Big Mouth: Mission Imp Possible

This article first appeared in issue 233 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Chances are, at some point today or tomorrow you’ll think of something terrible. It might happen when you’re standing on a subway platform, waiting for a train, and suddenly a little voice in your head is telling you to jump. It might pop up in the office midway through a meeting, with your clients or colleagues unaware you’re imagining stabbing them in the eyes with a Sharpie.

You might be in the supermarket, seized by the notion of putting something extremely unexpected in the bagging area. Or it might happen at home, during dinner, when the sudden urge to say something unspeakable to your partner puts you right off your spuds.

You’re not alone. Edgar Allan Poe named it ‘The Imp of the Perverse’, the thought that “chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror.” It’s perfectly normal, and it seems we’ve all got it. According to psychology professor Dan Wegner, “knowing the worst that could happen is essential for control.” If we didn’t know what could go wrong, we wouldn’t know to avoid it – so our subconscious minds come up with worst-case scenarios and our conscious minds ensure we don’t let them occur.

Our conscious minds, then, are essentially watchmen, keeping an eye on us to make sure that we don’t do anything too perilously silly. Unfortunately, sometimes they let their guard down – and when they do, the imp escapes. The reasons are legion. For some it’s because they’ve had too much to drink, for others because they’ve had a few disco biscuits, for many it’s because they’re stressed, or sick, or sad. But the result is the same: what Wegner calls “errors of thought, speech and action” that can make us “think, say or do precisely the worst thing for any occasion.”

Blurring the lines

Thankfully for most of us, such “ironic processes” lead to minor indiscretions, not major meltdowns, but thanks to the computers in our pockets, their effects can be amplified. In the wrong or chemically altered frame of mind, a post, tweet, update or upload button can be a big red self-destruct one.

The problem, I think, is that two kinds of line have blurred. Our constantly connected smartphones and other digital devices have smudged the line between work time and free time, and social networks have merged professional and personal. Time zones aside, there’s little difference between my social media feeds during working hours and in the evenings: it’s the same mix of personal and professional contacts, posting the same mix of personal and professional content.

The mix of friends, family, colleagues and clients can be great fun, but it also means that if the imp gets out, it can cause carnage: where the fall-out from inappropriate or inebriated behaviour would previously be limited to a single circle – for example, if you’d said something appalling or insensitive to your friends in the pub – it can now spread across your network to offend colleagues and clients too. An imp with access to the internet can be a very dangerous imp indeed.

Photography: Iain MacLean

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