John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
The virtual world is quite different than the in-person world. Digitizing people, relationships, and groups has stretched the boundaries of how and when humans interact. In this article we will explore some of the unique psychological features of cyberspace that shape how people behave in this new social realm. In different online environments we see different synergistic combinations of these features, thus resulting in a distinct psychological quality to each environment which determines how people experience themselves and others. We may think of these features as the fundamental elements of a conceptual model for a psychology of cyberspace. The effect of these elements on individuals, groups, and communities is an important theme throughout this book. It's important to remember, though, that the ten elements described here are only part of the story. How people behave in cyberspace will always be a complex interaction between these features of cyberspace and the characteristics of the person.
Can you see a person in cyberspace - his facial expressions and body language? Can you hear the changes in her voice? Whether an environment in cyberspace involves visual and/or auditory communication will greatly affect how people behave and the relationships that develop among those people. Multimedia gaming and social environments (such as the Palace), audio-video conferencing, podcasting, and internet-phoning surely are signs of the very sensory sophisticated environments to come. However, the sensory experience of encountering others in cyberspace - seeing, hearing, and COMBINING seeing and hearing - is still limited. For the most part people communicate through typed language. Even when audio-video technology becomes efficient and easy to use, the quality of physical and tactile interactions - for example, handshakes, pats on the back, dancing, hugs, kisses, or just walking together. - will be very limited or nonexistent, at least in the near future. The limited sensory experiences of cyberspace has some significant disadvantages - as well as some unique advantages - as compared to in-person encounters (see Showdown).
Despite the reduced sensory quality of text communication, it should not be underestimated as a powerful form of self expression and interpersonal relating. E-mail, chat, instant messaging, SMS, and blogs continue to be the most common forms of social interaction for reasons beyond their ease of use and low cost compared to multimedia tools. Drawing on different cognitive abilities than talking and listening, typing one's thoughts and reading those of another is a unique way to present one's identity, perceive the identity of one's online companion, and establish a relationship. E-mail relationships in particular have evolved into a very complex, text-based form of communication - with chat or IM relationships approaching that complexity.
The lack of face-to-face cues has a curious impact on how people present their identity in cyberspace. Communicating only with typed text, you have the option of being yourself, expressing only parts of your identity, assuming imaginative identities, or remaining completely anonymous - in some cases, being almost invisible, as with the "lurker." In many environments, you can give yourself any name you wish. The multimedia worlds also offer the opportunity to express yourself through the visual costumes known as "avatars." Anonymity has a disinhibiting effect that cuts two ways. Sometimes people use it to act out some unpleasant need or emotion, often by abusing other people. Or it allows them to be honest and open about some personal issue that they could not discuss in a face-to-face encounter.
Sitting quietly and staring at the computer monitor can become an altered state of consciousness. While doing e-mail or instant messaging, some people experience a blending of their mind with that of the other person. In the imaginary multimedia worlds - where people might shape-shift, speak via ESP, walk through walls, spontaneously generate objects out of thin air, or possess all sorts of imaginary powers - the experience becomes surrealistic. It mimics a state of consciousness that resembles dreams. These altered and dream-like states of consciousness in cyberspace may account for why it is so attractive for some people. It might help explain some forms of computer and cyberspace addiction.
In most cases, everyone on the internet has an equal opportunity to voice him or herself. Everyone - regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, etc. - starts off on a level playing field. Some people call this the "net democracy." Although one's status in the outside world ultimately will have some impact on one's life in cyberspace, there is some truth to this net democracy ideal. What determines your influence on others is your skill in communicating (including writing skills), your persistence, the quality of your ideas, and your technical know-how.
Geographical distance makes little difference in who can communicate with whom. An engineer in Germany converses with a business woman from California on a server in Australia. It's a small world after all. The irrelevance of geography has important implications for people with unique interests or needs. In their outside life, they may not be able to find anyone near them who shares that unique interest or need. But in cyberspace, birds of a feather - even those with highly unusual feathers - easily can flock together. For support groups devoted to helping people with their problems, that can be a very beneficial feature of cyberspace. For people with antisocial motivations, that's a very negative feature of cyberspace.
