Books of this ilk almost exclusively blow, which I guess makes how good this one is even more impressive. The premise of Virtually You is that the costs of the internet are felt away from the computer, far enough away that often we fail to recognize the link. It's a pretty straightforward book--he pinpoints five negative psychological forces enabled by the web and each gets a chapter: Grandiosity, Narcissism, Darkness, Regression, and Impulsivity. The point isn't that these things happen online, it's that they happen online in ways they could not happen in real life. It's more difficult to pretend to be someone else in person, selfishness is questioned or ostracized, anti-social behavior isn't tolerated and compulsions for sex or material things are tempered by actual physical constraints. There's a well-trod and tired psychology trope for the web: people create alter-egos online so they can vicariously live through them. Well, what if 15 years into widespread internet usage, that isn't true anymore? What if who people pretend to be online changes who they are offline, and what if the electronic medium inherently encourages certain types of dysfunctional, unhealthy behavior? The latter part is definitely true. There are people who develop compulsive shopping addictions online but have no problem controlling themselves in stores. Or poker addicts who don't have the slightest desire to go a casino. And the former, in my experience, is increasingly more true. Does the aggressive and short tone we can take in emails bleed over into our personal interactions? I think so. I've long since grown exhausted with books of internet and technological cheerleading. The web won. Now it's time for books like this to help us make sense of what that victory truly means and how we can live productive, healthy lives within it.
on March 4, 2011
I am deeply affected by this book, even though I am not addicted to the Internet (I am not on Facebook, Twitter, smart phones, etc.) Dr. Aboujaoude's warning in his conclusion is particularly chilling. Using Hobbes' description of our fate in "the state of nature" (i.e., without civilization) when the life of man would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," the good doctor warns that "the worst possible outcomes [Hobbes] feared have echoes in a medium he could not have imagined" (281).
The Internet, which offers many good things that support civilization, also offers a perpetual pleasure playground that makes us more distracted, nasty, arrogant, brutish, and narcissistic. Many of us on the Internet see ourselves as "outside of normal rules" (57), larger than life and invincible. This is a dangerous game that entices us to invest "in start-up stocks," seek fame "at all costs," and pursue "reckless sexual pairings," or "impossible-to-fund shopping sprees" (57). Using Freud's categories, Dr. Aboujaoude claims that the Internet has become a strong and almost unbeatable ally of our "id," an ally that could hold our minds, our wills, and our conscience (i.e., our "superego") captive.
As a college professor, I am particularly struck by Aboujaoude's description of the changes in our writing and reading habits. The Internet has already shredded most of our grammar rules. But I was even more alarmed by the changes in reading habits, for it is reading that teaches good writing. According to the British Library study (2008) which Aboujaoude quotes (one of the many invaluable sources he uses) "online readers are 'promiscuous, diverse, and volatile'....Their information-seeking behavior is 'horizontal, bouncing, checking and viewing in nature....They 'scan, flick, and power browse their way through digital content, developing new forms of online reading'" (190). The purpose of this reading method is "'to avoid reading'" (191). Relying on a study by John Gehl and Suzanne Douglas, Dr. Aboujaoude explains that the old way of passing information (we might add wisdom and passion too), the one-to-many model which assumes that "the message sender had more information than the message receiver" (203) is on the way out. The one with the control, Gehl and Douglas write, "'is not the one with the message but the one with the mouse'" (203). Perhaps professors would be the first to be washed out in the tide, but the journalists, economists, and experts of various ilk would not be far behind.
Do we really want this confounding Babel Tower? Do we really want to live in a world where all opinions are equally valid, no matter how many years the expert has spent on studying his or her subject? Why are we so enticed by dumbness? What would happen to our civilized reading of the great classics, books by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, George Eliot, Hardy, the Bronte sisters, D.H. Lawrence, Dickens, Kafka, Shakespeare, and others--books that have always given us startling beauty, wisdom, and self-knowledge?
