How do I know that all of this was real? : The dark side of being a digital stranger in an online learning environment – Part 1

I have been debating the idea of the digital stranger for a quite a while, both on this blog and in other online learning contexts. Previously I had defined the digital stranger as;


‘Digital strangers are people we interact with, people we are inspired by, people we understand (even a little) about their views and their position in a specific network, but know very little about. We can still learn from and with them. We can create and share. We can innovate and solve problems. We can increase awareness and affect change. We can engage, entertain and provide comfort or inspiration.’


At the heart of the concept of the digital stranger is the belief that online interaction affords both the opportunity to represent ourselves in different and (sometimes) untraceable and hidden ways as well as the ability to express ideas, opinions and emotions that because of the apparent anonymity of the virtual environment, we might be unwilling to do face to face.  There is a unique manifestation of the digital stranger in the area of online learning that has significant and far-reaching impacts on the effectiveness of student learning and teaching.  This post (which will be published in two parts) will look at how the darker side of the digital stranger poses challenges for designers and facilitators of online learning (in all its guises – I use the phrase online learning to mean everything from component based blended learning through to complete online programmes).


A learner engages with a programme virtually in a variety of different ways, through VLEs or through email, blogs, wikis, discussion forums, chat spaces etc.   They may choose to be passive observers of the passing world or active engagers in debates and collaborations.  They may interact with others on the programme using a pseudonym or constructed online identity or use their real names and faces.  They may feel more comfortable sharing their experiences, perhaps traumatic or personally difficult when no-one knows who they are or they choose to reveal only small shards of their life relevant to the programme.  They may offer fictionalised accounts or tell the absolute truth.  They may or may not share an image or photo, or maybe pick an abstract picture to represent them.  They might even adopt an entirely fictional persona.  They may be active one day and disappear into silence or initiate a virtual death the next, forever vanishing from the community.  Despite the amazing ability of the internet to make, maintain and develop connections, this constructed identify is difficult to google search, leaves very few breadcrumbs or trails on the internet and most importantly, is in the complete control of the person constructing it.  They can stay silent or fill pages with communications.  They can effectively interact with people around them, forming relationships on the basis of the personality, information, opinions and conversations they choose to exhibit (real or otherwise).  The proportions of the ‘real’ person (if such a construct exists) that is revealed is variable, adding the opportunity to generate authenticity, believability and emotional and intellectual connections.


Whilst perhaps not as fluid as the identities created through social media usage (where all manner of traits can be imagined, swapped and transposed) there is potential in online learning for what psychologist John Suler termed the ‘Online Disinhibition Effect’, which can be defined ‘as a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet.’ (Source: Wikipedia).  Suler (2004) argues that this effect can have both benign and toxic impacts noting;


‘Some types of benign disinhibition indicate an attempt to better understand and develop oneself, to resolve interpersonal and intrapsychic problems or explore new emotional and experiential dimensions to one’s identity. We could even consider it a process of “working through”… By contrast, toxic disinhibition may simply be a blind catharsis, a fruitless repetition compulsion, and an acting out of unsavoury needs without any personal growth at all.’

Suler identified a number of conditions and behaviours that foster this disinhibition (including dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection and dissociative imagination).  Where disinhibition occurs in an online learning environment there are significant challenges for managing and encouraging interaction between learners, between teachers and learners and between the teachers themselves and the wider community.  It may manifest itself in a variety of ways from interpersonal disagreements, the flash formation and perhaps crumbling of personal relationships, deceptive or manipulative interactions, the support for or failure of social engagement or social creation of knowledge or understanding or the misunderstanding or misdirection of instructional, assessment or learner support processes.
In an earlier post (The Digital Stranger: Participation, social networking and creativity) I made the case that digital strangers in an online learning environment were a positive for the programme, supporting collaboration and sharing in a safe space.  I want to have a look at the darker side of the digital strangers and online learning in this post. I argue that online disinhibition can have significant impacts on the effectiveness of online learning, the motivation of participants and ultimately on the wider processes of social interaction and connectivity.

1.       Dissociative anonymity

Sometimes referred to simply as ‘I’m not me’, dissociative anonymity occurs when ‘people have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their in-person lifestyle and identity, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out. Whatever they say or do can’t be directly linked to the rest of their lives’ (Suler 2004).  Certainly, this kind of anonymous behaviour offers learners a safe space to express, develop and construct ideas and opinions.  It can encourage developmental thinking and a more transparent exploration of the evaluative and critical-thinking processes that are occurring.  It can also enhance trust where participants can demonstrate ‘authentic’ behaviours (or at least the believable appearance of them).  The alternate side of this anonymity is the lapsing of responsibility for actions, where interactivity and engagement subverts from politeness to anti-social or hostile behaviour and the learner or teacher cannot see their own culpability for the results.  In terms of online learning this can increase attrition, push tentative learners to the fringes and isolate them or misdirect the pattern or flow of learning into spurious arguments, inter-personal conflicts or pointless engagement with fictional or fantasy debates.


