Friday, January 12, 2007

Second Life, Second Chance

Since my days as a member of the Palace and as a cyberpsychologist studying that community, more than a decade ago, I haven’t paid much attention to the newer avatar/graphical worlds that have come, and in many cases, gone.

Recently some colleagues and journalists have been encouraging me to take a look at Second Life. My reaction, even after I visited the SL web site, was similar to how I responded in the past: been there, done that. However, noticing all the media publicity SL is receiving, and hearing how a million people have joined it, I thought I’d give the idea of visiting it a second chance.

So I downloaded the program and dragged myself through the registration process. Fortunately the install and registration posed no technical problems for me and my Mac. Thank you Linden Labs. Optimistic, I even provided my credit card info so I could collect my free $250 Linden dollars - the equivalent, I discovered later, of about one US dollar. I promised myself I wouldn’t spend it all in one place.

Spotting Newbies by How They Walk

Before logging on, I mentally prepared myself for the possibility that I would, at first, feel like a completely awkward newbie in this unfamiliar virtual world. It was a good idea I did. It took me several minutes just to figure out how to move my avatar, and then I was literally walking into walls and trees. I spent most of the first day learning how to move about without looking like a complete idiot, how to visually survey and interact with the environment, and, most fun of all, how to fly like superman. The controls for navigating one’s avatar are much more sophisticated than they used to be at the Palace, This posed a rather interesting challenge. Even after several hours, when I thought I was doing reasonably well, a more experienced user who I met in the SL version of Amsterdam commented on me being a newbie. When I asked how she knew, she replied, “By how you walk.”

At that point I took my own advice that I’ve written about in various articles: Don’t be afraid to be a newbie. Embrace it graciously and with humor. Ask for help. And don’t be surprised or dismayed if people ignore you or make fun of you because you’re a newbie, which happened often to me in SL.

Lookin’ Good, or Not: The Avatar

After getting a grip on how to move about, I tackled the task of customizing my avatar. Again, the features are more sophisticated than in the days of Palace, especially in designing the body type, hairstyle, clothing, and facial features of a human-like body. After my initial experimentations, I still looked like such a newbie nerd that my wife insisted I continue to work on modifying my clothing.

Eventually, as you can see in that picture, I created an avatar that looks something like me, although a bit more trim and wearing a hat that I never wear. It wasn’t until later on that I figured out how to take the hat off. Although in the past I’ve assumed imaginary identities in cyberspace, I now usually choose to be myself, using my real name - and, in SL, an avatar that is based on reality rather than fantasy. Not that highly imaginary avatars are a bad thing. It’s just that as a cyberpsychologist exploring this world, I prefer to be straightforward about who I am. Even my username reflects my real name, except that in the registration process I was required to choose a last name from a list, as if being forced to join a clan.

Quickly it became clear that people take their avatars very seriously. Users spend a great deal of time, effort, and money designing them. As was true of Palace, how you look is important not only in your ability to attract people, but in demonstrating your technical skill. Unlike Palace, almost all the avatars are human forms, although how people use, think, and feel about their avatars is very similar to what I discovered at Palace.

What Can I Do Here?

Once you create your avatar and get the hang of moving about, you ask yourself “Now what do I do?” Second Life contains a lot of features, much more so than in Palace, so I could easily have spent a great deal of time reading about and experimenting with them. But that got boring after a while. I wanted to go places. But where?

That wasn’t as simple as I thought it might be. I found the maps confusing and unhelpful. The search engine offers a list of popular spots, but almost all of them were rated “mature” and involved sexual content of one type or another. Or they were places to party. People were dancing at Sanctuary Rock, which was fascinating to watch, and I found a variety of shops where people can buy avatar supplies, including quite a few shops devoted to sexual items, services, and avatar bodies. Sex always sells, in real or virtual life.

I tried to find people like me – professors, psychologists, mental health professionals. Some were listed in the directory, but I couldn’t find them. When I teleported to their location, a few other people were there, looking around, appearing disoriented like me, asking questions like, “What can I do here?” I went to Reuters, hoping I might meet some journalists, but that building too was mostly deserted. In Amsterdam some people were roaming the streets, chatting with a friend, or just standing there, surveying the streets while trying to figure out what to do next, just like me. It’s possible the users may not even have been “in” those motionless avatars, but rather letting their virtual bodies stand idly while they were doing something else on their computer. You never can tell whether a still avatar is sentient or not.

At one point I even tried flying on and on in one direction, through misty clouds and blue skies, feeling a tiny bit anxious about getting lost, but expecting I might run into something interesting… I didn’t. Just more sky and mist. After I while, I wasn’t even sure I was moving anymore. Dropping to the ground, I tried to place a “landmark,” not really knowing what that is, but figuring I might as well leave a marker indicating JohnSuler Yue had been here, as if I were exploring the moon…. It didn’t’ work… This was not a good way to explore SL.