Most sad is the Internet threat to our loving relationships. In cyberspace, Dr. Aboujaoude points out, "sex can be turned into a straightforward, simple transaction. Arranged online, it can be a mostly devoid-of-feelings pleasurable exchange of something, with no future-oriented expectation for long-term anything." Thus "the impatient, raw, cut-to-the-chase manner of transacting around issues of sexuality gets played out beyond Craiglist, causing tension and tipping the balance, in real life, away from love or romance or dating..." (184). The thought of a world without love is unbearable. It's "1984" all over again. It's life without meaning, cheap and disposable as a tin can. It's life in a sinister playground, where adults, of their own accord, childishly renounce responsibility, and children ride their "mice" to oblivion. I can't imagine such a life.
Finally, the Internet threatens the well-being of our democracy. As we all know, democracy functions well when its citizens are informed. But many of our citizens on the Internet are no longer informed; many of them can't think or read deeply; and many of them can be easily duped by cyberspace predators. As Aboujaoude points out, since the Internet has shortened our attention spans, it can become easier "for demagogues to spread...their one-liner propaganda slogans" (212). Indeed, we are already seeing the results of this dark process in a confused, divided, rude, and violent citizenry, a citizenry armed with an unfamiliar and unshakeable sense of entitlement.
I think that the survival of our civilization really depends on our ability to postpone gratification, an ability which has always been hard to achieve and sustain but which is now jeopardized more than ever, thanks to the Internet. Work, discipline, and seriousness of purpose will save us--not uninterrupted fun and games.
Dr. Aboujaoude, thank you so much for writing this book!
Virtually You is different from many books about the dangers of the Internet. Its focus is how our online habits are changing our personalities and affecting our offline behavior. It scared me a little and certainly made me think. This book covered a lot of ground, keeps you interested, and is well written and argued. It's just a good book that belongs in the library of anyone interested in how the Internet is changing us and our world.
on March 15, 2011
This book focuses on the negative or dangerous aspects of our digital lives. Aboujaoude shows how the internet can foster things like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (even creating new forms of OCD that don't exist in the "real world") an unrealistic sense of entitlement, narcissism, a false sense of security, greater inclination toward immoral behavior (e.g., rudeness and name calling in online discussion), and a false sense of knowledge among other things.
It's important to realize that Aboujaoude *does not* say that the internet or our digital lives in general only (or primarily) produces these undesirable effects. This isn't a crazy attack on technology that tries to persuade us to cancel our internet subscriptions and turn off the computer. He acknowledges the many benefits of the internet (e.g., online dating) while focusing on the dangerous and harmful elements that can arise in these same areas. This is important, because the dangerous elements are often insidious and, so far, little attention or study has been given these "dangerous powers."
This book should be required reading for young people today. Actually, it should be required reading for everyone in our digital society. But the things that Elias Aboujaoude has to say in this book need to be heard early on as preventative and not just corrective--after we've already logged enough time online to develop our dangerous e-personality. Unfortunately, as the author points out, there are few, if any, classes in high-school or at the college level that address the issues this book does, despite having many mandatory computer courses. There needs to be more classes that are devoted to the ethics and psychology of our digital lives and this book should be the text-book.
"Virtually You" is thought provoking and will make you take a step back and analyze your online life and how it may be effecting your offline life (Aboujaoude argues that it does). And if that's all the book does for you then it's worth its price. (The book is also filled with interesting case studies that should keep any reader's interest peeked.)
on March 11, 2011
At last we're starting to get some *human-affirming* responses to what's becoming of us as we live predominantly machine-mediated lives. Even Sherry Turkle, whose earlier books were, as I recall, purely observational studies of the human-into-machine phenomenon, now offers her personal, emotional reflections on the cost incurred. (See her latest book, "Alone Together.")
Dr. Aboujaoude has given us one more reflection--and a superb one--on that cost.
Before I make my own two reflections in this space, let me clarify my position regarding the internet.
I make an excellent living--better than I've ever made--in a job which could only be possible via the Internet. (It's legal and non-exploitative too!)
I met my soul-mate through the Internet. It's hugely unlikely that our paths could have crossed any other way.
