John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created August 1996, revised July 1999 (v1.5)
One of Us
Participant Observation Research at the Palace
AsKi the Newbie
Guidelines for Research
One of Us: Seeing from the Inside
The Objective/Subjective Cocktail
The Palace Discussion Group
Writing Up the Results... and Beyond
It's 10:30 pm. The kids finally fell asleep and my wife is reading in the living room. At last, the house is quiet. Doing a bit of reading myself is a possibility, or perhaps a few rounds of channel surfing. But I decide against it. Something more intriguing waits for me beyond the walls of my home. Something that uniquely mixes both work and fun. I settle into the swivel chair at my computer, locate the program from the "recent" line of my Apple pull-down menu, and launch it. The modem lights start blinking. TCP is connecting. I'm on my way to the Palace... to resume my research.
People have joked about armchair philosophy for a long time. Now we're in a new age. The age of armchair (or, in my chase, swivel chair) field research in the social sciences. The internet is a ripe target for psychologists and other behavioral researchers. And it's not just because cyberspace is such a fascinating social realm, but also because it's so easy and convenient to get there. You don't need any laboratories or freshman subject pools. You don't have to drive or fly to study people in some distant location. It's all right there on your monitor. You can be in the middle of exploring a very unusual psychological phenomenon on a server in Australia, and then take a break for five minutes to fetch a glass of milk from the frig or answer a phone call from your mother. As a self-confessed MomDad who shares the childrearing with his wife, I've found cyberpsychology to be a wonderful opportunity for pursuing a fascinating line of research, while keeping an eye on the kids.
Some researchers are attempting to adapt traditional quantitative research methods to studies of cyberspace - like surveys or online experimental designs. As for me, I've always been intrigued by participant observation research. One book from my undergraduate days that stands out clearly in my memory is William Whyte's Street Corner Society. Whyte studied the social structure of an inner city Italian slum by living there for several years. Can you think of a better way to understand a community of people than by moving in and becoming one of them? Later, with my growing interest in the psychology of religion, I was fascinated by John Lofland's surreptitious method of investigating the Divine Precepts - a small religious cult that prematurely predicted the end of the world - by joining it. Is there really any other way of investigating a closed and rather guarded social system than by entering it from the inside?
What I love most about participant observation research is what many other researchers hate about it. It's NOT "objective." You don't stand at arm's length from the phenomenon you are studying, with a clip board or a operant conditioning cage or an ANOVA to promise you some neutral, objective, "scientific" distance from the subject. In my mind, such objectivity is an unattainable ideal, maybe even a delusion. Participant observation research embraces the obvious. Rather than fighting off the nuisance of subjectivity that creeps into every research project, it amplifies, explores, uses it. One's own personal reactions - one's thoughts and feelings - are refined into a powerful tool. By joining and participating in the group to be studied, the researcher becomes the very thing she is studying. Everything the researcher subjectively experiences is grist for the scientific mill. Many conventionally trained academic scientists are uncomfortable with this idea, but it's an epistemological style that's very familiar to the psychoanalytic researcher.
I'll avoid here any further discussion of the philosophical and scientific merits of why I choose to study the Palace by becoming a member. I'm not likely to convince the skeptics anyway. Instead, let me proceed right into a nuts and bolts discussion of exactly what I did, why I did it, and what I learned about this style of research. My conclusions about participant observation are just that... *MY* conclusions. They may not necessarily apply to others. Because the individual researcher's subjectivity becomes the investigative tool, the truths of the method may vary from individual to individual.
AsKi the Newbie
I first heard about Palace from my online friend Vince Potenza in December of 1996. Before this, I had spent a considerable amount of time in AOL chat rooms and IRC - what researchers call "synchronous" computer-mediated communication. I found them interesting, but the idea that chat environments like Palace had become VISUAL truly intrigued me. When I first signed onto the Palace I did so purely out of curiosity, without any specific intentions to study it. A very visually oriented person (as indicated on my vita, much of my early research focused on mental imagery), I quickly became captivated by the psychological ramifications of a graphical online environment. Not only was it intellectually fascinating, but also a lot of fun. A graphical MOO or chat room was something very new on the internet, and surely a predictor of things to come. At first I balked at the idea of mixing business and pleasure, but ultimately I could not resist the opportunity to formally study such a unique online world.
