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Jan. 5 2010 - 8:41 am | 336 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Simulation entrapment: The case of the mortuary student and the trocar threat

Example of a trocar

Image via Wikipedia

You don’t need to be someone who grew-up with rotary phones and black-and-white TV to be a knucklehead when it comes to social networking tools. So called digital natives–those raised with bits in their blood–can still cause big problems for themselves by doing something online they should not have done, at least not online.

Consider the case of the mortuary student and the trocar threat:

A student at the University of Minnesota, smarting from recently getting dumped, wrote on Facebook that she wanted to stab her former man in the throat with a trocar, a tool used to drain dead bodies. When she showed up at mortuary-science class on December 14, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, campus police officers questioned her about the post and banned her from campus while they investigated.

via Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

By the end of the week, and two missed finals, she was cleared of harboring any malicious intent. She was just “kvetching,” to use the technical term. It seems this student forgot that some thoughts really should not be shared with one’s Facebook “friends,” and threatening someone with a tool out of Six Feet Under or Dexter seems to be one of those thoughts better kept offline, even if all you are doing is expressing hurt and anger.

In response:

Tracy Mitrano, director of information-technology policy and the computer-policy and -law program at Cornell University, said it was appropriate for the university to investigate

“It doesn’t surprise me that school officials, at the very least, wanted to talk with her about that posting,” she said. “If people in this day and age do not understand they are making their private thoughts and feelings public [on the Internet], I suppose we need cases like this to remind us of that fact.”

via Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Good advice as far as it goes. But I find this incident more intriguing than merely illustrating the obvious injunction to treat one’s murderous fantasies like nude pictures of yourself: keep them private or risk embarrassing public exposure. I think the online trocar threat illustrates the far more interesting reality that we adopt emerging interactive technologies, like Facebook, far faster than we develop social conventions that dictate their use. And when people act without social conventions all sorts of psychological mischief ensues.

But what kind of psychological mischief? The by now traditional candidate for understanding the process that leads people to misbehave online is the “disinhibition effect.” Here’s a definition from John Suler, a psychologist who has been writing about these issues ever since email was the amazing new thing:

It’s well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the “disinhibition effect.”

via Psychology of Cyberspace – The Online Disinhibition Effect.

Today, most people understand the lure of “online disinhibition” or at least have learned conventions that operate with email and web-forums.

But our mortuary student making trocar threats on Facebook was in a different situation and she was not disinhibited. In fact, she got in trouble for saying things online that she would ordinarily say face-to-face to a friend. What she wrote is the kind of thing overheard whenever anyone spends time among the jilted. Her trouble was actually the opposite of online disinhibition.

The new trouble was that she apparently lost the distinction between talking f-2-f with a friend and posting something online to her “friends.”  She forg0t where she was, like someone on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disney World pulling out a real gun to shoot a supposedly threatening animatronic python. She had become trapped inside the simulation Facebook provides of hanging-out with one’s friends. It is an all too familiar example of online-offline confusion, something we can call “simulation entrapment.”

And while simulation entrapment frequently lets us deeply enjoy marvelous tools, when we forget we are under it’s spell it becomes all too easy, like our mortuary student, to have one of those “wish I hadn’t done that” experiences.


2 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    You make an important point, Todd, one that I think we all too often forget: postings online may feel like f-2-f “chatting” but are actually in writing and can be accessed in the way that actual chats with friends can not be.

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