John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace This article created Sept 99, revised June 05
The Psychology of Cyberspace
Overview and "Guided Tour"
This article is an overview and summary of the hypertext book The Psychology of Cyberspace. The links in this article lead to other pages, articles, and sections of the book. Clicking on a graphic will take you to the corresponding section in the table of contents on the home page. You may find it helpful to use this article as a kind of guided tour that will point you to other articles of interest. The book also has an article index, a subject index, and a search engine.
|| Basic Psychological Qualities || The Individual || Relationships || Groups ||
|| Research Methods || Palace Study || Psychotherapy ||
The psychological study of cyberspace is as broad as the field of psychology itself. Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology course knows how vast that terrain is. Cognitive psychology, personality theory, social psychology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology - all are relevant. It's never easy slicing up a complex topic into categories. Inevitably, the categories overlap and intertwine.
Nevertheless, creating categories is necessary in order to make a study manageable. For this psychology of cyberspace, I've chosen to divide the pie into six slices. The first section is an exploration of what makes cyberspace "psychological." The next three deal with the individual's reaction to cyberspace (a one-person psychology), the relationship between individuals (a two-person psychology), and the interpersonal dynamics among groups of people (a group or community psychology). No psychology of anything would be complete without a discussion of the research methods used - which is the purpose of section five.
Finally, section six is the historical origin of this hypertext book. My inspiration to study and write about cyberspace began with the online community called "Palace." My intensive case study there led to a deeper understanding of that particular community, but it also expanded my research outward into a wide variety of topics in the psychology of cyberspace.
The Basic Psychological Qualities of Cyberspace
Cyberspace is psychological space. Its social climate partly is shaped by its demographics. As a world structured by machines rather than the physical environment, it also is a space with some rather unique psychological features - such as reduced or altered sensory experience, the opportunity for identity flexibility and anonymity, the equalization of social status, the transcending of spatial boundaries, the stretching and condensation of time, the ability to access numerous relationships, the capacity to record permanent records of one's experiences, and the "disinhibition effect".... to name a few. It is a world with its own language. As a virtual reality, it stretches across a wide range from the simulated true-to-life experiences of webcams to the highly imaginative environments of avatar communities. In this reality we gain new insights into the meaning of "presence."
Cyberspace may even be an altered state of consciousness, a dreamlike world, that addresses a basic human need to experience oneself and reality from a different perspective. It is psychological space that becomes an extension of one's conscious and unconscious mind . We could even imagine the global network that comprises the whole internet as a larger transcending mind or "self" which reflects the evolution of human consciousness. The first conscious machine maybe not come as a stand-alone HAL 9000, but as the internet-mind. A grandiose, but conceivable thought!
But let's not be fooled into thinking that everything about the internet is grand. Cyberspace is not always benign. It also has the power to inflict frustration, apprehension, and stupidity, as revealed in our jokes about computers and the internet. Sometimes, it even fails at its fundamental duty to be interactive, to respond to our needs, resulting in a black hole experience that can draw out the underlying anxieties of those who fall into it. As the population in cyberspace booms - as large chunks of the internet take shape as market place, soapbox, and mischievous, even hostile playground - we also must learn how to cope with the unwanted junk called "spam" that threatens to clog our attempts to communicate.
The Psychology of the Individual in Cyberspace
The altered social reality of cyberspace has some very interesting things in store for the individual. People can take on unique roles that may be very different than those in their "real" life. For example, they can be "wizards" with special powers who help govern an online community, or even a "god" who creates a whole online world. The anonymity created by the lack of face-to-face cues in many environments (such as chat and e-mail) also gives one an opportunity to experiment with new ways to express oneself, to experiment with new ways to present one's identity. A person can even switch gender, if she/he so chooses (do you think you'd be able to tell?).
Others use online anonymity as an opportunity to act out in ways that annoy, hurt, or take advantage of others. Norman Holland would attribute their behavior to "the internet regression" - the tendency of internet anonymity to encourage immature ways of feeling and acting. Some of these deviant users I call "the bad boys of cyberspace." They have found a slew of ways to misbehave, forcing community leaders to develop all sorts of creative tactics to deal with them.