"Synchronous communication" involves people sitting at their computer at the same time (i.e., in "real time") communicating with each other via the internet. Chat rooms and instant messaging are good examples. On the other hand, e-mail and newsgroups involve "asynchronous communication" that does not require people to interact with each other in the moment. In both asynchronous and synchronous communication (with the exception of video conferencing and internet phoning), there is a stretching of time. During chat and IM you have from several seconds to a minute or more to reply to the other person - a significantly longer delay than in face-to-face meetings. In e-mail, blogs, and newsgroups, you have hours, days, or even weeks to respond. Cyberspace creates a unique temporal space where the ongoing, interactive time together stretches out. This provides a convenient "zone for reflection." Compared to face-to-face encounters, you have significantly more time to mull things over and compose a reply.
Some new internet users go through a period of adaptation to this novel temporal experience. For example, they may expect a reply to their e-mail immediately. Enthused about e-mail relating, they assume (perhaps unconsciously) that their partner's reply will approximate the rate of an in-person conversation. Experienced e-mail users appreciate the advantages of time stretching, and even come to understand that different e-mail users have their own e-mail pace.
In other ways, cyberspace time is condensed. If you are a member of an online community for several months, you may be considered an "old-timer." Internet environments change rapidly because it's a lot easier to write and rewrite software infrastructure than it is to build with bricks, wood, and iron. Because it's easy to move around cyberspace, the people we meet and the membership of online groups also changes rapidly. Our subjective sense of time is intimately linked to the rate of change in the world in which we live. With the context of sights, sounds, and people changing around you so quickly in cyberspace, the experience of time seems to accelerate.
With relative ease a person can contact people from all walks of life and communicate with hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. While "multitasking" one can juggle many relationships in a short period of time - or even AT the same time, as in chat and instant messaging, without the other people necessarily being aware of one's juggling act. By posting a message within a blog, discussion board, or social network - which are read by countless numbers of users - people can draw to themselves others who match even their most esoteric interests. Using a search engine, they can scan through millions of pages in order to zoom their attention onto particular people and groups. The internet will get more powerful as tools for searching, filtering, and contacting specific people and groups become more effective. But why do we choose only some people to connect with - and not others? The ability to sift through so many online possibilities for developing relationships amplifies an interesting interpersonal phenomenon well-known to psychologists. A user will act on unconscious motivations - as well as conscious preferences and choices - in selecting friends, lovers, and enemies. This "transference" guides us towards specific types of people who address our underlying emotions and needs. Pressed by hidden expectations, wishes, and fears, this unconscious filtering mechanism has at its disposal an almost infinite candy store of online alternatives to choose from. As one experienced online user once said to me, "Everywhere I go in cyberspace, I keep running into the same kinds of people!" Carrying that insight one step further, another said, "Everywhere I go, I find.... ME!"
Most online activities, including e-mail correspondence and chat sessions, can be recorded and saved to a computer file. Unlike real world interactions, the user in cyberspace can keep a permanent record of what was said, to whom, and when. Because these interactions are purely document-based, we may even go so far as to say that the relationship between people ARE the documents, and that the relationship can be permanently recorded in its entirety. These records may come in very handy to the user. You can reexperience and reevaluate any portion of the relationship you wish. You can use quoted text as feedback to the partner. One sign of a flame war is the blossoming of the infamous arrows >> that highlight the ammunition of quoted text. Although it's tempting to think of the saved text as an objective record of some piece of the relationship, it's fascinating to see how different your emotional reactions to the same exact record can be when you reread it at different times. Depending on our state of mind, we invest the recorded words with all sorts of meanings and intentions.
Although the ability to record has many advantages, there is a downside. Because people know that everything they say and do in cyberspace can be tracked and recorded, they may experence anxiety, mistrust, and even paranoia about being online. Should I be careful about what I say and where I go? Will it come back to haunt me? Who might have access to these records?
We all expect our computers and the internet to interact with us. That's the name of the game. Nevertheless, no matter how complex and sophisticated our electronic tools become, there will always be moments when they fail to live up to their end of the bargain. There will be moments when software and hardware don't work properly, when noise intrudes into the communication, and connections break. There will be moments when our telecommunication systems give us nothing, not even an error message. The frustration and anger we experience in reaction to these failures says something about our relationship to our machines and the internet - something about our dependency on them, our need to control them. That lack of response also opens the door for us to project all sorts of worries and anxieties onto the machine that gives us no reply. I call these the black hole experiences of cyberspace. Fortunately, some computer-mediated environments are more robust than others. Those differences in reliability, predictability, and dependability bear important psychological effects.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
This article is part of a
collection for CE credit.
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Cyberspace as a psychological space
Networks as "mind" and "self"
Presence in cyberspace
The online disinhibition effect
The Two Paths of Virtual Reality
The black hole of cyberspace
Identity management in cyberspace
Personality types in cyberspace
Coping with spam