While exploring the visual aspects of the Palace (which I describe in my article on avatars and graphical space), I quickly realized that it was impossible to separate them from other aspects of Palace Life. The more time I spent there, the more depth and complexity I discovered in the social and psychological dynamics of this graphical world. To do justice to exploring and understanding Palace, I knew I had to conduct a holistic and comprehensive case study of all dimensions of this community . I knew I had to immerse myself into it by becoming one of them.
I called the 800 number and gladly paid my registration fee. Now, as a member with the fully loaded software client, I had before me the task of creating an online identity for myself. After much internal debate, I settled on the name "AsKi." While I could have used my real name, I preferred to join the spirit and fun of an online world by creating a new name that was more interesting than "John" and/or "Suler" - and, in fact, said a bit more about me than my real labels. Here are the reasons why I choose "AsKi":
- It's a condensation of "Asia" and "Kira," the names of my daughters - and thus a expression of how my identity is closely allied to my being their father. And if it wasn't for my spending more time at home with the girls, I may not have become interested in our computer and the internet in the first place.
- "AsKi" sounds like ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange), the standard computer character set for data communication. Hence "AsKi" is a bit of a computer geek's joke.
- It's a relatively benign, even cute, name. I wanted to appear as least threatening to people as possible.
- "AsKi" sounds like "Ask me" or "Asky" or can be read as "Ask I" (me). I intended this to mean that people could ask me anything and I would be as honest as possible in replying. If people at the Palace finger me to see what data I supply about myself, the automated reply is "Ask me and I'll tell you." Later on, as people came to know me as the resident social scientist, "AsKi" also signified that I tend to ask questions.
The second task in creating my online identity was the enjoyable one of choosing avatars. I must admit that early in my research I went through a period in which I felt a bit obsessed with searching the internet for pictures I could turn into props - an "addiction" familiar to many Palatians. Props are one way to gain acceptance and "join the club." They also help members express their moods, intentions, and personality - a phenomenon I explore in my article about avatars, including my analysis of my own avatar collection (a good illustration of participant-observer data!). Although I still keep an eye open for interesting pictures to turn into avatars, my preoccupation with them seemed to wear off as I became more deeply involved in the social dynamics of the Palace. I was more interested in getting to know people and having them know me than in playing with props (this playing never disappears completely for members, since it lies at the heart of the Palace experience).
Although I chose a pseudonym and symbolic pictures to represent my identity, I must emphasize that I was always honest about who I was. As best as I can recall, I don't think I ever dissembled or avoided any member's inquiry into who or what I am. This includes the fact that I was a psychologist who was conducting a study of Palace. In the early stages of my research, I did not spontaneously offer this specific information, but I did not deny it if someone suspected this and asked. Later on, as I developed some friendships or became acquainted with influential Palatians (such as wizards), I did spontaneously offer this information. The response was almost always benign. At the very worst, a few people simply seemed a bit wary of me - and, thankfully, would joke about it.
I felt it was extremely important for me to be honest about my role as a researcher and psychologist. I also felt it was important for me to let people know that I was ALSO a Palatian, just like everyone else. I wanted people to see that I indeed was conducting research, but I also enjoyed Palace as a place to play and socialize. I was one of them - and I meant it. Other Palatians had their outside skills and knowledge that they could offer the community - so if I, as a psychologist, could be helpful to the community in any way, then I welcomed that opportunity. In fact, the articles I write about Palace are as much for the benefit of the Palatians as for other researchers or curious non-Palatians. In my eyes, this honest approach to participation/observation was the best possible way to conduct this research. It also avoided the sticky ethical issues that arise when online researchers attempt to hide their identity from the people they are studying.
