Tech and Culture

The psychology of the “Invisible” mode in IMs

I have a couple of friends on my contact lists that love to remain “invisible” while they’re logged on those instant messaging programs. I have no problems with that, but my biggest pet peeve is getting sudden IMs from such people. I can understand if they’re very busy or just do not wish to be disturbed, but I don’t get why anyone would give the illusion that they’re very busy or just unavailable, and yet send random IMs to their friends. If you’re not straight forward enough to make your online presence known to me, what makes you think I appreciate that abrupt message from you?

I decided to seek the help of psychology to understand why people display this kind of behavior online. Turns out that we humans have been exercising such behavior since the time we started forming societies. The name of this phenomenon is – Ostracism. Traditionally, ostracism has been practiced at a social scale through the act of shunning villagers, throwing people in jail, or even exiles. It does, however occur at smaller scales, like a husband ostracizing his wife in public to avoid confrontations out in the open. It is believed that ostracism has biological substrates, and is a natural trait of many different living species.

What occurs in the case of Internet messengers is somewhat of a “reverse ostracism”, if that’s the right way of defining the phenomenon. In this case, one particular individual ostracizes the rest of the “online society” to provide some psychological succor to him/her self. Researchers and psychologists have often concluded that ostracism is a self-destructive mechanism when used as a defense against perceived rejection. Does this have to do anything with my friend being invisible while he’s actively looking for someone to converse with? Intuitive reasoning would say yes. When quizzed, these people declare that they prefer to be invisible to avoid unsolicited and mass messages from friends they have long forgotten or have been trying to forget. Some also mention that they remain invisible so that they only have to talk to someone when they want.

Psychologists say that such behavior is most likely to be exhibited by people low in self-esteem. They use social ostracism as a manipulative tactic rather than true disengagement. I bolded the latter part of the statement because these people still do not want to truly ostracize their peers, but choose to selectively distance themselves away to provide the illusion of a permanent ostracism. The fact these people have low self esteem can be proven by the fact that people with a high self esteem are actually more likely to go through with true disengagement or termination of relationship.

So, does this mean that I have people with low self-esteem on my online contact lists? Maybe. It is hard for me to tell. They are all normal people, and I like the fact that I know them, and that they sometimes send me online messages when I expect them the least. What amazes me is the psychology that might be responsible for such an unintuitive behavior.

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