John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Jan 96 (v1.0)

The Internet Regression

Norman N. Holland
Department of English - University of Florida
Gainesville FL 32611-2036 U.S.A.

Talking on the Internet, people regress. It's that simple. It can be one-to-one talk on e-mail or many-to-many talk on one of the LISTs or newsgroups. People regress, expressing sex and aggression as they never would face to face.

Think about it. Current estimates say 23 million people communicate on the Internet from most of the nations on the globe, and that number is increasing at 12% a month. And all this just grew like Topsy, with no one planning or controlling it. Here is one of the extraordinary technological achievements, one of the great human achievements, of our century. But homo sapiens reverts to primitive, childish behavior. Why?

There are three major signs or, if you will, symptoms of this regression. The one Internet primitivism that everybody talks about is "flaming," flying into a typewritten rage at some perceived slight or blunder. "Everywhere I went in the newsgroups," writes John Seabrook in The New Yorker, "I found flames, and fear of flames" (1994, 70). No wonder. Seabrook had written a friendly piece on Bill Gates, the powerful president of Microsoft. In the "profile," he made a point of the way he and Gates conducted their interview on e-mail. This is what appeared on Seabrook's screen (courtesy of a certain computer columnist):

>>Crave THIS, asshole:

Listen, you toadying dipshit scumbag . . . remove your head from your rectum long enough to look around and notice that real reporters don't fawn over their subjects, pretend that their subjects are making some sort of special contact with them, or, worse, curry favor by TELLING their subjects how great the ass- licking profile is going to turn out and then brag in print about doing it.

Forward this to Mom. Copy Tina [the new publisher of The New Yorker] and tell her the mag is fast turning to compost. One good worm deserves another.<<

This last was a veiled threat, since a "worm" is a computer virus and the "flame" might have caused damage to Seabrook's data and programs.

A second primitivism on the Internet is sexual harassment, crude invitations to people about whom one knows no more than their online signatures (which may well be "gender-benders" that hide the sex of the speaker). It happens even in professional or intellectual groups, but the "chat" groups are the worst. Women complain that going into chat mode can feel like a walk past a construction site or a wrong turn down a dark street (Span 1994). But males are not the only offenders. Women also proposition men. As one of the subscribers to my list-conference PSYART described it,

>>Once, while in a chat, I changed my nickname to a female moniker. A woman (and I use the noun to refer to what she presented herself as--not that I have any reason to doubt her, but who knows on IRC [Internet Relay Chat]) . . . left the conference, and told some people there was a new woman on the net. She returned to the conference, and many men joined. Several began sending me private messages suggesting various (and graphic) sexual acts. One in an adjacent state wanted to meet me in person. None of these people ever sent me e-mail later, perhaps because I revealed my real gender after a while--at which time the harassment ended. This particular conference was not one of the sexually-oriented ones--just an IRC group we had formed that night. What began as a joke proved to be quite an education.

On another occasion, while using my natural and usual IRC/real identity, someone claiming to be a young woman joined a conference--again, not a sexual interest group--and began sending me private, explicit messages. I hadn't thought about it until now, but it seems as though her advances were less crude, although every bit as direct (Sougstadt 1994)<<

The third symptom of regression--and you may not consider it a regression at all--is the extraordinary generosity you see on the Internet. The one comment you hear over and over again about online communication is the openness, the sense of sharing and, mostly, tolerance. Total strangers will give up hours of their time to send one another research data. Even goods. A lawyer was moving from Boston to Washington. A fire on the van destroyed his books, and he posted a list of what he had lost on the Internet. "Every day for six months I was receiving books in the mail from people I'd never met" (Rubin 1994). "People on the network share information about everything from how to run their computers to how to make cheesecake. Most of the people who post are trying to be helpful, even when they disagree" (Golden 1994). Most dramatically, on the Internet, there are support groups for recovering alchoholics, drug addicts, and smokers. People with suicidal tendencies tenderly share ways in which they ward off the temptation (Wright 1993).