2.       Solipsistic Introjection

Solipsistic introjection suggests that often the reading and interpretation of online interaction can be ‘all in our heads’. In the absence of visual cues, body language or perhaps even a clear idea of what the communicator sounds or looks like we interpret their words (or actions) through a filter of our own ‘internal voice’ or as a character built on an imagined picture of what the other person looks like;

‘…people may feel that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. Reading another person’s message might be experienced as a voice within one’s head, as if that person’s psychological presence and influence have been assimilated or introjected into one’s psyche…(and) consciously or unconsciously, a person may even assign a visual image to what he or she thinks the person looks and behaves like’ (Suler 2004).

In terms of online learning solipsistic introjection interferes with the reading of text, whether this is learning materials, comments or instructions.  For example, a comment made in a discussion forum might be read through the filter of the imagined voice of the person making it, changing it from helpful to angry, innocent to sarcastic, setting off a cascading set of interactions.  Sometimes we read what we want to read into or from a text exchange, altering our own relationships within the community  Alternately, instructions for assessment or feedback to learners may be incorrectly interpreted, applied to inappropriate circumstances or simply taken the wrong way.  All of us have misread emails, seen lines in chat and reacted too quickly.  It is one of the reasons I use emoticons extensively to add some sense of visual cue into a text based medium.  Where there are large numbers of learners on a programme, engaging asynchronously, then the potential for misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise increases exponentially, especially where the learners or teachers have little or no experiences with online interaction (although experience is not always a panacea for this problem).

3.       Asynchronicity

Certainly one of the challenges in managing an online learning environment for both learners and teachers is asynchronous communications. This may be where we post a considered (or not) response, ask a question or seek information on a topic and have to wait for a response and are denied the immediate gratification of engagement.  Once again fantasy and imagination can interfere, with rational and irrational reasons for the delay constructed in our heads (have I pissed them off?  Are they ignoring me? Is there something going that will result in them not responding at all? Have I trumped them with my brilliance? 😉  Please note the wink here!)  Alternately, the ability to make a contribution to a conversation, log off and avoid the obvious and present consequences can equally disinhibit the participant.  Suler notes that ‘…in real life, the analogy might be speaking to someone, magically suspending time before that person can reply, and then returning to the conversation when one is willing and able to hear the response.’

In a face to face environment, the reactions and inter-reactions are measurable and confined to a specific time and space.  In online learning they may be spread over days or weeks, with comments or criticisms lying dormant for the entire time, festering directly on the mind of the writer.  They may even log in more often to check for responses, getting increasingly frustrated at the flashing annoyance of the VLE proclaiming ‘no new messages’.  And perhaps days later when they have moved onto something else, a different concept or interaction, someone picks up the thread and starts it all over again, either responded to or sometimes equally ignored.

So, as a practitioner (learner or teacher, or simply interested spectator) what does this mean for the practice of how we manage online learning.  Well, I argue there are three critical implications for the design and management of online learning in a disinhibitive environment.

a)      Whilst I and many others make a strong case for the necessity for a new pedagogy for the digital age, there is an equally strong case for a new understanding of educational interaction.  The old models of didactic broadcast, bounded interactivity, acceptable mores and reliable reactions are an ill-fit for the new environment.  And maybe, they shouldn’t be.  But as more learners live their life in these digital neighbourhoods the need to understand why interactions occur in a certain way and with outcomes that we couldn’t or didn’t want to predict is critical to ensuring the effectiveness of the online learning experience.

b)      The exponential growth of MOOCs and other magnetically attractive and emancipatory, free and open educational programmes is exposing millions more learners to an online environment of learning.  This critical mass of learners, often from non-traditional backgrounds, is placing new strains on our understanding of online learning.  In some ways, institutions are abrogating some responsibility for managing or responding to disinhibitive behaviours by removing direct tutor engagement, replacing it with videos and materials, leaving the learners to self-organise and self-manage the behaviours within the learning community.  Self-management can lead to artificial hierarchies, cliques and castes. Outside of education, this has been seen often on bulletin boards, gaming platforms and even amongst Wikipedia editors and contributors to disempowering and sometimes tragic ends.

c)       There has been a large amount written recently about cyber-bullying, psychological games and trolls on twitter, facebook and other social media platforms.  Disinhibition can lead directly to these anti-social behaviours, where the distance between the participants and the power of anonymity can encourage to people to act in ways they wouldn’t normally.  Whilst, registrations and enrolment in an online programme reduce the risk of anonymous behaviour there is still significant potential for people to engage with others ‘for effect’ rather than for learning; to deliberately seek a rise or gain satisfaction from having an emotional impact on other learners.  The role of the facilitator in this environment is critical as they need the ability to identify when this happening and find an appropriate solution for it.  They also need to ensure they don’t get caught up in the maelstrom themselves, participating actively in a flame war.

