The Social Net

Our friendships, conflicts and wellbeing on the web

Introduction to Internet Psychology

"what on earth has psychology got to do with the Internet?"

Some years ago an eminent professor from a leading university asked me about my work. "I research the influence of psychology on the Internet." I replied. His face became one of consternation and his mouth dropped open, at last he managed a hoarse whisper, "what on earth has psychology got to do with the Internet?"

Hopefully today most of us are pretty clear that the worlds of psychology and the Internet interact constantly. With this in mind, I am very happy to welcome you to the inaugural entry of the Internet and Psychology blog.

In these posts I will be exploring the impact of the Internet on our daily lives. This will include both the positive and the negative aspects of Internet use and ideas both to maximize the potential of the Internet for good and ways in which we can prevent it from taking over our time to the detriment of other important components in our lives. For this first post, I have chosen to focus on some of the powerful Internet characteristics through which the Internet can empower peoples' lives. I have to stress that this empowerment can be harnessed for both positive and negative ends.

I believe that the Internet has special characteristics which together create an exceptional environment for the user, and below I will briefly discuss what I consider to be the most important of these.

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Anonymity

Many websites allow users to maintain their anonymity. This may be done by assuming a pseudonym or using your initials. This characteristic frees people from many of the issues that constrict them in their day to day offline lives. In other words the anonymous persona on the Internet has no past history, he or she can choose to be whoever they wish.

Control of Physical Exposure

The Internet allows users a high degree of control as to how much of their physical appearance they reveal. Some websites do not ask for any kind of personal identification, but even on those that do, there is a tremendous amount of leeway as to how this is actually done. Thus, while some people may choose to represent themselves by a recent photo, others may, for example, choose a picture of their dog, themselves as baby or a likeness taken some ten years earlier, when they were fifteen kilos lighter. All these are ways of maintaining anonymity, so no one visiting the site will know if you are white or black, a child or an adult. For people who have some facial disfigurement or any kind of physical characteristic that they believe puts them at a social disadvantage, this freedom from their body image given to them by the Internet is often tremendously liberating and may well make them open to opportunities for social interaction that they would otherwise avoid.

High degree of Control over the Interaction

On the Internet many people experience far greater feelings of control than they do when communicating face to face. These feelings stem from the fact that individuals know that if they wish to leave during an interaction, they can easily "disappear" with no further consequences - something that would not happen in their offline encounters. Moreover the fact that on the Internet people do not have to respond immediately leads them to feel less pressure and more control. The Internet gives us the freedom to decide how and when we communicate our message. For those individuals who spend a lot of time shaping and reshaping their message until they are satisfied with the result, this offers feelings of safety and security which provide a very different experience from many face to face encounters.

Ease with which they can find similar others

Another way in which people feel empowered by the Internet is ease with which they can find similar others. This is significant because when we find people who are similar to us or have similar pursuits we feel that we belong to a group and this belonging is a basic human need. Thus for people who have a minority hobby or interest, it is a tremendous relief to find others who are excited about it, and on the internet locating such individuals is very straightforward.

Access

Today Internet access is almost ubiquitous. Since the inception of devices such as smartphones and tablets, digital access can accompany us throughout our day (and night-should we choose). This means that for many people their online friends, the group they belong to online and maybe even the grandchildren they are in touch with on another continent, may accompany them too. This connection may be particularly important for lonely and isolated people or for those who may be going through a crisis or a particularly difficult time and rely on the support they receive from an online forum.

Equality

On the Internet people feel a high degree of equality. This stems from the anonymity found there. On the Net, no one knows who I am and that means that not only am I not judged by my physique or my age, nor am I judged by my wealth and possessions or lack of them. Perhaps surprisingly, these feelings of liberty bought about by invisibility, have been shown to be important both for the haves and the have- nots. Research has shown that on the net, the wealthy and the physically attractive are likely to be released from familiar feelings that people are only interested in them because of their physical and material attributes and at last feel judged on their own merits, and that those in the contrary position feel similarly.

Fun

The experience of surfing the net is meant to be fun. Web designers are aware that to survive they have to give the surfer an enjoyable experience - People tend to give a site only a few seconds in which to prove itself and websites that fail to produce such an experience will wither. With this in mind web designers are constantly working on enhancing the user experience.

When we put all of this together, we can see that the Internet really does provide an exceptional setting. One in which we feel in control, protected and equal; one that that allows us to recreate ourselves and express ourselves freely wherever and whenever we choose, or equally to remain silent or leave a discussion at will. An environment in which we may find like-minded others with ease and thus build friendships and find support, create groups and community.

Yair Amichai-Hamburger, Ph.D., is the director of the Research Center for Internet Psychology. He has worked many years as an industrial consultant, advising many leading organizations.

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