I'm finishing writing a book that required extensive research. The internet made that tremendously easier to do. (I read that Margaret Mitchell spent several years at her library doing the research for "Gone With the Wind." One wonders how much more quickly and pleasurably she'd have written GWTW with internet access.)
In short, the internet has immeasurably enriched my life.
HOWEVER--It's enriched my life by deepening my humanness, not discarding it.
It's enabled me to meet a real, integrated person who I could genuinely love--not an avatar.
It's enabled me to make enough money for the growth experiences in real life I desire--not to simulate those experiences in a fantasy world.
Finally, it's enabled me to create something which is focused and (I hope) a contribution to our human journey--not a flipping endlessly between links while never focusing on much of anything for long enough to gain insights.
The internet can be a wonderful tool for our own personal, real-life, human growth, if we *choose* it to be. It can also wipe us out completely if we choose *that.* For, as always, it has nothing to do with "the internet," and everything to do with us.
For those of us who want to choose our own life, my two reflections:
(1) Let's *never* think of the human-into-machine phenomenon as "inevitable." Just as we use about 5% of our brain capacity, so, I believe, we use an equally small percentage of our *personal power* capacity. There are huge wells of that power (aka, creativity) residing within us, through which we can make our lives whatever we wish--actually, not virtually--no matter what the cheerleaders for morphing into machines tell us. All that keeps us from accessing our personal power are endless distractions, plus the fact that losing ourselves in those distractions (once again, our choice) is so much easier than actually working at our human growth.
For being human *is* work! But the pay-off in growth, activeness, a life well-lived (as opposed to being a receptacle continually filled and emptied by machines) is so worth it.
(2) Some might conclude that the rather horrid behavior often shown by online personalities-- narcissism, grandiosity, superiority, viciousness, dishonesty, infantilism, etc.--is the way humans *inherently* are, once the restraints of real-life civilization are removed.
I see this behavior not as how humans "really" are, but as what we become when we choose not to do the work of growing. Simply put, when we don't grow but merely absorb, we become toxic.
The internet has become one of the greatest tools in human history for whichever choice we care to make. So now it's up to each of us--individually, not via technologists' and academics' pronouncements--to decide what to do with it.
on February 28, 2012
Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality is an eye opening exploration of how radically the internet has impacted people's personalities. As people spend more and more time online, something about their identity changes. The newly constructed e-identity is "a virtual whole that is greater than its parts and that, despite not being real, is full of life and vitality." It is "more assertive, less restrained, and a little bit on the dark side, and decidedly sexier" (p.20). While some intentionally create a new identity online, most simply refashion their identity to make themselves appear better than they actually are.
Following the introduction, the first half of the book is an exploration of five psychological forces that Aboujaoude has observed are asserted as a part of the e-personality: grandiosity, narcissism, darkness, regression and impulsivity. As the amount of time people spend online in all areas of life increases, the lines blur between one's identity and e-identity, which often is more harmful than helpful. Hence, the second half of the book considers how the shifts in e-personality are impacting life offline, especially with the tendency to reconfigure one's offline personality into the image of one's e-personality.
As the trend toward spending more time online continues, it will be increasingly important to understand how this impacts life offline. Educators, clergy, parents must be engaged in developing a deeper understanding of this trend and its many implications.
on February 15, 2013
This book is heavy with case studies and numbers... depending on what kind of thinker you are, this may or may not be a good thing.
I personally enjoyed this book because it reinforced my beliefs and articulated many ideas that I have been unable to. I strongly believe that the internet is negatively impacting (there are positive impacts too, obviously) the lives of most people. After severing my bonds with Facebook and texting, I received a lot of backlash from people who considered this a bad career move: "How will you expand your network?" and "What if someone really needs to reach you?," they asked. My reasoning for leaving social networks was solid - it triggers in me insecurity - but it is often hard to go against the norm without support.
If you've become aware that your online life is damaging your real one, this is a book that you need to read. It will make you feel more secure in your beliefs, and more likely to do what is right for you.
on May 30, 2016
Throughout Virtually You, Aboujauoude reflex upon recent/current events as well as his own experiences in an effort to present the virtual world as a harmful place or thing or whatever you consider it.
