Can you see a person in cyberspace - his facial expressions
and body language? Can you hear the changes in her voice? Whether
an environment in cyberspace involves visual and/or auditory
communication will greatly affect how people behave and the
relationships that develop among those people. Multimedia gaming
and social environments (such as the Palace),
audio-video conferencing, podcasting, and internet-phoning surely
are signs of the very sensory sophisticated environments to
come. However, the sensory experience of encountering others
in cyberspace - seeing, hearing, and COMBINING seeing and hearing
- is still limited. For the most part people communicate through
typed language. Even when audio-video technology becomes efficient
and easy to use, the quality of physical and tactile interactions
- for example, handshakes, pats on the back, dancing, hugs,
kisses, or just walking together. - will be very limited or
nonexistent, at least in the near future. The limited sensory
experiences of cyberspace has some significant disadvantages
- as well as some unique advantages - as compared to in-person
Despite the reduced sensory quality of text communication, it
should not be underestimated as a powerful form of self expression
and interpersonal relating. E-mail, chat, instant messaging,
SMS, and blogs continue to be the most common forms of social
interaction for reasons beyond their ease of use and low cost
compared to multimedia tools. Drawing on different cognitive
abilities than talking and listening, typing one's thoughts
and reading those of another is a unique way to present one's
identity, perceive the identity of one's online companion, and
establish a relationship. E-mail
relationships in particular have evolved into a very complex,
text-based form of communication - with chat
or IM relationships approaching that complexity.
The lack of face-to-face cues has a curious impact on how people
present their identity
in cyberspace. Communicating only with typed text, you have
the option of being yourself, expressing only parts of your
identity, assuming imaginative identities, or remaining completely
anonymous - in some cases, being almost invisible, as with the
"lurker." In many environments, you can give yourself any name
you wish. The multimedia worlds also offer the opportunity to
express yourself through the visual costumes known as "avatars."
Anonymity has a disinhibiting
effect that cuts two ways. Sometimes people use it to act
out some unpleasant need or emotion, often by abusing other
people. Or it allows them to be honest and open about some personal
issue that they could not discuss in a face-to-face encounter.
Sitting quietly and staring at the computer monitor can become
an altered state of consciousness. While doing e-mail or instant
messaging, some people experience a blending of their mind with
that of the other person. In the imaginary multimedia worlds
- where people might shape-shift, speak via ESP, walk through
walls, spontaneously generate objects out of thin air, or possess
all sorts of imaginary powers - the experience becomes surrealistic.
It mimics a state of consciousness that resembles dreams.
These altered and dream-like states of consciousness in cyberspace
may account for why it is so attractive for some people. It
might help explain some forms of computer
and cyberspace addiction.
In most cases, everyone on the internet has an equal opportunity
to voice him or herself. Everyone - regardless of status, wealth,
race, gender, etc. - starts off on a level playing field. Some
people call this the "net democracy." Although one's status
in the outside world ultimately will have some impact on one's
life in cyberspace, there is some truth to this net democracy
ideal. What determines your influence on others is your skill
in communicating (including writing skills), your persistence,
the quality of your ideas, and your technical know-how.
Geographical distance makes little difference in who can communicate
with whom. An engineer in Germany converses with a business
woman from California on a server in Australia. It's a small
world after all. The irrelevance of geography has important
implications for people with unique interests or needs. In their
outside life, they may not be able to find anyone near them
who shares that unique interest or need. But in cyberspace,
birds of a feather - even those with highly unusual feathers
- easily can flock together. For support groups devoted to helping
people with their problems, that can be a very beneficial feature
of cyberspace. For people with antisocial motivations, that's
a very negative feature of cyberspace.
communication" involves people sitting at their computer at
the same time (i.e., in "real time") communicating with each
other via the internet. Chat rooms and instant messaging are
good examples. On the other hand, e-mail and newsgroups involve
"asynchronous communication" that does not require people to
interact with each other in the moment. In both asynchronous
and synchronous communication (with the exception of video conferencing
and internet phoning), there is a stretching of time. During
chat and IM you have from several seconds to a minute or more
to reply to the other person - a significantly longer delay
than in face-to-face meetings. In e-mail, blogs, and newsgroups,
you have hours, days, or even weeks to respond. Cyberspace creates
a unique temporal space where the ongoing, interactive time
together stretches out. This provides a convenient "zone for
reflection." Compared to face-to-face encounters, you have significantly
more time to mull things over and compose a reply.
