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Psychology of cyberspace

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by John Suler, Ph.D.

With the advance of computers and online networks - especially the Internet - a new dimension of human experience is rapidly opening up. The term "cyberspace" has been mentioned so often that it may at this point seem trite and overly commercialized. However, the experience created by computers and computer networks can in many ways be understood as a psychological "space." When they power up their computers, launch a program, write e-mail, or log on to their online service, users often feel - consciously or subconsciously - that they are entering a "place" or "space" that is filled with a wide array of meanings and purposes. Many users who have telneted to a remote computer or explored World Wide Web will describe the experience as "traveling" or "going someplace." Spatial metaphors - such as "worlds," "domains," or "rooms" are common in articulating online activities.

On an even deeper psychological level, users often describe how their computer is an extension of their mind and personality - a "space" that reflects their tastes, attitudes, and interests. In psychoanalytic terms, computers and cyberspace may become a type of "transitional space" that is an extension of the individual's intrapsychic world. It may be experienced as an intermediate zone between self and other that is part self and part other. As they read on their screen the e-mail, newsgroup, or chat message written by an internet comrade, some people feel as if their mind is merged or blended with that of the other. In their April Fools prank, "Tidal Wave Communications" introduced a new computer accessory called "Orecchio" - a headset, using Telepathic Internet Data Exchange (TIDE) protocol, that enhances e-mail functionality by enabling you "to send your most important thoughts directly from their source: your mind."

"Imagine no more keyboards and achy hands. No more eye strain from the glare of the screen. Just visualize the message you want to send, followed by your send command, and poof! Your email is transmitted to our network for quick delivery to its destination." Truth comes out in jest.

When one experiences cyberspace as this extension of one's mind - as a transitional space between self and other - the door is thrown wide open for all sorts of fantasies and transference reactions to be projected into this space. Under ideal conditions, people use this as an opportunity to better understand themselves, as a path for exploring their identity as it engages the identity of other people. Under less than optimal conditions, people use this psychological space to simply vent or act out their fantasies and the frustrations, anxieties, and desires that fuel those fantasies.

As an internet traveller once told me, "Everywhere I go on the internet, I keep running into...... ME!"

The psychological qualities of cyberspace are determined by the hardware and software that constitute computers and the online world. An Op has the power to throw you off an IRC channel; lag can destroy conversation in a chat group; the reply-to in a listserv group might send your e-mail to the whole list or just to the sender of the message. All of these factors affect the psychological "feel" of the environment. All of them are determined by the nuts and bolts and program code that comprise the internet infrastructure. As hardware and software change, so will the psychological aspects of cyberspace. Of particular interest is the expansion of the experiential dimensions of cyberspace by technological advances that allow more visual and auditory communication. How will the ability to see and hear other people on the internet change cyberspace? Will people WANT to give up those spaces that lack face-to-face cues but are rich in imaginative ambiguity?
by John Suler, Ph.D.

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