In addition to this "prime directive" of honesty, here are some of the other guidelines I developed for myself during this early phase of my research:
Be a Newbie - Few people like being a naive newbie. However, for the first week or so I allowed myself to be the uninformed, rather dumb newcomer. I asked questions that had been asked a thousand times before. Unfamiliar with the details of the program, I stumbled around the Palace not knowing where I was going, accidentally fell into rooms (especially the chessboard), stepped on people, broadcast my words to the whole room when I thought I was whispering... the whole range of newbie mistakes and breaches of Palace etiquette. Wanting to understand all aspects of Palace life, I thought it was important for me to experience what it was like being the clueless new kid on the block. I didn't particularly like being one, which led to the second guideline....
Master the Program - After a week or so of trial and error learning, I decided to make a more focused, systematic effort to learning the Palace. I read all the documentation. I started developing my avatar collection. I downloaded the server program so I could run it on my own computer and experiment with Palace offline (it was a bit eerie and lonely walking around all those empty rooms). In addition to helping me learn about the technical side of Palace, this intense study of the software and documentation also acquainted me with some of the language, customs, and history of Palace.
Master Other Palacing Skills - It's easy to overlook the fact that computer-mediated communication involves a whole range of perceptual/motor skills that aren't needed in face-to-face communication. First of all, you must be able to type quickly. Fortunately, having done much writing over the years, my typing was up to par. But I quickly learned at the Palace that I needed to develop a proficiency in other eye-hand coordinations. To move, whisper, change props, control speech balloons, and execute a variety of other commands - all requires a new set of keyboard fingering techniques. One has to be able to do it quickly to maintain smooth socializing. I had anywhere from three to six windows open on my screen while Palacing (some for the Palace program, others for research purposes, such as notes and screen captures). It took time to figure out where to place them so I could efficiently move from one to another. When a room is busy with activity, avatars are changing and jockeying for position while speech balloons are popping all over the place. To a newbie, it looks like buzzing confusion. It takes time to develop the necessary perceptual filtering and focusing to mentally organize all this activity. Even more difficult are the fluent eye-hand coordinations and mental dissociation needed to whisper to two, three, or (heaven forbid!), four people at a time.
Hang Out... A Lot - In order to understand and become part of Palace life, the most important rule is also a very simple one. Spend a lot of time there. Like any social system, it takes time to feel like you really belong and understand the culture. For the first months (January through May 1996), I signed on every day for approximately one to three hours. I stayed mostly at the Main Mansion Palace site since the other sites, at that time, were much less active. In order to observe as much of that particular community as possible, I moved among all the active rooms and signed on at different points during the day.
Socialize, Be Friendly - In this early phase of research, I tried to understand Palace by simply participating. Although tempted, I tried not to ask too many questions. While I occasionally would inject such inquiries into my conversations, I mostly socialized and played without a thick overlay of investigative demeanor. I wanted to be friendly and helpful.It's important to note that all of my research occurred at the Main Mansion site, which was the original Palace site (created by Jim Bumgardner and Jeffrey Marks who worked for Time-Warner), and for several years the most populated community. Later on, many other independently owned sites began to spring up all over the internet. Although I did briefly explore some of these other communities, I eventually decided to focus my energy on understanding in-depth the experience and social dynamics of Main. My motto: One intensive case study, one community.
One of Us: Seeing from the Inside
After about a month of daily attendance at Main, I began to feel like a "regular." People knew me and I had established a few friendships. On one occasion, someone even referred to me as an "old timer" - which struck me as a bit odd since I had only been a Palatian for a little more than a month. The Palace itself was only a few months old, so, in the minds of some people, the developmental time frame for becoming an old timer was rather condensed.
The participant side of the participant-observation method paid off extremely well. By examining my own behavior in and reactions to Palace, I believe I discovered many subtle - and sometimes not so subtle - aspects of Palace life long before I would have discovered them through interviewing or sending out questionnaires. In some cases, I may not have arrived at those insights at all through only objective methods. For example, there are many nuances of feeling in reaction to how other users move their avatars in and around the personal space of your own avatar (see the article on avatars). I could not always verbalize these reactions myself until I made a deliberate, conscious effort to focus on my subjective experience. These types of unconscious reactions are common when it comes to non-verbal communication. Once I realized some aspect of how I, personally, was reacting to Palace life, I then made an effort to ask others about it in order to compare and contrast their reactions.