The content he presents is relevant as well as interesting and the arguments he makes are rather convincing. However, as a part of the technological generation, I cannot bring myself to agree with Aboujauoude's view and I imagine many more will find themselves in the same situation. There are many ways which the Web benefits us, productively and socially, and the way technology impacts society can often only be judged subjectively; when change occurs, someone's always bound to become unhappy about it.
As implied, virtually you is a decent read, despite sporting a rather unpopular viewpoint. If anything, it's message was quite refreshing. If you have a passion for the topic, I would recommend this book no matter your opinion.
on August 20, 2014
If you read only one book on the impact of technology, the Internet, and cyberspace on our individual psyches, our sense of well-being, and our increasingly-fragile sense of community, read this one. The message is in the title: Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality. Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at Stanford University School of Medicine, covers many troubling topics including websites that promote false identities, professional reputations wiped out by negative online reviews, young people who are developmentally vulnerable to perceptions about themselves among peers and peers’ associates (including parents) being propelled to acts of violence against themselves or others, long-distance relationships compromised by lack of face-to-face interaction and more.
This is not a litany of the imperfections of the medium. Rather, Dr. Aboujaoude works hard to offer a candid and balanced appraisal. Still, he maps: (1) the proclivity of online activity to spark and escalate addictive behaviors; (2) the spiraling down of trust in human relationships that correlates with the spike in online transactions; and (3) the failure of many virtual interactions to enhance interpersonal communication and understanding. Anyone who spends a significant amount of time “online,” personally or professionally, should read this book.
I believe we are in the infancy of “the information age.” The gadgets and machines that connect us through the Internet carry the potential for remarkable good as well as devastating, arguably sometimes catastrophic, consequences. We are the guinea pigs of this new era. Our only hope for a healthy transition is that scholars and researchers like Dr. Aboujaoude bring their skills, care and eloquence to the question of the impact of these inventions on our lives. Too few are paying close attention to the “down side” of these devices. But thanks to Dr. Aboujaoude, we have been alerted. We can begin to create sensible, healthy parameters for our interaction with these new, expensive, powerful, though largely untested, and remarkably accepted-as-indispensable, contraptions. (And we haven’t even mentioned the impact on the environment!) Thank you, Dr. Aboujaoude.
on June 17, 2012
At the end of "Virtually You," Dr. Elias Aboujaoude concludes that he has "tried to make the case for the existence of the online self as a relatively independent creature that does not necessarily answer to us." If you manage an online community, that statement not only send chills down your back, but explains a lot of the stuff you run into. It also means that this highly readable book will be a useful tool for predicting the behaviors of online crowds and explaining the reasons behind their actions to management.
Aboujaoude is the Director of Stanford University's Impulse Control and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Clinics, so there's more than a little credibility behind his thesis that the way we behave online can be very different than offline.
First off, clicking around the web hits the dopamine centers of the brain, creating feelings of pleasure, relation and escape from the daily grind. In many ways, these replicate drug-induced sensations. Second, a sense of anonymity, lack of geographic and personal boundaries, an absence of hierarchy, and few symbols of authority (like a policeman's uniform we'd see in real life) mix together to create an environment that encourages the id run free.
Changes in personality can include:
* Greater bravery and assertiveness
* Exaggerated sense of what can be accomplished
* Feelings of superiority towards others
* Child-like regression
* Exaggerated sexuality
Aboujaoude notes, "We all have less inhibitions online and act out more frequently and more intense than we would in person. The normal brake system, which under usual circumstances helps keep thoughts and behaviors in check, constantly malfunctions on the information superhighway. This chronic malfunction has been called the "online disinhibition effect." That's right, being online can be seen as a form of dissociative disorder.
In an unexpected way, Dr. Aboujaoude may have helped us reach a better definition of social media. People who define it as a set of technologies completely miss the cultural differences that make social media so appealing to so many. And those who define social media as a community have never been able to define what makes it distinct from other cultures you run into, say, in other countries. But thinking of social media as technologies that induce a specific psychological state helps get us closer to a comprehensive definition. Of course, that could just be an inflated sense of accomplishment speaking.