Another side to this openness is what Kristina Ross has called "identity play" (1994). People try out new ways of being, often in very playful ways: different professions, the opposite gender, altered self-descriptions. There is a sense that 'it doesn't matter,' a feeling of invulnerability.

At the same time, this openness involves heightened vulnerability. This is the way New Yorker writer John Seabrook describes how it feels to be flamed:

The flame seemed to put a chill in the center of my chest which I could feel spreading slowly outward. My shoulders began to shake. I got up and walked quickly to the soda machines for no good reason, then hurried back to my desk. There was the flame on my screen, the sound of it not dying away; it was flaming me all over again in the subjective eternity that is time in the on-line world. . . . the technology greased the words . . . with a kind of immediacy that allowed them to slide easily into my brain (1994, 70-71).

In short, communication on the Internet has its plusses and minuses. The plusses are the generosity and openness. The minuses are aggressive flaming, sexual attack, and increased vulnerability. I think they are two sides of the same coin: sex and aggression in positive and negative, active and passive, forms. Both begin because of a lack of inhibition--a regression. But what lures us into this regression?

The simplest answer is, the computer itself. To understand interpersonal behavior on the Internet, we need to look at the fantasies people have about their computers.

It is already a cliche to say that the computer extends and expands the brain. What the car, the boat, the gun, the airplane do for the body, the computer does for the mind. In fact, people use metaphors of body activity to describe the mind working on the computer, like this British user: "It exercises the mental faculties . . . . it keeps my mind alive and sprightly" (Shotton 1989, 207).

In this pseudo-physicality, men easily get into mine-is-bigger- than-yours games. My hard disk, my chip, my screen is bigger or faster or newer or more powerful.(Kantrowitz 1994, Turkle 1984). In psychoanalytic terms, men's fantasies about computers are "phallic." In this context, "flaming" is a bit like giving other drivers the finger from inside a car. Driving is a phallic activity like computing, and the driver identifies himself (usually himself) with his machine, feeling secure inside his steel cocoon as the computer "driver" is made safe by distance and anonymity. The context is aggressive and competitive, as men are with their computers (Irvine 1994, Cobb 1993).

Since fantasies about computers tend to the phallic, it should come as no surprise that men and women respond differently to computers. Women, unlike men, generally think the machines are just meant to be used, like the microwave or the vacuum cleaner. "It's a tool, like a screwdriver," one woman writes to the Washington Post, not intending (I assume) any symbolism. "I pick it up. I expect it to work. While computers can be more `fun' than most screwdrivers, in general, when I turn my computer on, I expect it to work. Period" (Walker 1994).

It should also come as no suprise that people feel anxious about that phallic computer. `Will the computer go berserk?' `Will it blow up if I press the wrong button?' are common imaginings (Simons 1985, 22). "People are afraid they'll break something," writes one woman. "Computers are like dogs--they know when you're scared of them" (Dowell 1994). Turkle (1984) contrasts people for whom the computer is just an instrument and people for whom it is magic.

Alongside these magical fantasies of power and dominance and size--and castration--are quite different phenomena: computer dependency and addiction. Some people are powerless to resist the pleasure of fooling around with the computer. They see it as an alluring alternative to ordinary life. They will even risk their marriages for the pleasure of hours and hours of "working out" on their computers or "surfing" on the Internet.

Why is it so pleasurable as to be addictive? According to a British study, computer addicts--these are not only people hooked on networking but on programming, gaming, and even work on their computers--saw computers as a soothing alternative to the human. These possibly schizoid types found computers logical, predictable, and non-judgmental, but humans illogical, erratic, and critical. They simply preferred computers (Shotton 1989, 253, 264; see also Weizenbaum 1976). Computer addicts avoid the frustration of dealing with an illogical world of human beings by retreating to a relationship in which they find their own values of logic and dispassion.

Furthermore, not only is the machine human, it is a human just like me. Computer addicts have a narcissistic relationship with their machines. The computer becomes a mirror image of themselves. And indeed, don't most of us prefer magazines, newspapers, television programs--and friends--that confirm our own values? (Shotton 1989, 250-52).

