Collision Between F2F & Online Discussion

Social self-disclosure in the face-to-face environment long has been viewed as a positive activity. A person benefits from the affection conveyed, self-knowledge that occurs when talking about yourself and others, and there is a gain of health benefits. Of course, there are also many drawbacks to face-to-face disclosure, from the personal to the relational to the professional. However, do the same benefits and drawbacks occur in online disclosure? This essay takes the position that social exchanges of self-disclosure in online environments are not only different from face-to-face experiences, but that the benefits and drawbacks are reversed.

A person can gain tremendous amounts of self-knowledge as one discloses socially to other people when in close proximity. This social exchange builds strong relationships as the verbal and nonverbal components are interpreted, including possible “tells†of nonverbal deception. The person becomes a very competent communicator by learning how to read people and their mannerisms. As our disclosure patterns are packaged (we understand the message by combining verbal and nonverbal), we learn how to deconstruct meanings within these social exchanges. In addition, levels of self-disclosure are very healthy— we can express our emotions instead of bottling them up inside, we can disclose while participating in other activities, and we can all gain affection within this framework of communication.

However, there are some negative sides to face-to-face dialogue. There are personal risks, for example—when you disclose something personal, you place yourself in a position of vulnerability, as that information can be used against you by another person. Very high degrees of intimacy are created in close proximity, which promote more personal dialogue and the lowering of barriers; should someone release a piece of confidential information from a private conversation, the personal risks may not be recognized until it is too late. Personal risks can lead to relational risks— as communication is irreversible, inappropriate or selective disclosure can lead to the deterioration of relationships, or a detrimental change in the nature of a relationship based upon that disclosure. Finally, there are professional risks to our disclosure— communication in the workplace can put us in a precarious position if a message is not fully understood nor considered in context.

Social exchanges in online environments can reverse these benefits and drawbacks. Since we may develop personas or take on archetypal roles in our chatrooms and other online environments, we may not gain a full sense of self-knowledge. It can be a challenge to be true to one’s self when that self can be constructed in a number of different ways. In “reality,†for example, I may be a social recluse who never leaves my private space. But in an online environment, I can change that self-concept, as often as I like, and can lose that opportunity for self-knowledge. The online environment limits a person to an almost completely textual (verbal) environment—since 93 percent or more of communication is nonverbal, we lose great opportunities to interpret deeper meanings in conversation and improve our competence in those exchanges. It becomes very difficult to read cues to deception and accommodation. Since we have ample time to construct responses in these virtual dialogues, we lose spontaneity in our social exchanges—in many ways, this process rejects the commonly regarded axiom of discourse that communication is irreversible.

By creating our unique environment and then holding sole control over that environment by communicating in writing with as much forethought as we wish, we don’t have to engage in an exchange of equity that is required in our face-to-face disclosure. This limits opportunities for extending our social competency to other arenas outside the virtual realm. In addition, our health is negatively impacted in the online environment. While we can “express†ourselves, we also place ourselves in front of a computer screen that can lead to eye strain, extensive typing that may aggravate carpel tunnel syndrome, and “desk jockeying†that limits our mobility, thus affecting freedom of movement and the ability to do other things while self-disclosing.

However, the potential dangers of face-to-face social exchanges are minimized or even eliminated in online forums. Although chats online can build very strong and potentially vulnerable points of disclosure, a participant carefully can choose which elements to disclose and which to keep hidden. The personal risks of saying the wrong thing are tempered as the person has the ability to process the verbal component carefully, thus removing a degree of personal risk that what has just been disclosed may be used against the person. If we use screen names, virtually all personal risks may be eliminated, as one can make a choice to change names at any time. Since the power dimension of a text-based environment is almost entirely controllable, the relational risks and irreversibility dimensions hold much less risk than nonverbal face-to-face exchanges that are difficult to mask from each other.

In addition, exit strategies to remove one’s self from a difficult exchange in a face-to-face environment are shifted in online social exchanges—they may consist of a single keystroke or the claim of a network slowdown or disconnect. While the textual environment is more ambiguous, since there is a lack of nonverbal communication to fully deconstruct the message, that also makes the medium much more forgiving— packaged messages may not maintain contextual meaning.

Finally, while the professional risks may change themselves (e.g., using the Internet in the workplace for social exchanges is inappropriate use of workplace resources), the degree of anonymity and informality of online disclosure minimizes this risk as well. If an individual cannot determine who the persona is on the other end of the chatroom, it is difficult to use that information against them in a professional environment. Again, the ability to carefully construct the verbal component, and leave it ambiguous due to the lack of nonverbal packaging, results in far fewer professional risks or misunderstandings.

There are exceptions to every rule, and no doubt one can find that some of these situations do not apply to each moment of self-disclosure. However, online social exchanges provide more of the opportunity to flip the benefits and drawbacks of face-to-face exchanges because of the limitation to a largely verbal (textual) world, time to construct language carefully, and the ultimate power of controlling one’s environment with a keystroke.

Dean Pape