What insights surfaced from my personal experiences? Many. I discovered a wide variety of thoughts, feelings, and actions that I believe many Palatians would understand. I enjoyed playing and competing with avatars. I was annoyed when someone stole my props, proud when someone complimented me on them. I felt tempted to join in on cliques while tending to ignore the newbie guests. I played practical jokes on some people and confided in others, sometimes revealing things about myself that I wouldn't ordinarily reveal in a comparable real world situation. I wanted to feel like I belonged, and was upset when I felt left out or ignored. Once (only once!) someone attempted to seduce me into cybersex. I secretly wished I would be asked to be a wizard. At times I thought that I was addicted - which was, in fact, the theme of the first article I wrote about Palace.
My role as "psychologist" and "researcher" did affect my reactions. Knowing that I also was here to study Palace - and not just participate - allowed me to objectify my experiences. Sometimes it gave me some extra beneficial leverage in distancing myself from an uncomfortable situation. For example, one night two members whom I did not know joined forces in attempting to trick me into believing that one of them was Jim Bumgardner (the creator of Palace) in disguise. I found this bending of reality to be a bit disorienting and unsettling, until I recognized it as an exercise in power and identification with power. Similar to the psychotherapist's analysis of countertransference, my objective analysis of my own personal reactions helped me understand, and hence regulate, those reactions.
Being a psychologist and researcher, I felt the need to minimize acting out (which is very tempting in cyberspace) and behave as responsibly as possible. I tried to contribute to group cohesion and positive morale, while helping to control the snerts. I encouraged activities that had a potential to be fun and educational - such as avatar games. I made an effort to ask guests if they needed help and on several occasions took newbies on an introductory tour of Palace. Once my identity as a psychologist and researcher spread through the community - especially when I began publishing online my articles about Palace - I also became known as the Palace "shrink." This sometimes placed me in the role of advisor and counselor. When people came to me for help or advice, the issues usually revolved around half-serious/half-joking concerns about being "addicted," or about worries for other members who appeared to be depressed and in need of help. The role of psychologist/researcher also required me to be sensitive to the possibility that others might be uncomfortable hanging out with someone who was going to "analyze" them (a common occupational hazard of being a psychologist). Assuring people of confidentiality, honestly reaffirming my benign intentions, joking a bit about the situation - and just being myself - helped alleviate many of these concerns.
Sources of Information: The Objective/Subjective Cocktail
In addition to my own subjective reactions, I relied upon several other sources of information during this first stage (the first year or so) of my research at Main:
Unobtrusive observation - Often I simply sat back and observed the conversations and activity in the room around me. While this approach sometimes proved fruitful, it often got boring after long periods and did not seem to yield as many insights as participating in the action and talking with people.
Logs - Each time I signed on, I saved to disk the conversations that had taken place. Although the log cannot capture what is happening visually at the Palace, it is a complete record of all text communications and many of the action commands (e.g., playing a sound)
In-house discussions with Palace members - Usually in a very informal fashion, I would ask people about their views and experiences of Palace life. Sometimes I would pose questions to a group of people. Sometimes I would whisper privately to one person. The most useful information came from friends and other knowledgeable Palatians whom I specifically approached to discuss some aspect of Palace.
"Standard" questions - In one stage of my research, I experimented with presenting a standard question (or a short series of questions) to people in a room. Each time I presented the question/s to a new group, I attempted to remain as consistent myself in how I behaved, while noting differences in how the group reacted. Sometimes the question was intended to gather straight-forward descriptive statistics, such as "How long has everyone here been coming to Palace?" While this was useful at times, open-ended questions yielded more interesting results, such as "Why do you think people like coming to the Palace?", or, "Why do you think people get addicted to Palace?" It was a projective test, of sorts. But even this technique did not prove to be as useful as informal in-house conversations with people.
