I’m sure this isn’t a novel observation, but I am often struck by how differently people interact online and in person. Though people are capable of both shocking cruelty and viciousness and amazing generosity and kindness, in general face-to-face interactions are guided and moderated by social norms and mores, some of which are purely arbitrary, but many of which make such interactions go more smoothly and painlessly. While America is in general the land of instant intimacy, this phenomenon seems even more pronounced in the online world.

Online, people shed their inhibitions in good ways and in bad—they let go of their defenses, but also of their restraints. Super-ego is shunted aside, and id and ego reign. The anonymity (even if one is using one’s real name, no one sees one’s face) and distance of online interactions allow people to reveal themselves, their strengths and vulnerabilities, their virtues and their flaws, in ways they would never do in person, at least not so quickly and so eagerly. These virtual intimacies sometimes seem to compensate for intimacies missing in people’s daily lives, which tend to be highly routinized and even ritualized. People often have little opportunity to show what they consider to be their true selves in their day-to-day lives, and seize the chance to do so online.
The way that people almost automatically address one by one’s first name in online interactions is one example of this kind of pseudo-intimacy. I find it disconcerting to be so addressed by total strangers, nor do I feel comfortable so addressing strangers myself. While writing “Mr. X” and “Ms. Y” is a bit stiff, I prefer at least to address people by their full names, acknowledging that we are not intimates (at least not yet) and that a certain level of familiarity can feel intrusive when assumed by people who don’t know one another.
I don’t mean to be merely critical. I have had wonderful online interactions with people I would otherwise never have been in contact with, of whose existence I would never have known. And I’ve had many (often fleeting) occasions of soul-sharing with people I’ve corresponded with online but never met, most of whom I probably never will meet. It’s similar to the way one can reveal oneself to someone one meets in a particular situation knowing that you will never meet again: the circumscribed nature of the interaction provides a space of safety, the freedom to open up, precisely because there are no repercussions.
Perhaps because I am both someone who is a prominent figure in the poetry world and someone who seems approachable, I often hear from people who pour out their hearts to me, sharing their life stories with their first or second messages. I’m touched that people feel that they can open up to me in this way, though there’s also something odd about becoming a stranger’s confidant.
Unfortunately, the presumption of intimacy and familiarity about which I’m writing often turns into presumptuousness: the virtues of online interaction are the converse of the drawbacks. People sometimes assume not just that they know one (even that they know one better than one knows oneself), but that they can judge and even lecture one not just about one’s ideas (which are part of the public sphere and as such are always open to challenge and reasoned debate), but about one’s life and one’s personality. In this process, people frequently confuse debate and disagreement with personal attack, taking disagreement as personal attack and personal attack as reasoned disagreement.
The same lack of repercussions that allows people to open themselves up in ways they would not do in real life also lets them behave badly online in ways that (I hope) they would never do or get away with in face-to-face interactions, which have both immediate and long-term consequences. Sometimes the virtuality of the online world makes us forget that we are human beings dealing with other human beings, who have both minds and feelings.

Originally Published: April 7th, 2008

Poet and editor Reginald Shepherd was born in New York City in 1963 and grew up in the Bronx. He earned a BA from Bennington College and studied at Brown University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His first collection, Some Are Drowning (1994), won the Associated Writing Program’s Award in...

  1. April 7, 2008
     Jonathan David Jackson

    Dear Reginald,
    This is yet another wonderful and necessary post.
    You say, "Perhaps because I am both someone who is a prominent figure in the poetry world and someone who seems approachable, I often hear from people who pour out their hearts to me, sharing their life stories with their first or second messages. I’m touched that people feel that they can open up to me in this way, though there’s also something odd about becoming a stranger’s confidant."
    But I think one of the reasons that people open themselves up to you has little to do with your much deserved prominence in the poetry world. It has to do with the fact that you open yourself up near completely in your posts, speaking frankly about your illnesses, your partnership, your identities as a black gay working class-raised man and your professional difficulties. These frank disclosures provide a welcome entree for people to share themselves as well. People long for honest, open disclosure in a world built on fearful closed interactions and rigid, mythic demarcations between public and private.
    So some of the intimacies that you experience may spring from the intimacies and memoir-esque character of your online writing.
    What's so remarkable about your online contributions, Reginald, is you phase from high theory, to haltingly clear conceptual imperatives, to incisive, detailed close readings of poems, to meta-commentary on the way information is parsed online and within poetry communities, to deeply intimate personal reflections about your biography. The fullness of these contributions is stunning and I discern that you will be getting a lot more intimacies in your email box and in the comments of your posts.
    Peace and blessings,
    Jonathan David