While the psychological qualities of cyberspace partly determine how the individual behaves there, it is the individual's own psychological make-up and personality type that also shapes his or her online lifestyle. Machine and human interact to create cyberspace. Because more and more young people are venturing out onto the internet, it's important to understand how the particular character and developmental features of adolescents affects what they do there. Whether people are young or old, their unconscious thoughts and emotions shape how they react to computers and cyberspace - what psychologists call "transference reactions." A powerful example of how computers and the internet can activate all sorts of hidden thoughts, feelings, and anxieties is evident in the Y2K phenomenon. Was it the end of the world, or did our "imagination" run away with itself?
Computers and the internet are good... or are they? Might people be harmed if they become "addicted"? Some think that cyberspace can damage mental health, and that people with psychological and lifestyle problems tend to use it as an escape or to vent their frustrations on online others. Computer and cyberspace addiction is a controversial topic. We can speculate about the features of pathological internet use, but is it a genuine mental disorder? While some mental health professionals have made jokes about it, other researchers are seriously developing addiction questionnaires as a first step in understanding the symptoms and causes of this psychological problem. If the media is a valid indication, "internet addiction" is an important topic, as evident in how frequently the media reports it (for instance, here's an interview with me). Research has not yet demonstrated definitively whether it's a unique type of mental illness or a symptom of other problems. Yet there are people who will admit that they feel obsessed, as evident in personal accounts of "ex-addicts" who attempted to quit cold turkey.
As a member/researcher of the Palace chat community, I've walked around in the cybershoes of a Palatian in order to understand the pros and cons of an avid cyberspace lifestyle. As a clinical psychologist, I've tried to systematically explore the conceptual issues about the spectrum of needs underlying healthy and pathological internet use. Now that's a lot to read, so if you want my opinion - in a nutshell - about internet addiction, here's the article for you! It's also a short lesson in modern journalism. If there's any one single piece of advice I would give people who want to be healthy in their use of the internet, it would be the "integration principle" - the importance of bringing together one's online and offline living. This principle is one of the foundations of eQuest, an online psycho-educational program for helping people address some important issue in their lives. It encourages people to make media transitions - to explore new computer programs and online environments - as a way to better express and understand oneself.
The Psychology of Cyberspace Relationships
People are finding new relationships on the internet - some are transient, some longterm. Critics complain that online relationships are superficial or based more on personal fantasies than on reality. Internet romances vividly illustrate how people can get caught up in a illusion of love that eventually leads to disappointment. Transference reactions surely distort how people perceive and react to each other when they must contend with limited face-to-face cues. However, some online romances do lead to fulfilling marriages. And people do find true friendships. Cyberspace relationships can definitely be rewarding. The question is not so much whether online encounters are real or meaningful, but rather how people meet online, how they communicate, how those relationships develop, how conflicts are resolved.
Most people converse via typed text. The intricacies of those text relationships are fascinating. For example, e-mail can be remarkably rich and subtle in how people reveal themselves to each other. Because it is so easy to use and versatile, e-mail rapidly is becoming a cornerstone of relationships in the new millennium. If you wish to feel the presence of your companion in real time, the alternative is chat. Typed-text chat is a much more terse style of conversing than e-mail, yet people - out of their intrinsic human need to express themselves to others - have become remarkably versatile and creative in adapting to text-talk. Chat also promises to move relationships beyond text-only communication. In the multimedia chat worlds, encounters using avatars have added a fascinating visual dimension to how people express themselves as they pursue their online relationships. Even the combination of very simple graphics with typed-text produces variety and subtlety in multimedia chat.
In the showdown between in-person and cyberspace relationships, which will win? Relationships are built on shared words and meanings, on understanding. They are built on seeing, hearing, touching the other. With it's ability to isolate and alter time and sensory experience, cyberspace offers fascinating new ways for people to communicate. But it has its drawbacks too. You can't hold your loved one in cyberspace. Ultimately, cyberspace is a supplement and alternative to in-person relationships, not a substitute.
