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12.1.04

Internet Stereotyping

How Real Are Internet Friendships?

... The significant point is that we make unwarranted inferences about people on the basis of our perception of their attractiveness. For example, as a consequence of what psychologists call a ‘positive halo effect’, attractive people are considered more intelligent, more moral, better adjusted, nicer, more sexually responsive and more competent than their less attractive fellows. And, of course, it isn’t only attractiveness that influences the judgements we make about people. We also take our cues from, amongst other things, age, sex, racial characteristics, style of dress, accent and social class.

The reason that these kinds of cues will often result in distorted judgements about people is because we make use of ‘implicit personality theories’ which rely on stereotyping. In other words, we tend to take our cue from these readily identifiable characteristics to place people into categories, and then we assume that they share the other attributes which we think are typical of the category.

... The significant point about internet relationships is that the characteristics we rely on to make judgements about people in the non-virtual world are largely invisible in the virtual world. The irony here is that it is precisely that facet of internet communication that makes gross deception possible – the absence of a face to face relationship - which undermines our tendency to stereotype.


But there is stereotyping that goes on on the internet. The simplest is the carryover of real-world stereotypes. The better you get to know an online friend, the more things you learn about them, including things -- like sex, age, appearance, and so forth -- that unfairly affect your assessment of them. Even if those things are more or less concealed, as they are by many privacy-conscious inhabitants of the internet, there are emerging cultural and self-presentation stereotypes. Consider, for example, the negative view someone like me could implicitly take of someone who had an AOL e-mail address, or who said things like "u r kewl." The same person could elicit very different reactions from us if they posted under the name "EminemLovr143," "ImpeachBush," "Heraclitus," or "Matt L." The importance of stereotypes to how we function in the real world means the principle is reproduced in the virtual world.

One big difference is in choice. In the real world, it's difficult if not impossible to exercise control over bases of stereotyping such as physical attractiveness, race, or accent. Online, however, we can much more easily choose our nickname, diction, and so forth in order to elicit a certain reaction. While this is useful on a pragmatic level, it raises questions in terms of the philosophy of tolerance. Tolerance of real-world difference has often been achieved through pointing to the uncontrollability of stereotyped features -- the "they can't help it" argument. But it's hard for me to accept "u r kewl" when I know the person is perfectly capable of typing "you are cool." The question, then, is whether tolerance is an accommodation to our imperfect world, or whether it's of value, at least with respect to a certain range of behavior, in and of itself -- and if the second, how to argue for it either in general or with regard to particular cases.

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