When programming, the computer addicts are working with an ideal partner who understands them fully. They feel toward their machines as toward a true friend. This friend will not withdraw if a mistake is made. This friend will try to be an ever- faithful helpmate (Shotton 1989, 167). And this friend is male.

Most computer users talk to their computers and give them nicknames, as other people do boats, cars, airplanes (for example, Enola Gay), and even guns (Big Bertha). But where the nicknames for cars, boats, airplanes, and guns are usually female, nicknames for computers are invariably male. In an American study, subjects "made a total of 358 pronoun references, variously referring to the computer as `it,' `he,' `you,' `they,' (and even `Fred')--[but] never as `she'" (Scheibe and Erwin 1980). In Shotton's British study of 75 computer dependent people, they all, male and female, gave their computers male nicknames. In fact one woman in that study said right out, "He's the man in my life." In that same study, a male respondent reported that his computer was male ("my mate Micky"), but, he said, "I always refer to my dual disk-drive as female--she's lovely" (Shotton 1989, 194-195). Notice: his active, powerful, intelligent, logical computer was male like him, while his obedient, passive, receptive disk-drive was female.^1 Let's not forget, in this connection, that in 1982 Time magazine named the personal computer its Man of the Year.

In other ways the computer plays the role of a parent. It rewards its human's good behavior--the program runs--but it does not punish. The machine does not judge its user as inadequate. Rather, faced with poor performance on the part of its human, the computer just ignores it and waits patiently for the next input. The computer is like a parent who has high hopes for you but rewards your achievement, even if it is less than optimum. The machine always holds out more goals to strive for, but these goals are realistic, and it's up to you whether to go for them or not (Shotton 1989, 167). If the computer is a demanding parent, it is also a very permissive one.

It is permissive in yet another way. It is totally anonymous. You can get hurt opening yourself up to real people, but you can say anything to a computer, and it won't judge or criticize you. That is why sociologists are turning to computers to do their interviewing (Kiesler and Sproull 1986). For example, 14% more students admitted to drug use in a survey by computer than by pencil-and-paper (Sproull and Kiesler 1991, 45). In a Scottish survey of alchohol use, people would report greater use to a computer than in a face-to-face interview, and the figures given to the computer matched actual use more closely (Waterton and Duffy 1984).

Now this is odd. We all know that the computer can store anything we say. Yet we nevertheless feel safe in telling it the most intimate details of our lives. For example, there is a computer program for doing sex therapy, Sexpert. Videotaped sessions with the computer showed the couples "clearly engaged" by Sexpert. They "seriously discussed their sex life, relationship, and Sexpert's comments with each other" (Binik et al. 1989). Why this trust? Because we are isolated from social cues and so feel more free from criticism than if speaking to a person. Opening up to the wrong human being can be humiliating or hurtful. Not so a computer.

And of course, there is a lively market for computer pornography. I came across the following advertisement in PC-Magazine:

Now You Can Have Your Own GIRLFRIEND

. . . a sensuous woman living in your computer!

GIRLFRIEND is the first VIRTUAL WOMAN. You can watch her, talk to her, ask her questions and relate with her. Over 100 actual VGA photographs allow you to see your girlfriend as you ask her to wear different outfits, and guide her into different sexual activities. As a true artificial intelligence program, GIRLFRIEND starts with a 3000 word vocabulary [beautiful but dumb? --NNH] and actually GROWS the more you use it. She will remember your name, your birthday, and your likes and dislikes. GIRLFRIEND comes with the base software [sic] and GIRLFRIEND LISA. Additional girls will be added. This program requires 7- 10MB of free space ("Sexy" 1994).

This is, of course, the same male fantasy as The Stepford Wives, the woman who is totally satisfying because she is completely docile because she is a machine.

The same fantasy comes in negative forms, however. Once, when I spoke this paper, one of my hearers told me the following story. (I am quoting this man accurately as I can.)

