People act differently online than they do in person. I’m sure we all know this intuitively. And while some people, such as Marshall McLuhan have dared to pontificate on why this may be, what psychological work has been done to understand this phenomenon?
Here are a few excrips from a portion of a book, The Psychology of Cyberspace, by notable psychologist John Suler. The section these excripts come from is titled “The Basic Psychological Features of Cyberspace” and is worth reading in full.
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.
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.
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?
It is important for us to understand the landscape of cyberspace if we, especially as Christians whose goal is to proclaim the good news, are to operate effectively in it.