In the half a dozen or so areas I visited, I chatted with people, those who were nice enough to talk for a bit with an obvious newbie. There was a vendor and jewelry designer who longed to buy his own shop. A smartly attired female who empathized with my newbie status and said that “friends” were the reason why she liked SL. A young, busty, and scantily dressed avatar who emphasized that “Everybody in SL wants more Lindens.” There were quite a few people speaking languages other than English. In French I told one person that I only speak French a little.

I also met people who design, construct, and manage their own environment. I mentioned that I am a cyberpsychologist who studies virtual worlds. At the Palace, the technical and company people who ran things rarely seemed interested in my work. These SL folks also seemed only mildly interested, but they are busy people. As one of them quickly excused himself from our conversation because he had “back code” to write, he told me that I should get permission from Linden Labs if I intended to do any professional research here. “There’s information about it in the support section of the web site,” he added before he walked into a wall, which made me smile, and then disappeared down a staircase.

As one of the old-timer cyberpsychologists who often has discussed and debated issues about online social science research, I was curious about what Linden Labs would have to say about people studying their world. As my avatar stood still, I called up my browser window and went to their website. The only information I found was a statement about the importance of adhering to ethical standards of online research, and a link to a Linden Lab document about doing research. The document wasn’t there, but I did eventually find a link they offered to the ethical standards of an outside professional organization.

What’s New Here?

Second Life is a fascinating, cutting edge virtual world with lots of features, places, activities, people, and subcultures to explore. Many people love it. As one emo-looking avatar said to me, “It’s addicting.”

During my explorations, I kept that comment in mind, while thinking back to how people at the Palace often said the same thing, which led to my very first cyberpsychology article that outlined the various reasons why people get addicted to these avatar worlds. In fact, while wandering around Second Life, I often had that feeling of déjà vu. Memories of people, events, and experiences from my days of the Palace starting coming back to me. As sophisticated and complex as Second Life is, as far forward as Linden Labs has pushed the envelop of visual virtual environments, the basic and essential elements of avatar worlds have not changed all that much.

With one very important exception. The economy and it’s linkage to real world money. That’s a big difference with very significant ramifications. The power of money, buying, and selling is another highly motivating factor that I could add to my list of reasons why people get “addicted” to online worlds. But as for me, economic issues are the reality of real world living that I would prefer to escape when joining a virtual community.

And so, as a cyberpsychologist, will I seriously study Second Life? Perhaps, although that would mean spending a lot of time exploring the various features and immersing myself deeper into the culture and subcultures. So many interesting things to do in cyberspace, so little time.

Setting aside my interests as a researcher, will I continue as a member of Second Life and give it a second chance just for the fun of it? Maybe. Despite all the fascinating features of this world, I have to agree with that one avatar about it being friends that really make the difference, and it takes time and effort to make new friends in a virtual community. Perhaps I might invite one of my own friends or colleagues to join me in SL. Or maybe I’ll happen to be logged on at the same time and so will have a chance to meet that dream expert who responded to the IM message I left him.

I also still have those free Linden dollars to spend.

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.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Where did all the aggression go?

In many online groups, it's not at all uncommon for people to get a little nasty with each other. Thanks to the online disinhibition effect, some people will argue, criticize, berate, and insult others without much provocation. If the conversation lasts long enough, including discussions where people initially try to be supportive and respectful, tempers get tested and flames begin. Even purely "intellectual" discussions often are peppered with oppostional comments and unwarranted disagreeableness.

That doesn't seem to be the case in flickr, the online photo-sharing community. At least from what I have observed so far. When people comment on each other's pictures, the feedback is almost always positive and supportive. Pithy and generic - like "Wow"... "Great shot!"... "Nice colors" - but always positive.

Why? There might be several reasons. Displaying photos can be quite revealing of oneself. People, especially those with artistic aspirations, are taking a chance by presenting their work. A "do unto others" philosophy may have developed in flickr as an expression of that vulnerability and need to protect oneself.

Flickrites also might be less interested in verbal communication compared to other online groups. It's all about the images. People may find it easier to offer a pithy positive comment, than to be critical and then perhaps drawn into a verbal debate. To get people to look at and respond to your images, you have to comment on other's photos and generate contacts. Many comments, many contacts. The most efficient way to do that is to visit as many photostreams as possible and be as friendly as possible.

Some of the more serious photographers are not exactly happy with this uniformly positive and seemingly superficial atmosphere. They want analysis, critique, and debate. They want honesty. Because I tend to offer more feedback on photos than the typical terse comments, I was invited to join the newly formed "Pessimists" group. Their members are asked to be supportive when responding to images, but to always offer constructive criticism. The underlying mission is to make Flickr a slightly less sugar-coated environment.

No doubt I 'm overlooking other such groups within flickr. For example, there is the deleteme group, which claims to be "cruel... not cool." Such groups might be the collecting ground for the community's negativity.