I write in bed, using a yellow pad and a pen that will write upside down, a 'space pen.' Then, the next morning, I transcribe what I have written onto the computer. I resolved to get a laptop computer to eliminate one step of this two-step process. When I got the laptop, I found I could not take it into bed with me--it felt like a homosexual encounter. I still can't do it. I can sit on the side of the bed with the laptop, but I can't take it into bed with me.

My informant said that he was telling this to people standing around after my talk when a woman chimed in: "I had the same experience. I bought a laptop to write in bed, but I couldn't take it to bed. It's all analytical, logical, dichotomous, and I won't sleep with a man like that."

Odd as it may seem, many, many psychological researchers have come to the same conclusion: people almost instinctively think of computers as other people (Forman and Pufall 1988, 247; Frude 1983). "Extremely short exposures to a relatively simple computer program . . . induce powerful delusional thinking in quite normal people," wrote Joseph Weizenbaum, having watched people anthropomorphize and become deeply involved with his programs ELIZA and DOCTOR (Weizenbaum 1976, 6-7, 188-191).

These fantasies of the machine as person, indeed as sexual partner, do not attach just to intelligent machines, where they are somewhat justifiable. The British researcher I've been quoting reported an interview with a racing car driver who spoke of his quasi-human relation with his car. Two sculptors she interviewed showed the same kind of personal involvement with their medium (Shotton 1989, 264). "People form all sorts of emotional bonds to machines, for example, to musical instruments, motorcycles, and cars," notes Weizenbaum (7). Apparently one can have a human relation with any medium to which one is passionately committed or, perhaps I should say, any medium into which one can passionately involve oneself. Relevant here would be Marion Milner's 1957 classic study of artists' emotional relations to their medium as both an extension of self and a piece of the world that one works on "out there," a special kind of transitional object. The computer just makes this process faster and more drastic, because it exhibits "intelligent" behavior like another human.

In sum, then, we have some fantasies about the computer as a thing: phallic fantasies of power and oral fantasies of engulfing pleasure. We also have these more remarkable fantasies that the computer is something more than a thing, something between person and thing. We have a quasi-human relationship with the machine as helpmate, as true friend, as permissive parent, as sex object, and as sex partner. And all these fantasies enter into communication on the Internet.

The machineness of the machine, it seems to me, affects Internet communication by subtracting and by adding. The machine takes away some of our ordinary human-to-human cues, but it adds other elements from the fantasies we bring to the computer.

The most obvious way the machine affects Internet talk is to take away most of the ongoing signs we have of another person's feelings in face to face communication. We lose the feedback, the chuckle, the smile, the raised eyebrow, the rolled eyes. Even on the telephone we still have pacing and tone of voice. But on the Internet, all we have are typed words--"plain text." Irony is lost and sarcasm literal. Yet, paradoxically, conversely, without eye contact or body language, it feels as though we have a wire going directly into the other person's brain or our own. Communication feels "greased" (in John Seabrook's phrase above)--because you are relating directly to the "mind" of a computer.

Perhaps that's why people think writing on the Internet is aural. As in the opening phrase of this essay, "Talking on the Internet." All through this essay, I've been calling Internet communication speaking and hearing, and I doubt you even noticed. But people don't talk on the Internet, they type. One man left his Caps Lock key on and typed his message all in capitals. He got back a reply, "Why are you shouting at me?" (Filipczak 1994). On the Internet, we blur sensory modes between seeing and hearing, reading and listening, writing and talking, and this is part of a general loss of boundaries.

The Internet is, in the word that all writers fall back on, "vast"--23 million people all chattering away. We see this sense of size in imagery like the "information superhighway," that we are to drive on in our Vice-President's phallic fantasies. Or the vast "sea of information" of oral fantasy, inconceivably bigger than any one human being. Our power fantasies would have us penetrating and mastering this huge thing. But there is also the fear--and wish--to be swept up in it, to lose oneself in it, to be engulfed. This is how a computer columnist phrases his dislike for a windowed interface:

I like the uncluttered and unplanned void before me. It is the untamed wilderness. The prompt is a beacon, my North Star, my constant reminder that the Internet is a seething, roiling cyber-ocean, changing every second. To view it through the filtering shades of a menu or friendly-izing interface is to forget its savage reality, to dim its digital vastness (Greenberg 1994).