Some new internet users go through a period of adaptation to
this novel temporal experience. For example, they may expect
a reply to their e-mail immediately. Enthused about e-mail
relating, they assume (perhaps unconsciously) that their
partner's reply will approximate the rate of an in-person conversation.
Experienced e-mail users appreciate the advantages of time stretching,
and even come to understand that different e-mail users have
their own e-mail pace.
In other ways, cyberspace time is condensed. If you are a member
of an online community for several months, you may be considered
an "old-timer." Internet environments change rapidly because
it's a lot easier to write and rewrite software infrastructure
than it is to build with bricks, wood, and iron. Because it's
easy to move around cyberspace, the people we meet and the membership
of online groups also changes rapidly. Our subjective sense
of time is intimately linked to the rate of change in the world
in which we live. With the context of sights, sounds, and people
changing around you so quickly in cyberspace, the experience
of time seems to accelerate.
With relative ease a person can contact people from all walks
of life and communicate with hundreds, perhaps thousands of
people. While "multitasking" one can juggle many relationships
in a short period of time - or even AT the same time, as in
and instant messaging, without the other people necessarily
being aware of one's juggling act. By posting a message within
a blog, discussion board, or social network - which are read
by countless numbers of users - people can draw to themselves
others who match even their most esoteric interests. Using a
search engine, they can scan through millions of pages in order
to zoom their attention onto particular people and groups. The
internet will get more powerful as tools for searching, filtering,
and contacting specific people and groups become more effective.
But why do we choose only some people to connect with - and
not others? The ability to sift through so many online possibilities
for developing relationships amplifies an interesting interpersonal
phenomenon well-known to psychologists. A user will act on unconscious
motivations - as well as conscious preferences and choices -
in selecting friends, lovers, and enemies. This "transference"
guides us towards specific types of people who address our underlying
emotions and needs. Pressed by hidden expectations, wishes,
and fears, this unconscious filtering mechanism has at its disposal
an almost infinite candy store of online alternatives to choose
from. As one experienced online user once said to me, "Everywhere
I go in cyberspace, I keep running into the same kinds of people!"
Carrying that insight one step further, another said, "Everywhere
I go, I find.... ME!"
Most online activities, including e-mail correspondence and
chat sessions, can be recorded and saved to a computer file.
Unlike real world interactions, the user in cyberspace can keep
a permanent record of what was said, to whom, and when. Because
these interactions are purely document-based, we may even go
so far as to say that the relationship between people ARE the
documents, and that the relationship can be permanently recorded
in its entirety. These records may come in very handy to the
user. You can reexperience and reevaluate any portion of the
relationship you wish. You can use quoted text as feedback to
the partner. One sign of a flame war is the blossoming of the
infamous arrows >> that highlight the ammunition of quoted text.
Although it's tempting to think of the saved text as an objective
record of some piece of the relationship, it's fascinating to
see how different your emotional reactions to the same exact
record can be when you reread it at different times. Depending
on our state of mind, we invest the recorded words with all
sorts of meanings and intentions.
the ability to record has many advantages, there is a downside.
Because people know that everything they say and do in cyberspace
can be tracked and recorded, they may experence anxiety, mistrust,
and even paranoia about being online. Should I be careful about
what I say and where I go? Will it come back to haunt me? Who
might have access to these records?
We all expect our computers and the internet to interact with
us. That's the name of the game. Nevertheless, no matter how
complex and sophisticated our electronic tools become, there
will always be moments when they fail to live up to their end
of the bargain. There will be moments when software and hardware
don't work properly, when noise intrudes into the communication,
and connections break. There will be moments when our telecommunication
systems give us nothing, not even an error message. The frustration
and anger we experience in reaction to these failures says something
about our relationship to our machines and the internet - something
about our dependency on them, our need to control them. That
lack of response also opens the door for us to project all sorts
of worries and anxieties onto the machine that gives us no reply.
I call these the black
hole experiences of cyberspace. Fortunately, some computer-mediated
environments are more robust than others. Those differences
in reliability, predictability, and dependability bear important