In the second part of this post which I hope will go up next week I will look at the other three of Suler’s disinhibitive processes.   I am really interested in people’s experiences of disinhibitive behaviours in online learning.  If you have stories that you want to share  you can do so via an anonymous comment on this post (for this post only I have turned on anonymous commenting).

6 thoughts on “How do I know that all of this was real? : The dark side of being a digital stranger in an online learning environment – Part 1

  1. I think the truth as always lies between the polar opposites. I agree with the idea of the emancipated free agent, the ability to explore, uncover, transform and create that is afforded by online interaction is limitless and still so under-utilised especially in e-learning. On the other hand, does that freedom, which comes with more ways to record and chronicle our behaviors than ever before in our history come with its own set of challenges that actually hinder those positive outcomes? Maybe some of it can be explained by Dave White and Alsion Le Cornu’s work on digital residents and visitors ( The percentage of how much you choose to live your life online increases your exposure but significantly increase your literacy and skills, which occurs through a variety of learning experiences. In terms of disinhibition, I think there is both a unconscious and conscious element. I might choose to use a non-de-plume in order to not link my comments back to my job, my family or my ‘other’ life. I have a facebook that I only add friends, not students. These are conscious decisions. On the other hand, the patterns of fantasy, of creative freedom and of relationships without boundaries can take on a life of their own. In an online learning environment, followers can become leaders, students become teachers and new ideas and knowledge can be created simply by allowing the community and environment to evolve

  2. Hi Peter,
    In all my experience of running collaborative discussion-based courses – and taking part in them myself – I don’t think I’ve seen any examples of the kind of behaviour you describe here (in contrast, I’ve always been shocked by the blatant inhumanity displayed in the comment threads on the Times Higher Ed website, the likes of which you might expect on Youtube or the Daily Mail Online).

    In general, I’d describe the kind of detachment I sense in my own students’ online threads (if there *is* detachment) as objective reflection. I’m certainly aware that many of them find the switch to online, written, asynchronous discussion quite disconcerting, but it doesn’t seem to play out in the way you describe. Reflecting on this, I initially felt a little sad, thinking this might mean the tasks I set weren’t exciting enough to arouse any genuine emotion. But I think it’s probably more to do with the discussion process being graded on my courses; at the start of the course each tutor group writes a contract describing how they will engage with the tasks and interact with each other, and what criteria they will use to assess each others’ contribution at the end. The central aim of all this is to ensure they actually *do* the tasks rather than to prevent inappropriate behaviour. It probably helps, but the situation doesn’t really allow anonymity anyway.

    I think I did get a sniff of what you’re describing once in the discussion boards on the CCK11 MOOC, but there wasn’t any evidence to suggest that the person involved was behaving differently as they would have done face-to-face. I don’t think they were acting anonymously anyhow; I’m pretty sure the CCK11 moderators discouraged anonymous posting.

    I don’t know if any of my half-baked musings will be helpful to you…

    There was one final thing; the ‘solipsistic introjection’ suggestion seemed far-fetched to my blinkered little brain; I found it very hard to believe that people would think this way, although I suppose it takes all sorts to make a world!

    1. Hi Lindsay
      Your musings are of great interest. I saw your presentation at the DeL conference this year (and enjoyed it immensely). I also run a PGCert in HE at the University of Greenwich. Equally, we have not seen the explicit versions of what I have discussed here, but there are misunderstandings, disagreements and lurking behaviours, which quite rightly could occur in a face-to-face environment. Interestingly, in a programme I was involved with at another university which put the interactions and learning outside a university system and utilised public-facing blogs there were far more issues not among the learners themselves but when they interacted with the ‘wider’ world, which was a critical aspect of our programme.

      MOOCs (if they don’t flare out) might be where we see a greater, perhaps more overt demonstration of some of these things. But as I argue in part 2, this kind of interaction isn’t something that programme designers or academics should shy away from. Embracing some of the freedoms of collaboration, debate, creative thinking and boundary-less analysis in specific aspects of learning, teaching and assessment might have positive impacts on learning.

      It is a fair comment about solipsistic introjection’, although I do some merit in the idea that we picture people in our heads as we read text…it is one of the reasons we ask everyone to post a picture on their moodle profile!

      thanks for reading!

  3. This was a really interesting piece of writing especially the observation regarding hierarchies, castes and cliques which can all to readily arise. I am just about to read part 2. Thanks…especially like the inclusion of the youtube Dylan track…

    1. Thanks Helen. The sudden exponential growth of MOOCs has thrown perhaps a harsh light on digital interaction. Thousands, tens of thousands even hundreds of thousands of people engaging on a course, often without facilitation increases the risks of some of these outcomes. On the other hand, as I argue in part 2, there is significant potential to enhance authenticity and creativity through encouraging more open on-line engagement.

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