Another boundary we lose on the Internet is status. A famous New Yorker cartoon has one dog telling another, in front of a computer, "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog." With precautions, nobody can tell whether you are male or female, young or old, nerd or body beautiful, the company president or the mailroom clerk. The result in intra-company communication is, on the one hand, more participation by women and experts (people who are not normally listened to in meetings) but less consensus. Less consensus because pressure to conform from higher in the hierarchy is reduced. Also people begin to flame.

Flaming starts up because there are no rules. "People who are extremely nice individuals get on a PC and suddenly it's as if they're screaming," notes the manager of an e-mail system. "There's no formal etiquette for e-mail" (Cobb 1993). Internet society has no way of disapproving breaches of "Netiquette" except by flaming in return. You could screen out the offender by a "bozo filter," but the bozo doesn't know he's being filtered out--he just doesn't get an answer.

That's another difference between Internetting and really speaking to someone. You type in your usually longish communication. Then you wait for what very often is a shortish reply. You don't get answered until the person you're addressing comes online again. That could take only a few seconds or several days.

In these negatives, these removals, communicating on the Internet resembles some much older forms of communication. I'm thinking of the confessional, where you speak to an invisible priest, often at length, often getting only a brief reply at the end of your long and hopeful statement. I'm thinking also of the psychoanalytic couch, where you speak on and on to the analyst, invisible behind your head and, again, you get (usually) a very brief reply, sometimes many minutes or even days later. Both those modes encourage regression toward dependency and fantasy-- like the Internet. Both lead you to say things you would not say face to face--like the Internet.

The machine takes away some aspects of human communication, but it adds others. Notably, the machine adds that peculiar half- humanity we relate to. We mirror to the person we are talking to the ambivalent relationship we have with the computer by which we are talking. On the one hand, the computer does useful things for us. It balances our checkbook, it organizes our Rolodex, or it checks our spelling. On the other hand, the machine frustrates us by that same mindless and tireless obedience, because it has no common sense, no intuition. It can drive us nuts, and we get mad at it. In fact, a police officer, having been presented with 'Do not understand' once too often, stepped back and put two shots into the computer (Simons 1985, 28). I suspect that most of us from time to time have wanted to do the same thing.

We mirror those mixed feelings of helpfulness and rage to the people we talk to on the Internet. The frustration comes out as flaming, when some hapless "newbie" asks yet again a FAQ (frequently asked question). But we are just as likely to do useful things for some needy soul at the other end, like replacing lost books or supplying data for an article. Flaming and giving act out to other people the ambivalent emotions we feel toward the computer.

I think the anonymity and this fusion of machine and other person explain why there is so much sex on the Internet. Columnist John Dvorak notes that the most successful online services, in the U.S. anyway, are those that encourage frank sexual chat. On one network, America Online, he writes, "You can do a search on just about any sexual habit or wacky orientation imaginable, and you'll find a slew of people--men and women--who list themselves as aficionados begging to be chatted with or sent mail" (Dvorak 1994). In other words, the willingness and compliance of the computer carries over--not unreasonnably--into one's sexual fantasies about the people one talks to on the Internet.

In short, when communicating on the Internet, we set up a relationship with other people in which the people get less human and the machine gets more human. That is how the three signs of the Internet regression come into play: flaming, flirting, and giving. Our feelings toward the computer as computer become our feelings toward the people to whom we send e-mail or post messages. We flame to the person as though he or she were an insensitive thing, a machine that can't be hurt. We flirt with the machine as though it were a person and could interact with us, compliantly offering sex. We feel open and giving toward the computer because the computer is open and giving to us.

