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  • Why do people's online and real-life behaviour differ so much, even in the same contexts? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

    Answer by Koyel Bandyopadhyay, Sociologist and Photographer, on Quora: 

    Both, and I emphasize, both of our online and offline behavior are real. They are our real selves. One doesn't get more validity from the other, if real is equated with being genuine or authentic.

    Before we get into the issue, the bigger assumption needs to be problematized.

    Is online behavior "false" behavior? Why do we assume that we don't show our "real" face in online behavior, which must be photoshopped beyond duckface selfies?

    Why do we assume that the behavior we engage in online, is thrust upon us from external devices of entities, where failing to comply could bring us a penalty of being dead in some ether-chamber through constant torture?

    The semantics of "real" is the subject of a more academic discussion, but if we are hung up on the logic of "real" behavior of "real" life as "true", "authentic", "unfiltered", "genuine", then we are only pulling more wool over our eyes.


    What is Real Behavior?

    Every bit of that gym achievement shared, the tweets made, the duckface selfies, the pearls-of-wisdom posters put forth in passive-aggressive mode, the rants, the trolling, the food pictures, are real.

    We tend to put the stamp of "real" on things we perceive are objectively existing out there, independent of our ability to perceive them, for example, potato chips and bridges, but we fail to consider the fact that each of those "objective" realities are categorized so because of how we construct them in our heads, based on our sensory capabilities.

    So, just because we can't really see the sweat behind someone's gym session or running activity, does not mean it is not real.

    Did the person really run that much?

    That is not the question we should be asking.

    When someone tells you that they love you all "this much", how do you know that they are being "real"? How do you know yours and their definition of "this much" aligns perfectly? You know because you can "feel" it.

    You also know something is real when you see a repeated pattern, a consistency. Consistency is the sauce that makes a behavioral pattern more real than others. Let's say, you have a friend who is soft-hearted, warm and driven by emotions. Your friend would always help you whenever they would see you in pain. Your friend coming to your aid whenever you are in a crisis situation, that's consistency; which tells you that they are a real friend. So, when you see your friend post cynical stuff online, that is very far from the emotional person they are, you conclude that they are "just like that" online, and you emphasize that in "real life", in "reality", they are driven by emotions.

    Herein is the mistake we all make. To err, is human.

    The issue here is that since we use all of our sensory capabilities to construct "reality", when we can't do that in terms of online behavior (because you can't smell your friend's food pictures or can't feel the breeze of your colleague's tropical island paradise pictures), we tend to stamp online behavior as "not real".

    This is an assumption on definition of "real" behavior: that true assessment of a person's character is made through how we see them with all of our five senses.

    Therefore, if Jack says that he's missing his parent two years after the parent died, and if you know that in "real" life (meaning, offline life) Jack didn't even meet or talk about the parent for the past ten years, you assume Jack is being fake. Therefore, the next logical conclusion is: "Jack's behavior is not real".

    But both of Jack's personas are real. Jack projection of missing his parent comes from a different reason than your assumption that Jack has to portray his true emotions all the time. If Jack is being what somebody would call a 'jackass' in offline ("real") life, while he's being an emotional and (very opposite) Jack online, then the difference in his personality styles should be attributed to how inconsistent he appears, rather than your assessment of the situation based on offline interaction; because, that is how Jack is.

    One Jack doesn't become more authentic or accurate than the other.

    If you know there is mismatch in the truth reports, then you should note it down in the margins of your personality assessment report of others, and use that point of mismatch as a criterion of your assessment.


    Our Behavior Varies According to the Audience

    It is just not in online behavior that we put out contrasting behavior and emotions, and not do what we mean.

    Contrasting emotions and behavior are part of our lives all the time. We call the office and say we are sick when we just don't feel like going to the office. We cancel plans with our friends by saying our cat is sick, when we just don't want to go out. We say we are friends with someone, yet don't leave a single opportunity to badmouth them behind their backs. We suppress our yawns and listen attentively to lectures, because our lives depend upon being interested audiences.

    Therefore, to understand this issue, first we need to recognize the issue that's right under our nose: we behave according to a risk assessment procedure based on our audience. We are continuously creating and re-creating our selves. This process is both conscious and unconscious.

    When the audience changes, our behavior changes accordingly. The extent and accuracy of our self-disclosure changes accordingly.

    You might see your friend continuously fight, bicker and talk badly about their spouse, but see a 500-word paragraph status message on their anniversary, professing their love for each other, the content of such being focused on the audience.

    It doesn't matter to them that you know the truth and could call them out.

