The Internet in a Psychological Context

The Internet, as a communications medium, came into existence and expanded rapidly. As a result, people were unsure how to approach it, and their behavior can seem strange. The abnormal behavior catches media attention: if you went by newspaper headlines alone, you'd imagine the Internet to be inhabited entirely by people with psychological disorders and questionable motives.

There is little research into social interactions on the Internet, and this book is an early attempt at taking a studied approach, borrowing heavily upon they psychology of human interaction in other environments.

The focus is not so much on the particular technologies (e-mail, chat rooms, bulletin boards, virtual communities, etc.) as the modes of behavior on the Internet in general.


The "internet" contains a variety of environment, each with their own particular caracteristics.

The World Wide Web (WWW) is a publishing system for information. It is a means by which most individuals research information, but some also choose to publish for the perusal of others.

Electronic Mail (e-mail) is a significant environment, in which individuals send messages to specific recipients.

Asynchronous Discussion Forums (bulletin boards) provide threaded discussion that take place over time: one posts a message and may wait a while on a reply. These can take the forms of bulletin boards, e-mail discussion lists, newsgroups, etc.

Synchronous discussion forums (chat rooms) allow individuals to interact in real-time.

The Multi-User Domain (MUD) is identified by the author as a separate environment. (EN: I see this as a synchronous forum with a few additional features - but perhaps there is some reason the author separates them?)

Interactive Voice and Video were in their infancy at the time the book was written, but the author suggest the addition of sight and sound may change the nature of communication should it become popular.

Regardless of the medium, the author defines a few common dimensions:

  1. Anonymity - The degree of anonymity can vary by medium (e-mail attaches an address, but many chat rooms allow you to choose a handle that may not be linked to your account)
  2. Limited governance - The provider of a communications medium can choose the level to which it is controlled and moderated. Many are wide-open.
  3. Deliberate participation - Unlike real-world environments, people online are seldom "accidentally" in a given place. They make a choice to go there, and to participate, and to leave.


Written language is the medium by which individuals communicate on the Internet. Much like spoken language, there are certain aspects that are incidental (accent or writing style), and others that are intentional or affected.

An importance concept is "register" - the way in which a person controls their communication when it is directed to a specific audience. One speaks differently to a child than to an adult, to a fried tor to a boss, etc., and this remains true on the Internet.

There is also a marked difference in communicating in real time (chat) versus communicating in delayed time (e-mail, etc.) in the degree to which a person is able to edit themselves, and the degree to which they use shorthand.

There is also a difference in the nature of conversation: the oratory style of a Web site or e-mail sent from one to many, a conversation between two people, and a conversation among several.

Internet communication is a learned behavior. A neophyte cannot immediately make sense of a chat-room where several conversations are happening in real time, people are using jargon and abbreviations, there are "stage directions," etc. Over time, one learns to interpret the chaos.


The author sets out two goals for this book:

  1. To show how this medium can influence the way people behave in surprising ways
  2. To suggest ways in which individuals can use this knowledge to improve the "psychological climate" of the Internet.

A few quotes at the end to underscore the notion that technology can drive social, even societal change.