Group Dynamics in Cyberspace
What makes the internet so much more powerful than other forms of communication (e.g., the telephone) is its versatility in helping people find, join, and form groups. Despite where they live in the world, people with similar backgrounds and interests can come together in chat communities, mailing lists, and discussion boards.
A social psychology of these online groups can draw on many of the well-known principles that apply to in-person groups. For example, the developmental stages of mailing lists closely resemble those of many types of groups found in the face-to-face world. However, social psychology also will need to adapt its concepts to the different linguistic, temporal, and visual styles of communicating in cyberspace. The group dynamics of "text talk" in chat rooms is rather unique compared to face-to-face groups because people converse only with typed text. Decision-making in mailing lists may require different strategies than in-person groups due to this text-only conversing, in addition to the fact that the group doesn't meet in "real time." Actually, making decisions in these lists can be so frustrating that you sometimes wonder how many list members it would take to change one light bulb!
Despite such difficulties, there are many unique advantages to extending an in-person work group into cyberspace by creating an e-mail list, or by extending a classroom into online discussion boards. In chat environments, if people want more than typed text, the addition of even simple graphics can add subtlety to multimedia chat that is quite different than the subtle social cues of in-person gatherings.
The challenge is to develop an online community psychology that integrates traditional in-person theories with new findings from cyberspace research. Some online groups are quite unique and may never have formed in the face-to-face world due to geographical obstacles, or simply due to the fact that the interests, backgrounds, and needs of the people were so unique that they could not find each other in the real world. An excellent example is the Geezer Brigade - feisty, irreverent seniors who prefer not to associate themselves with the stereotype of "seniors," but rather with other spunky geezers. My article explores the origin and beliefs of their Brigade, as well as outlines the steps in studying any online group.
In a collection of other articles, I've focused on the Main Mansion community that uses the Palace chat software. In that intensive case study of Palace, I've covered a range of topics relevant to an online community psychology. What happens during the birth and early history of an online community ? Who are the leaders and how do they manage the group? At the Palace, wizards are the heart of the society. Their rather complex job combines the roles of host, educator, parent, therapist, and police force. That last role points to another major issue in an online community psychology: the causes of deviant behavior in cyberspace and how to manage it. As my long article on that topic reveals, the community leader's tactics for dealing with misbehaviors need to be as varied and complex as the misbehaviors themselves. On the lighter side, social psychological principles can be used to create entertaining and educational activities, such as group games using avatars.
The internet offers many new opportunities for online therapy and support groups. Mental health professionals are exploring how chat, e-mail, and newsgroup forums can be used for group interventions. Grass roots self-help groups are springing up all over the internet, often fulfilling needs that could not be met by in-person organizations. One of my students, Wende Phillips, conducted an excellent study of online ACOA groups. Online chat and newsgroup communities with a more general population also may be a place where people can therapeutically explore their identity and new relationships. If that indeed is possible, then one goal of an online community psychology is to discover the techniques for creating and maintaining a health-promoting community.
Research Methods in Cyberpsychology
Cyberspace has opened up a whole new world for social scientists to explore. There's more than one way to skin a cat, and no fewer methods for studying people on the internet. Statistical-minded researchers are just beginning to apply quantitative techniques for understanding cyberspace behavior. That's NOT how I've been doing my work. I've been more interested in what some call "qualitative" research. My studies involve field observations of how people behave in chat rooms, mailing lists, and newsgroup forums. Ironically and conveniently, I can sit comfortably at home in front of my computer while I'm "in the field!" Thanks to the very handy ability to save permanent records to hard drive, I study my archives of chat, e-mail, and newsgroup logs. I also frequently conduct e-mail interviews, as in my study of the Geezer Brigade in which I outline the steps in studying an online group.
