The Psychology of the Internet

by Noche Kandora

Crowd Control, Catharsis, Gender & More in the Online Hornet’s Nest – The noticeable lack of lofty punditry about life online is probably the biggest part of what makes The Psychology of the Internet so refreshingly likeable.

Part of Patricia Wallace’s stated goal in writing the largely objective book is this: if we as digital citizens can enhance our understanding of the online environment and get a good take on how it operates as a place for human interaction, we can shape its future and make for a better cyber existence. Or, as Wallace somewhat ambiguously puts it, “improve the psychological climate on the Internet.” That’s really as idealistic as she gets, which is a good thing.

Consistently throughout the book’s pages, Wallace cites chiefly real life-based psychological studies and research about human behavior and then discusses how it translates against the entirely different social backdrop of the virtual realm, including synchronous and asynchronous chat groups, massively multiplayer online role-playing games, e-mail and MUDs.

Some of the more interesting parts of the book deal with group dynamics, and a lot of what you’ll read in these passages will ring strikingly true if you take part in MMORPGs, message boards, mailing groups, or any other cyber circle in the arena of computer-mediated communication. Wallace takes a look at, for example, the effects that gender and male-to-female ratios have in user groups. She also picks apart the subtleties of jockeying for power or maintaining order in Net-based groups. She at times dissects how message posts are crafted and presented in order to achieve certain outcomes as far as governing behavior in online settings, for instance.

Another big focus of the book that makes for interesting reading is Wallace’s probe of the phenomenon of anonymity on the Internet. As is quite common knowledge, users do not face the same consequences for their actions online as they do in real life.

At times, all that wiggle room within the Web can lead to questionable behavior and in some cases emotional or physical harm. At other times, that social leeway can work to users’ advantage. For example, it could benefit users’ mental health by furnishing a venue to experiment with different personae, or a chance to test-run certain personal characteristics they would otherwise have kept totally hidden. Some users could even ultimately develop the confidence to “come out” in real life with their once-concealed idiosyncrasies due to positive experiences that they had in virtual settings.

But things aren’t always so hunky-dory, according to Wallace. In fact, they can get downright dark, she says during a relatively brief discussion on the Internet’s potential for personal catharsis. She only touches on this subject, however, within the context of un-consensual and misdirected aggressive behavior, so perhaps it is no surprise that her mainstream sensibilities would pull her toward broadly dismissing any potential the Web may possess for catharsis. To be more specific, Wallace generically cites psychological research that says aggressive behavior online merely nudges open a Pandora’s box which results in the ugly fallout spilling over into real life.

“There is no research that I know of that explores whether aggression on the Internet serves any cathartic role, but I think it highly unlikely,” Wallace writes. “For those who get involved in flame wars or other forms of Internet aggression, the research suggests it is more likely to reduce their thresholds for aggression, and perhaps not just against others on the Internet.”

Overall, this book is fundamental reading for anyone interested in pondering or critiquing the grand vision of virtual reality theorists and their fellow idealistic minions in university-based research who see the Internet as a cornerstone of a Web-based wonderland nurturing global community, interaction and communication. In a nutshell, if the book were on a course syllabus, it would of the 101 variety, invaluable as basic reading in the online human behavior curriculum.

– Noche Kandora

Book: The Psychology of the Internet
Author: Patricia Wallace
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Year: 1999
ISBN: 0521797098 (paperback printing)
Shelf: Nonfiction

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