This confusion of person and machine is what makes the Internet regression so special. The regression starts with a variety of phallic-aggressive fantasies, more men's than women's, but women's, too. Then both men and women have the sense of being lost in a vast, engulfing sea of information, millions of times bigger than the finite human sitting at a computer screen embarking on it. The result is an "oral" loss of boundary between person and machine. The person you are talking to on the Internet is thought of as a machine, and the machine is thought of as a person. Then, at an anal level, if you will, who is living blurs into what is dead. At an oral level, one merges. Time on the Internet--"subjective eternity" Seabrook calls it--is not part of one's real life, but a dependency or addiction to that great power.

The net result is a lack of inhibition. People express love and aggression to a degree they never would face to face. Yet, throughout the regression, the Internetter functions by means of the most advanced of ego skills: language, issuing computer commands, and knowing the mysteries of Unix or Gopher or some other communications interface. The result is a regression, yes, but one that expands the mind from its highest functioning to its earliest.

Let me give you an example of this regression, a young man named Alex who appears in Sherry Turkle's fine book, The Second Self. Alex is a computer science student at M.I.T. who spends 15 hours a day on the computer, a true member of what is called hacker culture. Listen for the symptoms and levels I've been describing: phallic strengths, oral merger, narcissistic mirroring, the blending of person and machine--

If you look at it from the outside, it looks like I spend most of my time alone. But that is not really true. First of all, there are the other hackers. We eat together a lot, we talk about the system. And then I spend a lot of time, I mean a lot of time, on electronic mail. Sometimes I think that electronic mail is more of an addiction for me than the computer is. I talk to people all over the country. When you type mail into the computer you feel you can say anything. A lot of it is just about the system, but sometimes it gets pretty personal. When you type into the machine you can go really fast. The touch is very sensitive. I don't even feel that I am typing. It feels much more like one of those Vulcan mind melds, you know, that Mr. Spock does on Star Trek. I am thinking it, and then there it is on the screen. I would say that I have a perfect interface with the machine . . . perfect for me. I feel totally telepathic with the computer. And it sort of generalizes so that I feel telepathic with the people I am sending mail to. I am glad I don't have to see them face to face. I wouldn't be as personal about myself. And the telepathy with the computer--well, I certainly don't think of it as a person there, but that doesn't mean that I don't feel it as a person there. Particularly since I have personalized my interface with the system to suit myself. So it's like being with another person, but not a strange person. Someone who knows just how I like things done (Turkle 1984, 211).

That's what makes the Internet regression so distinctive. The machine becomes us, and we become the machine.

Alex's regression starts with his feelings of reaching "all over the country," "you can say anything," "you can go really fast." Alex also feels merged with the machine, "telepathy with the computer," his "Vulcan mind meld." Once the boundary between person and machine is gone, the person he talks to on the Internet is thought of as a machine, and he thinks of the machine as a person. He feels "telepathic" with both person and machine. Once regressed that way, "Sometimes it gets pretty personal."

I like this Internet regression. I find it a fascinating marriage of the most sophisticated human technology with our half-savage, half-animal psyches. I think it's something new and amazing and quite wonderful in the spectrum of human relations.

Those who don't see it that way, however, can take comfort. The Internet regression is also temporary. Today's Internetting will change, maybe even by the time you read this. A huge influx of unskilled users is coming onto the Internet, people who lack the cheery openness that a hacker like Alex expresses. The technology too will change. Real Soon Now (as the computer magazines say), we will be able to replace today's "plain text" with digitized voices. Real Soon Now, we will be able to have pictures of speaker and hearer. Real Soon Now, computer technology will restore to the Internet the physical cues of face to face talk. Too bad, say I. The Internet Regression has been--still is--fun.


1. There is an exception to every rule. A computer-resistant friend has since told me that he named his first computer Silvia (after Shakespeare's "Who is Silvia? What is she?") and his second after the woman whose influence pervades his scholarly work.

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See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

The online disinhibition effect
Transference to one's computer and cyberspace
The Bad Boys of Cyberspace: Deviant Behavior in Online Multimedia Communities and Strategies for Managing it.

back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page