Most importantly, I believe firmly in the power of participant observation - that style of research in which the researcher immerses himself in the social phenomenon he studies, so that he sees it from the inside and becomes a subject in his own investigations. I am an onliner who both steps back and looks inward in order to understand how I and others are behaving. The participant-observer method presents the challenge of exploring how subjective and objective knowledge intersect. On that score, my psychoanalytic training has been invaluable. My research at the Palace is a good example of this participant-observation method (check out my analysis of my own avatar collection!). Such intensive case studies allow for a holistic understanding of an online phenomenon, a comprehensive exploration of the many intersecting facets of a single social environment. One especially interesting application of the case study method would be an investigation of just how well cyberspace satisfies human needs. If we locked people into an apartment, giving them only the internet as a way to interact with the world, how would they fare in this total immersion and f2f isolation?
Cyberspace is not just the target of psychological research. It also can be the vehicle for reporting the results of that research. Thanks to hypertext, ease of revivability, and interactivity, publishing online offers exciting new opportunities for composing articles and even books (like this one!). It also presents some interesting challenges about how to evaluate the quality of online works.
Last, but certainly not least, is the importance of ethics in online social science research. Because cyberspace alters the temporal, spatial, and sensory components of human interaction, it requires a unique interpretation of traditional ethical principles - particularly in the case of naturalistic studies. Informed consent, the right to privacy, and the researcher's contribution to the people being studied are all critical issues.
The Palace Study
As I've mentioned at various points in this overview, a big component of my research has focused on the Palace. In fact, the Palace case study makes up an entire subsection of this book. Combining features of MOOs and chat rooms, the Palace is a visual and spatial environment where members socialize in a visual scene with text, sounds, and visual representations of themselves called "avatars." One long article delves into the unique qualities of interacting with others using avatars and graphical space.
My work at the Palace also explores a wide variety of other dimensions of this community: its language .... it's early history .... the wizards who host, educate, and police its population .... the vision of its "god" creator, Jim Bumgardner .... its addictive qualities as viewed from the perspective of Maslow's hierarchy of needs .... its deviant members and the attempts to control them (a rather long article!) .... the dream-like qualities of the Palace experience .... the subtle techniques for communicating with typed text and simple graphics .... educational games using avatars .... how Palace compares to other chat worlds.... There's a lot to read there! If you want a quick overview, this book contains a brief summary of my Palace study.
What I consider so important about my work at Palace is the fact is that clearly illustrates my emphasis on participant observation research and the importance of an intensive case study. Exploring Palace in-depth has led me to a wide range of issues that extend outward beyond the Palace community and into many realms that make up that complex universe we call "cyberspace."
Psychotherapy and Clinical Work in Cyberspace
As experts in a particular type of relationship - the healing relationship that is psychotherapy - mental health professionals are exploring the possibility that cyberspace may serve as a useful media for working with their clients (see the table of contents for the subsection about psychotherapy). There are many misconceptions and myths about online clinical work. Despite skeptics who do not believe it is possible, we can classify, study, and design computer-mediated therapy according to five dimensional features of the communication pathway between the therapist and client: synchronous/asynchronous, text/sensory, imaginary/actual, automated/interpersonal, and invisible/present. Each feature has its advantages and disadvantages. Assessing a client's suitability for online therapy is important, but even under the best of circumstances, some clinicians and researchers are still skeptics.
A controversial topic is computers conducting psychotherapy on their own. "Eliza" was the first computerized psychotherapist. Other more powerful ones may follow. Another fascinating application of cyberspace in the mental health field will be the creation of psychotherapeutic virtual environments. In what I call "avatar psychotherapy," for example, the client and therapist can enact imaginary scenarios for the purpose of exploring and altering the client's sense of self.
Online clinical/community psychology will also attempt to maximize the well-being and growth-promoting features of virtual groups. In the years to come, professional study groups that systematically examine psychotherapy cases can test, refine, and expand the emerging hypotheses about online therapeutic activities. When these groups are conducted online, as in an e-mail case study group, the strategy for creating and managing them becomes an important clinical topic in itself.
What lies ahead in the future of online psychotherapy and clinical work? As I look into my crystal ball, I see some important issues surfacing: specialization, interdisciplinary teams, clinical networks, empowering of the client, automated interventions, and a meta-theory of cybertherapy. I also see new models of therapeutic activities involving comprehensive online programs for self-study and personal growth, such as eQuest.
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