Online Lifestyles and eQuest
Now that the fall semester is underway, I'm again working with students in my online psychoeducational program "eQuest." It's a comprehensive collection of exercises and online activities that assists them in addressing some personal issue that they wish to understand better and perhaps resolve. The eQuest philosophy holds that exploring online resources - and developing an online lifestyle - can enhance personal growth. As a participant in the BRIDGE faculty development program here at Rider University, I've begun work on developing a method to assess students before and after their eQuest project.
While working on that assessment instrument, I often find myself thinking about people's lifestyles in cyberspace. In fact, this is something I like to ask about during conversations with friends, family members, colleagues, and even new acquaintances. What do you like to do online and with your computer?
People often hesitate at first, seeming almost reluctant to reveal that they're really "into" something in cyberspace, but with a little bit of encouragement, they set aside any apologetic tendencies and open up about what they enjoy doing.
I find it fascinating to see how a person's online lifestyle and identity reflect their offline lifestyle and identity. In some cases it even supplements or extends their offline self, which is even more fascinating, although it's a phenomenon that some cyberspace researchers and theorists tend to exaggerate and overly idealize. Even though cyberspace offers new possibilities of which some people take advantage, people tend to be who they are regardless of the many opportunities available on the Internet.
That fact goes to the heart of the questions that come up as I try to develop the eQuest assessment instrument. What are the skills, preferences, attitudes, and experiences that determines a person's lifestyle in cyberspace? Do they like to read and write? Are they more visual or verbal thinkers? Do they prefer spontaneity or control, fantasy or reality, or something inbetween? How much do they accept information versus evaluating it?
Then comes the issue of personal growth and the possible therapeutic changes that occur as people develop an online lifestyle. I find myself thinking about the factors that lead people into trying something new in cyberspace, including making media transitions, as I discussed in earlier posts. I wonder if their preexisting skills, preferences, and attitudes change much as they develop an online lifestyle, or if they simply find new ways to express what they already have.
Now that my daughter is off for her freshman year at college, it's time to consider the ways we can stay in touch with her. In decades past, writing letters worked well for parents and their kids. I'm finding it hard to imagine that scenario in this technology-accelerated age of ours. Telephones quickly replaced pen and paper, but even now the old land-line models have become almost extinct for our children. With cell phones in hand, they can speak to us even as they walk to class, though more likely they are chatting with their friends.
We recently discovered that instant messaging works quite well. Knowing that our daughter has been immersed in AIM for several years, we figured she'd stay with that online environment while at college, and that we might be able to enter it with her. Fortunately, we knew her username. Having done lots of chat in my early years of online research at the Palace, I also felt comfortable with the techniques and spirit of synchronous text communication.
To our surprise and delight, she welcomed us into her AIM space. She doesn't always respond to every IM we send, but that's often the way it is in the IM world. The icing on the cake is that she leaves AIM on almost all day long, so it can tell us if she's on the computer or not, and for how long. Knowing when she's in her dorm room and at the computer is quite comforting, even if she isn't communicating directly with us.
Having recently registered at Facebook, I thought I'd test my online good fortune even further by inviting my daughter to be my friend. As I mentioned in my previous post to this blog, that did not go over as well as AIM. Jokingly, she rejected me. Parents are not welcome in some online hangouts.
So why does AIM work well? For one thing, AIM is private communication, unlike Facebook where teens can communicate as a group via "the wall." My daughter's AIM friends have no way of knowing I'm instant messaging her along with them, unless she tells them.
AIM also fulfills the developmental needs of teens that some psychoanalysts might describe as "rapproachment." They want to be independent, to dart away and do their own thing, but they also want to be able to touch base when necessary. Cell phones can do the trick, but a phone call leans towards a slightly heavier communication committment. You're obligated to talk for a least a few minutes and you must respond when someone says something. Instant messaging is more suited for connecting when you want, responding if you want, running off when you want. It's a compromise between dependence and independence.
Several years ago I attended a workshop devoted to a discussion of new online communication tools. One of the topics was social network services, such as Friendster and Orkut. Summarized in a nutshell, for those who are unfamiliar with these services, they enable people to create a personal web page, invite other people ("friends") to view and link to the page, and then use the resulting network of inteconnected friends to discover new people (friends of friends of friends...) with common backgrounds interests. During the workshop I asked the presenter if colleges were using social network services. To me, it seemed, this sort of communication tool would be perfect for students, faculty, and staff to connect to each other. "Some are starting to do it," the presenter replied tersely. Now it's several years later, and if you haven't heard, the social network system called The Facebook is the new rage on college campuses and high schools throughout the country, and even around the world. On that very plainly designed home page, it states: "You can use Facebook to: look up people at your school; see how people know each other; find people in your classes and groups." That simple description seems to underplay the fascinating and complex social dynamics that has made the Facebook so popular. Students are connecting and forming relationships even before they arrive for their freshman year. Upperclassman are checking out the new students. Clusters of friends become an in-group with their inside jokes and stories. Students use Facebook as a springboard for flirting, dating, and breakups, and for comparing their campus life with their friends at other colleges.This semester in my Group Dynamics course, when we talked about the online component of the course using the popular education software called Blackboard, we found ourselves discussing Facebook. Someone mentioned that we should form a group in Facebook as another way to get to know each other better. One student volunteered to set up the group. Some students quickly joined it, but others haven't yet. At least one student is reluctant to even join Facebook at all. For me, this a fascinating feature of the course: how the online component of our group compares to the in-person component, and how events online might indicate something hidden but important about how we react to each other. While setting up my page in Facebook, I decided to invite my daughter to become a friend. She's a college freshman and has been using Facebook for several months. When I spoke to her on the phone about it, she said that it felt a little awkward having her father enter her Facebook space. It was something for her and her friends, and not for parents. That made sense to me. And it also reminded me of how people attach specific meanings, feelings, and purposes to their online spaces. The world of Facebook has the distinct energy and excitment of a "college student" atmosphere. If you get a chance to enter it, you'll see what I mean.
When Old Rules Don't Apply
I recently was invited to participate in a panel discussion for the State of Play: Social Revolutions Conference, which is being sponsored by a number of organizations, including the New York and Yale Law Schools. Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend, but I wanted to mention here how interesting the conference looks.
The major topics include legal issues, the stock market, architecture, property, and (one of my all-time favorite topics), psychological identity in cyberspace. It seems like an eclectic set of issues, yet the overarching question is this: Is cyberspace such a radically different environment than the "real" world that many of our traditional rules no longer apply?
The basic psychological features of cyberspace defy many aspects of in-person interactions we humans have taken for granted. Time, geographical distance, sensory stimulation, social connectivity, recordability of events, and social status are either enhanced, radically altered, or virtually eliminated. The results are new spaces that force us to rethink old standards about law, politics, finance, property, and social relationships.
We also need to be cautious. The challenge for us social scientists - as well as for thinkers in other disciplines - is to realize when we need new theories to explain what is happening in cyberspace, and when our old theories still apply. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater is never a good idea. When do we need entirely new paradigms, as Kuhn discussed in his analysis of scientific revolutions, and when should we modify and build upon the old?
The unique features of cyberspace are interwoven with how fast cyberspace is changing. In his book The Evolution of Consciousness, Ornstein argues that the human brain and its basic functions have not changed much over the past 20,000 years. And yet, especially within the past century, the environments we have created are changing rapidly. Ornstein warns us: Will the human mind be able to keep up and adapt?