E-mail interviews - Due to lag and the limitations of synchronous typed-text communication, the in-house conversations with people needed to be supplemented with more in-depth discussions. Whenever I met a member who seemed knowledgeable and interested in talking about Palace life (especially wizards and other old-timers), I invited them to continue our discussion through e-mail. Some people I "formally" invited to participate in a structured e-mail interview. For others, the e-mail discussion was more casual and free-form. I corresponded with approximately 50 members. My correspondence with Jim Bumgardner was especially helpful in allowing me a glimpse into the underlying philosophy of Palace and "behind-the-scenes" happenings. Writing about the early history of Palace would have been impossible without e-mail interviews with the old-timers.
Newsgroup postings - In the early months of Palace, a newsgroup was formed for participants to discuss community issues. There was a flurry of activity near the beginning of the list, which gave me insight into this early phase of Palace. Since that time, postings became very sporadic. Eventually the newsgroups died out completely, replaced instead by mailing lists.
Introducing family, friends, and colleagues to Palace - On a few occasions I had the opportunity to introduce people I knew to Palace. This enabled me to assess how known personalities would react to Palace life. One of my closest friends didn't particularly like the experience at all, which cued me to the fact that visual chat, or chat of any kind, does not appeal to everyone. A self-selection process shapes the community.
Screen captures - Because the Palace is so highly visual, it was essential to take screen shots of typical gatherings, planned events, and unusual occurrences. These pictures are an integral component of my article on avatars and graphical space. Many times I took these pictures "on the fly" as something interesting was happening. However, several times I completely forgot to take a screen capture of an interesting event simply because I was caught up in the experience and the idea of recording it never crossed my mind (for example, the time a member attempted to seduce me by flashing seductive-looking avatars!). This, perhaps, is one of the hazards of participant-observation. On other occasions, I signed onto Palace specifically to take pictures rather than socialize (as when I was categorizing the different types of avatars).
Mailing lists - Early in the summer of 1996, the Palace User Group formed and created it's own mailing list, which became known as "PUG." The list quickly became very active - due, I believe, to the need for Palace users to establish a larger arena for communication and shared identity than is possible when people are scattered among the numerous rooms and numerous sites of the Palace universe. The messages on this list provided a great deal of insight into how people were reacting to Palace. It also informed me of social and political events much quicker than I might have discovered them on my own. The list provided a glimpse into the larger social dynamics of the entire Palace community. Later on, the "Deep Thoughts" list was created as a space for Palatians to indulge in political discussions. Often the conversations were NOT about Palace specifically. National politics and social issues usually dominated the posts by some of these brightest and most influential figures of the community. Nevertheless, I found it fascinating to see how these discussions indirectly reflected the political and social dynamics occurring within the sites run by Electric Communities, the company that eventually came to own the Palace software (Palace at first belonged to Time-Warner, then became incorporated on its own as The Palace Incorporated, and later was merged with Electric Communities).
Personal Notes - I took (hand-written) notes on any important occurrence that could not adequately be captured by the logs or screen captures - for example, how moved their avatars or sequences in events and conversations. Although the logs are a very objective index of exactly what was said, they simply record the chronology of all statements within a room without any indication of how the conversations were occurring within various subgroups. In a log it's not always clear who was talking to whom, at what pace the statements were made, or the visual context of the group dynamics. Notes *can* capture these essentials. In fact, logs often are very difficult to read because they are a conglomeration of the several different conversations that were occurring at the same time in a room. When reading the logs offline, my personal notes helped me to mentally reorganize the conversations.
I also used notes to record my personal reactions as they occurred on the scene. Subtle changes in my mood and attitudes sometimes reflected hidden dynamics of the Palace experience. Objective logs of text conversation cannot capture this. After signing off, I similarly made a conscious effort to write down what I remembered about each visit and my reactions to it. Sometimes an insight into what exactly was important about a particular visit did not strike me until hours, or even days later. The distance of time allowed me to more objectively recall and evaluate the in vivo experiences. At the Palace I could not always label these experiences as significant because I too busy being *in* them at the time. When these post-visit light bulbs went off, I immediately (or as soon as possible) recorded the ideas in my notes.
These personal notes were essential supplements to the logs. They helped me organize and highlight the important events of a particular visit - which the log could not do. On the other hand, it sometimes was an eye-opener to compare what *I* remembered someone saying to what was actually said according to the log. Discrepancies helped me understand how my own psychology had reshaped events. Balancing the objective and subjective sources of information is essential in participant-observation research.