    They know you wouldn't, because you have the image of a friend to conform to, and nobody wants to be the bad person to people they know in real life.

    We tend to reserve being the bad person (aka troll), for the audience we are least likely to meet.


    What Does "Being Online" Bring to the Table?

    1. The opportunity to become our uninhibited selves.

    This mirrors our need for self-actualization, to project the self we feel "accurately" describes us, or should describe us. That's what we want to send out. The intention is as genuine as it gets. It might not match with our own personality reports of others, but you can talk to a lot of people online while being looked upon as a serious, quiet and shy person offline. You behave like that, based on the audience. Which one is the real you? Who decides?

    2. Instant rewards from external validation.

    You just need to change your profile pic when you're having a crappy day. There will be people who will 'like' the picture of the self you're sending out to the world. Always. As humans, we are hard-wired to seek rewards and online interaction provides many more chances to receive instant rewards, and greater reach in order to receive rewards, through likes, upvotes, re-shares, friendly interaction, etc. Being online is also a much bigger, open, platform to get yourself across where you don't really need to stifle what you want to be, and what's great, you can really channelize the unleashing of the inner you. It doesn't need to be in binary standpoints of all or nada.

    3. The ability to send out our revised, edited and restored drafts of ourselves:

    This is where the debate gets intense. Which one is the real you? The raw one or the processed one?

    When it comes to sugar, there is an answer: raw sugar and processed sugar are both sugar. Both Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and Processed Olive Oil are Olive oils.

    But when it comes to humans, we are more likely to be territorial and say: this is their real self, that is their fake self and the area in-between, is no-human's self.

    Yes, being online allows us to put a filter on how we appear. We the audience feel enraged or cheated, because that filter meddles with the personality assessment reports we are forming and re-forming continuously, unconsciously, in our heads, based on our five senses.

    We know it's too much work doing those personality reports but we still never stop doing it; we are hooked. Doing personality reports of others is integral to our survival and being humans becausejudging people and placing them in neat categories ensures for us that we make no mistakes in dealing with them.

    And those darned filters--the edited versions of others that we receive, deceive the sensory processing of those reports. The impressions we receive do not remain consistent and that, in turn, becomesmore work, as people run their own reality shows through social media.

    Those reality shows that people direct and act in online hampers with our codes to interact and behave with others. But we forget that even in offline behavior, on the same issue, we talk differently, and say different things, based on the audience involved. Your answer to the question of "What were you doing last night?" could very well change depending on whether it's your parent asking it, your friend asking it, your romantic partner asking it or is it the status message box of Facebook is asking it.

    Just to remind you of Erving Goffman, we are all involved in the construction of self in everyday life, by performing to our roles, to the expectations of how others will see us, swerving a little, speeding a bit, trying to control our public image. We are all actors, acting upon on the path "destiny" lands us in.

    4. The ability to do greater social comparisons and gain more self-awareness.

    Social comparison theory has been spoken about it in detail. There's no doubting the fact that we determine our own personal worth by weighing in and up our situation with others. That's how we evaluate how we are doing in life, and how others are doing in their lives. In this process, we also tend to draw in as many peers as we can get--because that's how we believe, we will be part of a community and we will be doing something for the community. Humans are social animals.

    Online behavior illustrates this process of social comparison wonderfully. When a person sees more people doing something, regardless of whether or not they believe in that, they are more likely to engage into same behavior because they want to be a part of the community, within which they can also assess where they stand.

    One day, in a phone conversation with my cousin, I mentioned that I had to hang up soon, as I was having some friends come over in the evening, so I needed to go and cook. She remarked, "Oh really? You have friends coming over? Why don't you post pictures on Facebook in the evening?"

    I said I wouldn't, because that's not me. I didn't give her the real reason, because I knew that she wouldn't take to it kindly. Therefore I just made a quiet statement of my possible action.

    My cousin called me a snob, because (she said that), I don't do what others do.

    She was a bit enraged because I said I wouldn't post pictures of the evening dinner with my friends, whom nobody actually knew.

    The real reason she was enraged (I believe) is because my action of not posting pictures challenged her worldview regarding online behavior--thereby I looked like a black sheep in a community of angelic, happy, white sheep. In addition, it didn't give her an opportunity to see how and what I cook, based on which she could draw some social comparison of culinary skills and trends of entertaining guests, in the community of which she believed she was a part.


    On the issue of understanding behavior--the basic and handy way to understand it is to see where people are coming from. You might not agree with their position, but you can perfectly see why they do things the way they do. And that will enable you to be more at peace with your skills in forming personality reports of others.

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