  2. April 7, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Dear Jonathan David,
    Thank you so much for your generous and eloquent comment, which I found very heartening. Having had the chance to get to know you a bit (I don't presume to really know you) has definitely been an example of the very positive things that can come out of online encounters.
    I try in my life both online and off to be an open, honest person; in part, I suppose I can't help it--I've never been very good at putting on masks, at least not outside of my poetry (where I revel in them--as Yeats wrote, every profound spirit needs a mask). And I do want to emphasize that a greater chance to do so is one of the many virtues of the online world. As you write, we live in "a world built on fearful closed interactions and rigid, mythic demarcations between public and private." I find the strictures of that world quite confining and limiting.
    Thanks again for writing, and take good care.
    peace and poetry,

  3. April 8, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    I just want to second Jonathan's response. I think when some people enter the online world they react like some others do when they go to a bar and have too many drinks: they break out of their usual "fearful closed interactions" but bring their quotidian angers and bitterness with them. This makes it difficult for them to engage with ideas; they're accustomed to emotional struggles for dominance and enter the fray with those habits in charge. I'm glad to see you're refusing the temptation–which I imagine might be strong–to simply walk away. Keep up the good work!
    All the Best,

  4. April 8, 2008
     Arthur Durkee

    Your observations of the discrepancies between online and offline behavior match my own, which I have been extolling for a long time. You're absolutely correct that the virtual anonymity (virtual being a deliberately loaded and multi-meaning term in this context) allows people to let out their inner demons to play. I have met numerous badly-behaved poets online who I'm sure are quite repressed in their daily lives; this is the medium in which they feel empowered to let out their darkest sides. As the great SF movie "Forbidden Planet" gave us the catch-phrase, such folk give free roam to their "Monsters from the Id."
    On the other hand, as another poet friend of mine has occasionally quipped: The reason there is so much vitriol and fury wrapped up in these literary-critical arguments is precisely because there's so very little at stake.
    Which leads me to my real comment: The observation that people who struggle to live an authentic and consistent life, online AND offline, are often baffled by the vitriol and fury that can occur online. All of which is virtual, of course: it has no impact on us, other than what we let it have. Like you, I struggle to be myself in all venues: living without masks is actually easier, for me, than having to remember which mask to wear in which setting. (It's a coming-out thing, an authenticity thing, that I think the cultural mainstream has oft overlooked.) I have always been interested in being authentically myself, all the time. So, even while many of my friends tell me I fit the profile of someone who should be playing role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, such activities have never once held an ounce of interest to me. Why would I want to seek out more role-playing, when my life has been about NOT role-playing?
    So, like you, I observe the discrepancy between real-space and cyber-space, and occasionally must shake my head at it all. Both positive and negative, the differences in social behavior are remarkable. It points out that, nicely or not, the rules of decorum and courtesy in face to face meetings DO serve a purpose in keeping us all glued together into some sort of social fabric. On the other hand, there is another part of me that appreciates honesty, even hostile honesty, wherever I encounter it.

