(last modified at Nov 28 16:00 pm)
I used to be an administrator of a nonprofit art forum, which at its prime has over 20 thousand users and 2 thousand new posts per day. At first, I thought a lot about how to be a good admin—both a friend of users and a respectable trust-worthy organizer. Following my intuition, I tried to construct this image in my mind: To avoid prejudice, his language and behavior obscure his gender, though in the profile it shows male. At that time, there was a stereotype of girls on the Internet—indecisive and petulant; for this reason many girls don’t want to reveal their gender online. That would make it hard to build up authority, I thought. I further decided he is a 17- or 18-year-old young man with a warm smile; he is nice, easygoing, calm, gentle and capable of settling any conflict, taking care of almost everything. I designed this character to soften people’s feeling. The interesting thing is, I realize now, rather than a virtual persona, he is more like a character in my fiction.
With painstaking planning, I put a picture of the hero of a popular animation at that time—also a young man whom I believe has likable personality. One thing you need to notice is that, in the same picture, there is also a black cat at the position as important as that of the hero in the composition. My online id was Mr. Cat. Therefore if you first know my id and then look at my picture, the image of the cat and personality of the hero are integrated into your perception of my identity. At least that was what I had expected.
The information loss of online communication
You might be wondering why people appear to be different on the Internet. Let’s start thinking how we get information about others through Internet. If we want to know someone on the Internet, how do we know about others? The answer is observation: By observation, people get information from sight, from everything that we can see on the Internet. When we wear sunglasses, less light comes into our eyes. So is it with Internet—another kind of sunglasses; it is a filter that only those voluntarily transmitted, numerical data can pass through. That means information other than those are lost, for example the scents, or even the physical presence. We learn about someone through a channel where most of the information types cannot pass through. Therefore we can say gaining information is always accompanied by losing other information; observation is always accompanied by overlooking. We can see others, but we cannot “hear” what they want to “say”. With the loss of information that people intend to conveyed, Internet is probably never an adequate media to really know someone, or even to communicate.
What are the human factors that make online identity turn out to be misleading?
The reason comes from two aspects.
Have you played with hand shadow? What does it say about your hands? Does the rabbit shadow on the wall mean that your hand is rabbit-shaped?
Of course not. Hand shadows are funny and interesting, but how about our identity, the shadow of personality? If creating an identity is just like creating a shadow with hands, I think people are fond of this creation: As I mentioned earlier, the experience of constructing an online persona is similar to creating a character in the fiction. As long as textual message is still the foundation and mainstream of online experience, it blurs the line between reality and fiction. Moreover, it is nature that people want acceptance and appreciation from others. We want to display our good sides, and, if given a chance, we also want to become ideal selves in the world of conceived reality. The major problem is that unlike what happens in real world, Internet let us describe ourselves but our descriptions are subjective. Life is crude but what happens on the Internet is pre-processed.
On the other hand, incomplete information leads to incomplete cognition. With limited information, people tend to imagine beyond what they see: Behind something good must be all good things and vice versa, just like our brains fill the blind spot in our visual field with imagined information. When we look at a projection, we unconsciously imagine what the object is like on the basis of the silhouette. However what we see cannot fill the blank that we do not see. With incomplete information, we can’t see the truth about others.
Anime music movie “Bad Apple!!” using 3D silhouette in the transition of shots:
What do online identities have to do with our personalities?
Our identities, including those on the Internet, are projections of a high-dimensional object on a low-dimensional world. As a complicated creature, human is a high-dimensional object, with itself being a bundle of massive information. Our system of standards in a specific situation is a low dimensional world. Based on it, our perception of others only shows one aspect of the information. The differences between what our personalities are and what other people see about them might be due to people tend to see things in the different ways.
In fact, the value is a functional that maps things, which are high-dimensional in nature, to one-dimensional world. When people deal with complicated things, it is an instinct for people to evaluate them to get an order relation. In this process, people of different values use different functions, which lead to totally different results.
I read this from the blog (BYVoid) of a Chinese student from Tsinghua University. In this passage, High-dimensional World and Unified Value, he writes about super computers and computation about values in everyday life. I think this idea of computation can also be extended to the relationship between our personalities and online identities. It is a very cautious point of view he raises to compare the process to a function without defining it. However, as far as I am concerned, a more intuitive apperception of this process is assimilating them to a projection.
Rather than a one-dimensional value, Internet sifts the information by limiting the form of information that can be transmitted and seemingly neutrally presents it (because people writes them bias them beforehand). Internet allows people to live in a low-dimensional world. On the Internet, we are used to seeing an incomplete images of others’ personalities, thereby we can rarely fully understand their personalities.
What are Internet values?
When we were first born in this world, we do not have values. We obtain our values through living with others. We learn from our projections in adults’ eye and we use the same standards to shape and rule our own personalities. Then they become our values. Values are the scale of the low-dimensional worlds of our cognitions; they are the celebrated property or qualities. Our values accumulate and change with our experience.
Internet is also such a low-dimensional world, but the question is what is its standard? The Internet values are those values that we absorb from our experience on the Internet. How does those values affect us in the real world?
Please feel free to comment and tell me what you think about this question.