Can Online Indulgence Be Managed? Lessons From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

I recently read an intriguing Harvard Business Review blog by Alexandra Samuel entitled: The Three Ps of Online IndulgenceThis viral guidance begins with the topic of well-known adults displaying split personalities online. While their public activities follow socially accepted norms, their darker, “shadow selves,” tell a very different story. Ms. Samuel’s witty analysis is evident as she artfully exposes the online hypocrisy of certain family values politicians and the now-famous “stupid” tweets of Congressman Anthony Weiner.

But moving quickly beyond the list of celebrities behaving badly, Ms. Samuel accurately unmasks the relentless disease that inflicts all who regularly enter cyberspace - namely the temptation towards online duplicity. This challenge is the 21st century manifestation of the internal battle dating back to the beginning of time. Each of us must still answer the age-old question: Who am I – really?

No doubt, the Internet has reinvigorated this challenge, just as the printing press did over 500 years ago. Cyber ethics is not just for kids. Always-connected adults are especially vulnerable to persuasion from the smorgasbord of vices offered on the Net. Ms. Samuel writes: … Social media enthusiasts need to be extra cautious about online vices: we're more likely to indulge (because we're online more), more likely to get caught (because we're widely watched) and more likely to disappoint others when we do (because they've seen us as the online standard-setters).”     

I agree. There seems to be a never-ending supply of stories in the news about educated adults, people “who should know better” or even leaders in society getting into serious trouble because of their virtual-world behavior. From politicians to pastors to K-12 teachers, negative aspects of the Internet can emerge in unlikely ways - even using “helpful” tools such as email, Twitter, Facebook and Craigslist. The real-world results are showing up all around us: broken relationships, shattered careers and even jail time. 

What’s to be done? Ms. Samuel goes further, “But you can manage the personal and professional risks of online indulgence by remembering the 3 Ps: Principled, Private and Planned.”

This is where I part ways with the respected Harvard Business Review blogger. I wonder: Can we really control online vices in this way? The overall effect of her words is to compartmentalize each of us into two (or more) distinct identities using online privacy. This approach may work for a time, but surely leads to eventual disaster. In a sense, this guidance is turning online privacy into the “potion” that allowed Dr. Jekyll to change into Mr. Hyde in the famous book “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” written by Robert Louis Stevenson in 1886.

“The second letter explains that Jekyll, seeking to separate his good side from his darker impulses, discovered a way to transform himself periodically into a creature free of conscience, this being Mr. Hyde. The transformation was incomplete, however, in that it created a second, evil identity, but did not make the first identity purely good. At first, Jekyll reports, he delighted in becoming Hyde and rejoiced in the moral freedom that the creature possessed. Eventually, however, he found that he was turning into Hyde involuntarily in his sleep, even without taking the potion.”

I won’t ruin the book’s ending for those who haven’t read this classic story, but one message becomes crystal clear: we are each one person. My “shadow self” is still me. This self-evident wisdom is true even in virtual worlds, and studies have shown that people often act out their online activities in the real world.

There are many pragmatic objections to The Three P’s of Online Indulgence. Here are a few:

-          Can online identities really be kept private to pursue online indulgence? (I seriously doubt this over long periods of time since the Internet has a great memory. Also, hackers abound – ex. WikiLeaks.)

-          Do you really believe that Congressman Anthony Weiner (or most others) could be open and honest with his spouse about his “secret tweeting” to women around the country prior to engaging in this behavior? People often go out of their way to hide online acts from the ones they love and lie to those who love them.

-          If integrity is, “doing what you say and saying what you do,” how is this truly a principled approach? Isn’t duplicity the opposite of integrity?

-          Does being “principled” only mean not violating your own ethical bottom line? What if your ethical bottom line allows sending inappropriate pictures of little children? Are my principles merely reflections of federal or state law or company policy? Is that the best we can do?

-          Are there no principles that transcend our own sense of right and wrong? Can’t we say that the hypocrisy of Ted Haggard or the perversion of Anthony Weiner is wrong, whether it violated their core principles or not?

Nevertheless, more important than these objections, there is actually a better way. Surf your values. Connect your offline values and convictions with your online world. Practice virtual integrity. This means real transparency and accountability for online actions.  Yes, we can still have fun and be anonymous on the Internet. But we must be wary of using browser controls, proxy servers, other privacy tools or online anonymity as the method to feed a "shadow self" (free of conscience) or we will suffer a similar result as "Mr. Hyde."   

No doubt, we all have made (and will make) mistakes. Humbly acknowledging our weakness and vulnerabilities is a good place to start. When we see the appalling news headlines about our leaders and celebrities behaving badly in cyberspace, we can say: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Cybersecurity teams see it all the time. Regular visits to the Internet’s “dark side” will be found out.

Honesty, accountability and forgiveness are still the only approaches that work.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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