Freud claimed that humans are intrinsically aggressive. It's one of the two basic drives that make us tick. We can control or over-ride it, but it's got to go somewhere.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Taking Root in Flickr

Now that the busy fall semester had ended, I have some time to get back to this blog and other adventures in cyberspace. Over the weeks to come, I'll probably be writing some posts about Flickr, the very popular photography-sharing community that I've been exploring - and, more generally, about what it's like to join a new online community.

My initial reactions to joining Flickr were similar, in some respects, to those I've experienced when entering other groups. Of course there are those "how does this work?/what do I click on?" questions that come up whenever we try out new a new environment. Fortunately, Flickr is well designed with easy to understand and useful features. So that part was no sweat. It's also quite a comprehensive environment, including the ability to set up your own space along with message board, email, social network, and notification features that enable you to connect to others. The online communities that thrive nowadays seem to be the ones that offer this "all-in-one" package.

But then comes the more challenging task of trying to figure out where to go and what to do in an extremely large community with many thousands of members and millions of photographs. Will anyone be interested in communicating with me? Will anyone even notice that I'm here?

As is often the case, it's a good idea to create a home base that does a good job of presenting your identity, so you have some kind of stability in the community, a place where people can visit you. So I created my profile, started uploading pics to my photostream created some sets of photos... and waited to see what would happen.

I was actually surprised when quite quickly the "views" count on some of my images indicated that a few people were looking at them. No doubt some of my pics appeared briefly in the ever-changing stream of newly uploaded images that Flickr displays on everyone's home page. A few of my images must have caught the eye of a few people, they clicked on the thumbnail, and Suler had some visitors.

Within a week, someone actually posted a comment on one photo... then someone else selected a pic as one of their "favorites."

In learning theory, a "reinforcement" is anything that increases the frequency of a behavior that it follows. Clearly, for me, those rising view counts, comments, and favorites were a powerful reinforcement. I spent more time uploading photos, creating sets, and visiting the photostreams of those people who were visiting mine.

This is how people get hooked on Flickr. In fact, this is one important factor that determines how people get hooked on any online environment. Does it give us those little reinforcements that keep us coming back for more?

Just in case your wondering, my photo that so far has received the most number of views is "Bagatelle for the G5." I guess there are more than just a few computer geeks in Flickr.

Thursday, November 24, 2005


Sacred Twig
Originally uploaded by John Suler.

In my previous post I mentioned Flickr - an online photo sharing community where people communicate more with images than they do with words. One Flickr feature enables you to post images directly to your blog. So here goes.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Up for Air

It's been almost a month since my last post to this blog. Those of you who teach will understand when I say that a semester is like a hundred yard dash. Once the gun goes off, the sprint begins and there is no looking back until we reach the finish line.

Work in cyberspace has been part of that run - mostly email with colleagues and students, Blackboard communication with students, eQuest projects, and quick browsings of my professional listservs. Several interesting issues popped up that I wanted to write about here in this blog: the psychology of online slander and character assassination; the kinds of psychotherapy that can and cannot be done online; how students react to online environments for identity experimentation; the social dynamics of online photo sharing, as in Flickr.

So many interesting things to discuss. So little time. When you're schedule maxs out, what falls off your cyberspace radar?

I'll be back.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Blogs as therapy

A recent article at described how people use their blogs as a kind of cathartic therapy. It gave the example of people writing about medical problems, and forming a community with other bloggers who shared that problem.

When discussing with colleagues this idea of "blogging as therapy," a common reply was that this really is nothing new. For as long as people have been writing, they have used it as a form of cathartic self-expression. Personal diaries and journals are a good example. Psychologists and other mental health professionals also have long noted the value of "bibliotherapy" in which people specifically use writing exercises to address and resolve problems in their lives, or simply to enhance their personal growth.

But there's an important difference between blogs and bibliotherapeutic writing. Blog communities actually combine features of personal journaling and support groups. People write to express themselves and their problems, but they also read and react to others who are doing the same. The blog enables much more social interaction than a diary, which traditionally is a strictly private, self-reflective affair.

Given that these types of blogs are a blend between personal writing and social support, an interesting question arises concerning "perceived audience." Do bloggers consider who might be reading their work? Are they writing, both consciously and unconsciously, to someone in particular? The Washington Post article pointed to some examples of bloggers being unpleasantly surprised by who in fact found their way to reading their inner thoughts, almost as if in their own minds the bloggers had lost track of the distinction between a private and public space.

It would be interesting to study how people experience the creation of their blogs. Do they perceive themselves as writing for themselves, as writing for an audience, or as a combination of both? From a psychoanalytic perspective, therapeutic blogging might be conceptualized as a type of "transitional space" in which the person simultaneously experiences the blog as "my space" (private journaling) and "our space" (support group).