Shaped by our Tools: Effects of Modern Media

Ciarán McMahon described to ECIC participants some features of cyberspace, as well as its effects on the human mind. A key message of the lecture was to highlight the virtual reality as a unique operational context rather than as a mediated fantasy land. Cyberspace was described as a reality with its own inherent rules and characteristics. This all is shaping who we are as humans both online and offline, face-to-face. The person you are online is not necessarily the same as you are offline.

Online context is different from offline context

The web has become more a space than a connection of computers, McMahon emphasised. Thus, we can perceive it as a space of telepresence. Also web developers and designers want to hide its function as a mediator. Online is not secondary to offline but parallel to it. It is more and more an operational environment in itself, thus we need to understand its inherent features.

Some key notions about the online context that make it different from the offline are:

  • Online context lacks the respect of authority. Real life is structured by laws, and on the playground the biggest kid gets the power. This doesn’t work online.
  • The online communication rarely includes the physical appearance and gestures of a person (despite the video). This makes the perceiving of messages sometimes difficult. For example consider trying (and failing) with sarcasm in a text message.
  • Emotions are stronger when messages are processed in an individual’s head without a shared experience in a certain place and time. When using the web, we all are in different contexts as individuals. Also mistakes easily appear without the context.
  • The time is not the same in cyberspace as in real life. In cyberspace you can control the time. Everything seems to be temporary but everything also has a delay. It even enables conscious acts of disturbing the time and place perceiving, like scheduling a delayed sending of edited emails.

Cyberspace also challenges the dominance of language. Pictures and feelings become as important means of communication as words. This widens our thinking and perceiving of life. The latest millennia of our culture have been bound to words and text, but this is now being challenged, resulting in a significant cultural turn!


People act differently online and offline

People are different online than in real life. We adapt to every context and act differently online. This is a double-edged sword, with the following consequences:

Positive things happen: 

  • It’s easier to share online. We tend to become more open.
  • It’s easier to build social relations.
  • We are more generous online.

Negative things happen:

  • The feeling of anonymity increases. It is easy to use a false personality online. Thus, crime is easier.
  • There’s a tendency towards impatience, when we don’t get a reply immediately.
  • Online expression has become very emotional, often aggressive. We seem to apply different means of communicating unpleasant things. It is often easier to write rather than to speak in such instances. It’s easier to be rude in writing than face-to-face.

All in all, we are not the same and we don’t act the same in online and offline realities. These contexts highlight different things in our personality, both positive and negative. Can we get used to this?

Affected by the fantasy land?

In the beginning the internet was, can, and may still be treated as a game - as if it wasn’t for real. But it is! It’s not a fantasyland where we can freely develop an online personality.

Still, it’s easy to perceive cyberspace as a society of imagination. We start imagining how the person online looks, sounds, and acts. It’s like reading a book and imagining what the characters look like. It’s called solipsistic introjection: you fill in the character and create a hyperpersonality. The difference to reading books is that these people are for real – and they are not responsible for your introjections.

Cyberspace is a bit like our inner space. When we are online, we are not quite the same person as we are in acting the real life. But we are not the products of imagination either.  We’re something in between, something different, and still very real.

Could you do it?

No matter how we perceive the cyberspace, we are anyways affected by being online all the time. How does it affect us and our children?

Try the marshmallow test on yourself, but not with a marshmallow, with your mobile device.
Can you stay 2 minutes without touching it?
Written by

Marjukka Laiho, Mikaela Lax, Sami Kallioinen
Church Information Centre, Finland