  5. April 8, 2008

    Dear Sir, (or Mr. Sir), or Whatever:
    I happily disagree. As someone who teaches online, uses networking for (some, not most or all) social interaction, maintains a website, and is consistently involved in writing/education/news/political message boards, I can say that your observations are patently false.
    Fallacy is fallacy, and generalizing in such a way is unfair to those of us who attempt to be sincere and authentic regarding our online persona. Perhaps the vitriol or abandonment of social mores is actually your (the reader's) misinterpretation. It's possible that you are guilty of the same offense you're mentioning, that "people frequently confuse debate and disagreement with personal attack, taking disagreement as personal attack and personal attack as reasoned disagreement."
    A third point of contention is your perception that people are too gushy, or at least that's how I took your second and fourth paragraphs. The open, sharing nature of the internet provides a wonderful benefit to humanity, and only through more expression and communication--not less--can we remember that we are human beings dealing with other human beings.
    If you had provided at least one specific example of this discrepancy between physical self and self in digital form, some form of evidence, there might be a touch of credence to your point. But even then, there are countless examples to the contrary. Even one counterexample would render your argument invalid: your generalizing killed it.
    On the other hand, there are serious rights violations regarding internet communication that should be considered. It's perfectly acceptable for ISPs to sell your information/communication to government, police, potential employers, insurance companies, admissions boards, and any other agency wielding power. These agencies then assume what one writes on the internet is pure truth, unfettered by creative liberty, sarcasm, or irony--and act accordingly. It's akin to denying a firearm permit to a painter who depicts graphic violence in her art.
    Some readers foolishly assume absolute artifice or absolutely embarrassing honesty. Either way, it seems a narrow view.
    A presumptuous reader

  6. April 9, 2008
     Jim K.

    II have found that without a physical presence and
    cues, people are both more unguarded
    and more likely to misunderstand things.
    It does indeed lead to a sort of ego narcosis.
    I think everyone can be affected by the apperceptions,
    though. How many comments have I made that I
    would love to erase? The contexts are hard to
    fathom. One needs to be careful not to imagine
    too much to fill in the gaps. It is a new, unclear
    cultural space.

  7. April 9, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I know I shouldn't get involved in this one (which is what I always say before getting involved in something), but I'm with JLE. It's fairly obvious that a large part of the friction generated by online communication is the result of a lack of intonation, facial expression, and other social cues we use to gauge how people intend their conversation to be received. Too many of Jakobson's boxes are missing. But it's also true that some people are too sensitive, and others not sensitive enough.
    But taking umbrage at being addressed by your first name, Reginald? It's a good thing you can't see how many of us aren't wearing ties!

  8. April 10, 2008
     Reginald Shepherd

    Dear Michael Robbins,
    Your quip regarding ties was amusing, but misses the point I was trying to make. I am no great proponent of propriety or of rules for the sake of rules, nor do I even own a tie at this point in this life. But there is a falseness to the familiarity of calling people by their first name on first online encounter, without even the directness of a face-to-face interaction, that I find bothersome. Obviously one can build up to such intimacy, but to presume it immediately, without so much as even having met the person, does strike me as presumptuous.
    I have learned from painful experience that I cannot even presume to know people I have spent time with face-to-face for years. So, while I have had some wonderful encounters with people online, I am not so sanguine about the instant intimacies the online environment encourages and even enforces.
    Thanks for reading and writing, and take good care.
    all best,
    Reginald Shepherd

  9. April 10, 2008

    It's funny: these days, if you call someone "Mr." or "Ms." So-and-So, it's hard not to sound sarcastic, like you're talking down to the person. Meanings of words keep getting flipped as irony takes over our every thought.
    The same thing has happened with the word "please", supposedly the bedrock of good manners. "Could you take Mr. Puffy to the vet, please?" sounds crabby and bossy compared to "Could you take Mr. Puffy to the vet?"

  10. April 13, 2008
     Alicia (AE)

    I just came across this passage in Leonard Woolf's autobiography, and thought it might interest, as regards this topic:
    "We were intimate friends--particularly Lytton, Saxon, and myself--but intimacy in 1900 among middle-class males was different from what it became in generations later than ours. Some of us were called by nicknames; for instance we always called Thoby Stephen The Goth, but we never used christian names. Lytton always called me Woolf and I always called him Strachey until I returned from Ceylon in 1911 and found that the wholesale revolution in society and manners which had taken place in the preceding seven years involved the use of christian names in place of surnames. The difference was--and is--not entirely unimportant. The shade of relationship between Woolf and Strachey is not exactly the same as that between Leonard and Lytton. The surname relationship was determined by and retained that curious formality and reticence which the nineteenth-century public school system insisted upon in certain matters. Now, of course, the use of christian names and their diminuitives has become so universal that it may soon perhaps become necessary to indicate intimacy by using surnames."