In September of 1996 I was invited to become an "Honorary Wizard" of the Main Mansion site, which then was owned by Time-Warner. Appreciative of my writings about Palace, the wizards offered me the opportunity to participate in their e-mail discussion list, without being expected to spend a great deal of time hosting and managing the site itself (which are some of the responsibilities of wizards). I indeed was honored and excited by the invitation, and eagerly looked forward to the induction ceremony. Much to my frustration and disappointment, my ISP altered the logon script to their server, which, on the very night of the induction, prevented me from entering the internet AT ALL through my PPP connection. Desperate to inform people of my inability to attend the induction, I fired up my rarely used AOL account and shot off a message to a few of my wizard friends. I still regret missing that induction.
Becoming a wizard opened an entirely new phase in my research. My first eye-opening experience was plugging in the wizard password at Main, and discovering a whole new layer of the Palace experience. Through the paging system, wizards anywhere at the Palace site can communicate with all the other wizards. "Behind the scenes," they are conversing, joking, and informing each other of what is happening across the whole site. It is like a layer of "wizard consciousness" that unifies the whole site. The paging channel was particularly helpful to me in studying deviant behavior at the Palace. Whenever a member paged the wizards for help with a snert, I could quickly jump to the scene of the "crime."
Eventually, my participation on the wizard mailing list became the main focus of my work. My presence at the site itself slowly dropped off to only an occasional visit - in part due to the fact that it was so time consuming to be chatting online, but also because the wizard list proved to be such a rich source of information and insight. On the list, the wizards discussed the social and technical issues of the day, as well as just hung out with each other. This e-mail group proved to be an invaluable avenue into the inner workings and news of the Palace community. Many of the critical events occurring at Main - events I may have missed even if I spent a great deal of time there - were discussed on the list. I also saw how the social dynamics of the wizard group - the core of the community - shaped the atmosphere at Main.
My participation as a wizard led to two major articles - one about the lifestyle of the wizards and a second, very long piece about the wizards' techniques for dealing with deviant users. That second article is an excellent example of integrating my knowledge as a psychologist with the knowledge of the wizards. As a participant-researcher among the wizards, I envisioned it as a compendium of wizard wisdom that could serve as a training manual for anyone interested in learning how to manage the "bad boys" of cyberspace. Getting to know the wizards through the list also led to very valuable e-mail interviews for my article on the early history of the Main community.
In June of 1999, Electric Communities implemented a policy decision that marked a major turning point in the history of the Main Mansion wizard group, as well as in the history of my research there. To remain a wizard, people had to work the site at least 10 hours per month. Presumably, this strategy was intended to weed out inactive wizards and encourage others to actively maintain their presence at the site, hosting, educating, and managing the influx of new user "customers" who took advantage of the fact that the client software was now free. It was a business decision. Unfortunately, this "cut" also resulted in the removal of some oldtimer wizards who were active on the wizard list, but not at the site. I was one of those wizards. Originally, I was invited to the list to offer my expertise on cyberpsychology, as a kind of consultant. I suggested to the Company that perhaps my continued participation in that role might be valuable to them. As an oldtimer who was no longer active at the site, but who fully understood its history, I might offer an objective perspective that could be helpful to the wizard list - a "seeing the forest from the trees" advantage, as I explained it. The new policy, however, firmly placed a greater emphasis on encouraging wizards to work the site than on participation on the e-mail list. So I - along with some very prominent oldtimers, including Jim Bumgardner - was cut.
