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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Review - Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality by Elias Aboujaoude

Your online personality has a dramatic impact on your offline self. In Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, author Elias Aboujaoude explores the ways that being online affect our personalities and how that bleeds over into everything we do.

Aboujaoude is a medical doctor and psychiatrist working in Palo Alto, California. That puts him in the heart of Silicon Valley and he started his practice in treating impulse control at the peak of the internet revolution. This book reflects his experience treating all sorts of disorders that exist, fully or in part, in online personalities.

He recounts stories of clients who fabricated online identities, sacrificed real life for Second Life, gambled away all their money, bullied others, were bullied by others and more. It's a shocking and tragic look at the darkest effects of the internet on humanity. People who are willing to completely abandon their in-person lives in favor of something online - or to let online interaction ruin their offline existence.

Aboujaoude has been treating people for internet related issues for years and is one of the leading experts on the myriad problems caused or exacerbated by being online. But at the same time, his writing shows a marked lack of understanding about online culture and life. He's a foreigner writing about a land he rarely visits. Sure, he uses email and searches for things on Google, but that doesn't constitute a real understanding of the medium.

For Aboujaoude, all internet uses exist on a spectrum of dysfunction. He sees his clients as the far end of the spectrum on which we all lie. Because one of his clients is addicted to gambling online, we all must show some addictive tendencies online. Because one of his clients creates a new personality for online dating, we all must reinvent ourselves online. Because one of his clients is an internet bully, we all must be more antagonistic online. 

His premise is flawed. It's not true that because some people are sociopaths that all of us exhibit some sociopathic tendencies. Nor is it true that because some people are bulimic that we all have a little bit of an eating disorder. So why would it follow that online disorders would apply to the healthy as well as the dysfunctional? 

Though the basic thesis of Virtually You is fatally flawed, there is still good to be found in this book. Aboujaoude does a thorough job of examining the various issues that can be caused or amplified by the internet. A careful reading and self-examination is a good idea. Ask yourself if you separate your online and offline personalities. Look at how you might be more impulsive online versus offline. Judge your ability to be truthful as you represent yourself online. Just don't think that you're necessarily broken. 

What Aboujaoude fails to understand is that the internet is a part of our world now. It's not a separate sphere where things happen that don't affect the "real world." It's not virtual. It's reality - online. 

What I would rather see, instead of a litany of all the horrible things that people do online, is a recognition that we have this new space in which we interact with people. We need to develop new skills to integrate our personality to all the spheres in which we operate. Adolescents learn to do this as they grow up and incorporate the person they are with their friends and the person they are at home and the person they are at school. 

Humanity is in an adolescent stage when it comes to the internet. We don't need to descry the divide between online and offline personalities. We need to mature and integrate them into a healthy whole. 

(Note: The book link earns me a small commission on any sales made through it). 

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