalities?
The biggest misconception is that we can keep our two lives separate; that we can be obnoxious in our blogs but the model of civility in real life; that we can saturate ourselves with online pornography but still somehow find our wives attractive. Virtualism stresses that, unlike Vegas, what goes on online does not stay online.
Has psychiatry caught up to this new phenomenon? It would seem a pertinent question whether psychiatrists and counselors have the tools to cope with this relatively new disorder?
The technology is moving much faster than the field’s ability to keep up. Much more research, and research funds, is needed if we are to truly understand the psychological dimensions of the virtual revolution. The East is ahead of the West in that respect. Still, mental health professionals can help recognize personality transformations when they occur and can help people ask themselves whether their cyber lifestyles may be partially to blame.
What lessons would you hope readers take away from their experience reading Virtually You?
I will have succeeded if readers start logging on a bit more self-consciously; if they get to a point where they can look through their laptop and smartphone screens and into the mirror.
Norton / Feb. 7, 2011 / 9780393070644 / $26.95