The Palace Discussion Group
In September of 1997 I sent a message to the wizard list inviting people to join me in creating what I called "The Palace Discussion Group." In the spirit of pure participant-observer epistemology, I envisioned the group as a small, closed-membership e-mail list where we could talk about our lives in cyberspace, our in-person lives, and how the two affect each other. Unlike larger and/or open e-mail groups, such as the wizard list, I hoped it could become a much more cohesive, confidential environment where we could compare our experiences. Ten very bright, creative, internet-savvy people volunteered and "PALGRP" was born. Over the past two years, this group has been an invaluable tool to me in my research. Often I have presented my hypotheses to them, allowing them to critique and help modify my conclusions. As knowledgeable oldtimers, they offered insights into aspects of Palace life that I may not have seen otherwise - often because their insights stemmed from their own personal experiences that they may not have been willing to discuss under less trusting, intimate conditions. Because we have come to know each other personally, they also have helped me sort out how my own subjective reactions (i.e., transference) might be affecting my investigations. The members of PALGRP were not simply a sophisticated source of information and "data," but more importantly, an environment for reality testing of personal experience via group discussion and consensus. This is a benefit for EACH of us, giving us all the opportunity to explore the subjective/objective cocktail of how we come to understand our lives, in-person and online.
A major event in the history of this group coincided with that major event in the history of my research and the Main wizards: the Company's policy to remove wizards who were not active at the site. About half of the PALGRP members were affected by that "pink slip," which became the title of our discussion thread. Comparing our perspectives and feelings about this change turned out to be one of the most valuable discussions in the group's development. It gave us all a much clearer, more comprehensive understanding of our relationships to Palace and its wizard group. For me, this discussion fulfilled all my expectations of what PALGRP could be - a place where we could test, challenge, verify our subjective impressions of Palace life. It was extremely valuable to me in my research. More importantly, it was extremely valuable to the cohesion and identity of PALGRP as no longer simply "The Palace Discussion Group," but as a "Group of Pals" who now faced the challenge of understanding our lives both within and BEYOND the realm of Palace.
Writing Up the Results... and Beyond
In the summer of 1996 I began writing the collection of articles about Palace that comprise one large subsection of my online book The Psychology of Cyberspace. Once completed, I would upload an article to my server, but before linking it into my book and advertising its appearance to the general public, I first sent an announcement with the url to the PUG and/or wizard lists. I invited Palatians to read my work and provide me with feedback. I received some excellent suggestions that enabled me to correct mistakes and add additional information before the articles would be seen by the general public. All quotes and references to specific people in the articles followed the standard research guidelines for informed consent.
I intend my articles about Palace to be valuable resources for other cyberpsychologists and online researchers. I also write the articles in a style that I hope will make them interesting and useful to the Palatians and internet users in general. Ideally, I'd like my work to fulfill both sides of the participant-researcher equation - to serve as a contribution to online communities as well as to cyberspace researchers.
I believe the conclusions in some of the articles I have written will be valid for some time to come - especially the articles that focus on the psychological dynamics associated with the basic software features of Palace and with the unique visual/spatial quality of this virtual world. While these features may evolve somewhat over time and new features will be added, I believe the basic psychological principles will remain essentially the same. Although I have only briefly visited other graphical worlds on the internet, many of the psychological principles associated with the visual elements of Palace should apply to these other worlds.
The psychology of visual chat communication is but one level of analysis in studying these virtual communities. Built onto this level is another realm of complex social dynamics not unlike that found in any real world community. The population of Palace users has expanded rapidly. New Palace sites are continually springing up, each with its own relatively distinct culture. Some fail to draw users and fade away. Others thrive. As the overall population of a site increases, there is a push towards social stratification, the creation of bureaucracies, intergroup conflict, and leadership struggles. Each community will handle these changes in their own style. I've studied only one, the Main Mansion site. No longer a wizard with a view from the inside, I'm left with several alternatives. Should I return to participant-observations at the Main site? Should I immigrate to one or more other Palace sites to understand the unique social dynamics of those communities? Should I rely on e-mail interviews or the various Palace mailing lists as sources of data?
For now, PALGRP serves as my primary connection to the Palace experience. Perhaps the developmental changes of that group are pointing me towards the insights that need to be explored. Some people stay at Palace. Some leave. Some people maintain their devotion to cyberliving and others drift away. Why? What motivates this coming together and separating in virtual living? What motivates these avid ventures into cyberspace and then, eventually, the return to "real" life.
We shall see.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
Case studies of digital life forms
Life at the Palace
Steps in studying an online group: The Geezer Brigade
Ethics in cyberspace research
back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page