Monday, August 07, 2006

The First Decade of CyberPsychology

It’s been a little over 10 years since I uploaded the first version of my online book The Psychology of Cyberspace. As many of us are probably thinking, a lot about cyberspace has changed over the past decade…. or has it?

Cyberspace in the Media

On optimistic days, I like to think that portrayals of cyberspace in the media are becoming more balanced and realistic. Years ago hardly a week went by without a journalist requesting an interview with me about Internet addiction. Those requests are more rare now. They’ve been replaced by journalists looking for information about online bullying, stalking, pedophilia, and identity deception and theft. Controversy sells, which, unfortunately, will probably always be the case with the news.

However, I have seen more interest among media people about the positives of cyberspace. It seems odd to me that it would take a decade to reach this realization: cyberspace is much more than a place for teens and unpleasant people to act out, and much more than one gigantic library for gathering information. It is replete with social opportunities: relationships, groups, communities of all shapes and sizes. I’m glad when journalists want to interview me about those topics. Despite the skeptics who persist with criticisms of how the Internet is destroying the sanctity of face-to-face relationships, I’m happy to see upbeat TV commercials about online dating services. Why not use the Internet to find a companion?

The New Generation Gap

Although the media has tended to exaggerate the dangers of cyberspace for children, it has been correct in noting the impact of the Internet on the next generation: the generation that has grown up in cyberspace. Settting aside the important issue of the socioeconomic Digital Divide, we now live in a unique era: there are young people for whom cyberspace is the air they breathe, and some older people who, for one reason or another, fell behind the curve of Internet use, even though it was available. This new version of the “generation gap” is a topic worthy of study. In a few decades, the opportunity to do so will be gone.

The Academic Study of Cyberspace

What has changed dramatically since the first publication of this online book is the academic study of cyberspace. A decade ago there were only a handful of us doing what we called “cyberpsychology.” Now there are hundreds, with researchers specializing in particular aspects of online behavior. New journals devoted to Internet research have been created, while mainstream psychology journals are accepting more articles about online behavior. Azy Barak’s reference list is an excellent portal into this world of cyberpsychology.

With this boom in research comes a variety of important questions. When can our traditional psychological theories explain online behavior? Under what circumstances do we need new theories? As is always the case in the history of any topic area within psychology, new theories will compete with each other. Only time and research will reveal which ones apply best to which phenomena. We must be on the lookout for concepts that are new and good, while remembering that what’s new isn’t necessarily good, and what’s good isn’t necessarily new.

Unfortunately, the seriousness psychology now pays to Internet research isn’t always matched by the seriousness it pays to online scholarly publications. Such publications too often are considered second class citizens, or they are not considered “publications” at all. An odd kind of double-standard seems to have evolved. Whereas cyberspace is considered a rich social/informational environment for gathering scholarly social science data, it often is not regarded as a rich environment for publishing scholarly research.

Of course, the skeptics are correct in noting the widely varying quality of what is published online. The necessity of evaluating quality is a challenge for everyone in cyberspace. But it is not a reason to abandon online publications. Online peer-reviewed journals have appeared as valuable resources that are gaining respect, but we need to do more. In addition to these Internet versions of hardcopy journal formats, academics also need to consider alternative methods of publishing online and evaluating the quality of such publications. Doing so will not only free scholars from the sometimes routinized and stifling aspects of the traditional peer review process, it will also open our eyes to new perspectives on understanding the meaning of “quality” in scholarship. The current debates about the validity of Wikipedia is a good example of how we need to think in more broad terms about the process of organizing and disseminating knowledge.

The More Things Change…

It seems to me that the basic psychological features of cyberspace have not changed all that much over the past decade, which is why I believe that a comprehensive theory of online behavior must revolve around a psychological understanding of the basic communication dimensions of cyberspace and the effect of combining them in various ways, as in the theoretical model of online psychotherapy that I have proposed. What this past decade has taught us is that the power of cyberspace is its potential to isolate, manipulate, and synergistically combine these various dimensions, sometimes in surprisingly unique and useful ways.

The online communities that are now succeeding seem to be the ones that integrate as many of these communication features as possible. They offer both synchronous and asynchronous communication, discussion boards, email, text, images, the ability for varying degrees of real or imaginary identity presentation, varying degrees of invisibility and presence, and a variety of opportunities for group as well as one-on-one interactions. Facebook, Myspace, and Flickr are good examples.

What is “Cyberspace”?

The past decade has shown us that cyberspace is expanding so rapidly and in so many different directions that it is now hard to define. As it becomes linked to the worlds of television, radio, and telephones, it is unclear where the boundaries of cyberspace end and where those other territories begin. Perhaps “Internet” is easier to define in terms of its hardware infrastructure. But I place emphasis on the word “perhaps.” The computer-mediated universe – call it “cyberspace” if you wish – has evolved to the point where it is more than the sum of its wires and microchips. It is a social-psychological entity with a magnitude of complexity, subtlety, and adaptability no less sophisticated than the “real” world with which it interweaves.

As is always true of human nature, some people attempt to control that entity. The old-timers will tell you, sadly, that commercialization have changed the face of the Internet forever. For good reasons or not, governments and business attempt to regulate what people can and cannot access. The next decade will tell us if cyberspace is too big for any one group to control, and if it will be carved up into more tightly regulated nets.

Suler in Cyberspace

As for me and my explorations of cyberspace over the past decade, I see myself as having come full circle. I began my adventures, as well as my research, in the community known as the Palace. What captivated me was the visual/graphical dimension of online identity management and social relationships. I was fascinated by how people use images to present themselves and interact with others. From there, as you can see in the outline for this book, my work progressed into studies of Internet “addiction,” text communication, online deviant behavior, and psychotherapy in cyberspace.

Now I’m back to where I started, again intrigued by how people use images to communicate. For me the visual qualities of cyberspace is what makes it so fascinating. In fact, it is the one of the major reasons why the Internet and computers in general became so popular. It is the psychological power of the image that has led to the booming success of online photo sharing communities, such as Flickr, which is my current preoccupation and an inspiration in my recent development of what I call Photographic Psychology. Imagery has been a long-standing interest in my career, dating back to my pre-dissertation days.

At the moment, I wouldn’t say that I am “studying” the Flickr community, but rather using Flickr as a resource in understanding the psychological dimensions of imagery. But if I were to classify my research there, I would describe it as I always have over the past decade: participant-observation. The use of statistical methods in the social science research of cyberspace is on the rise, and it is valuable. But for me, it is not a substitute for the intricate, comprehensive, holistic knowledge that we obtain by immersing ourselves subjectively and objectively into an environment.

In the days ahead I may add to The Psychology of Cyberspace articles about online photo sharing communities, imagistic communication, and photographic psychology. If you’re interested right now in learning what I’m up to concerning these topics, you are more than welcome to visit my Flickr photostream and see me in action.