The Psychology of the Internet

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Overview

This timely volume explores the psychological aspects of cyberspace, a virtual world in which people from around the globe are acting and interacting in many new, unusual, and occasionally alarming ways. Drawing on research in the social sciences, communications, business, and other fields, Patricia Wallace examines how the online environment can influence the way we behave, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Our own online behavior then becomes part of the Internet's psychological environment for others, creating opportunities for shaping the way this new territory for human interaction is unfolding. Since the Internet—and our experience within it—is still young, we have a rare window of opportunity to influence the course of its development. With a new preface that incorporates many of the changes online and in the field since the hardcover edition was published, the paperback edition of The Psychology of the Internet includes the latest coverage of e-commerce, workplace surveillance and datamining, all areas of recent intense public concern. Patricia M. Wallace is Executive Director of the Center for Knowledge and Information Management at the Robert H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. She is author of an interactive psychology CD-ROM called PRISM and of the textbook Introduction to Psychology, Fourth Edition (with Jeffrey Goldstein). Dr. Wallace is also the principal investigator on grants from the Annenberg Projects/Corporation for Public Broadcasting dealing with language learning through CD-ROMs and the Internet.

This timely volume explores the psychological aspects of cyberspace, a virtual world in which people from around the globe are acting and interacting in many new, unusual, and occasionally alarming ways. Drawing on research in the social sciences, communications, business, and other fields, the book examines how the online environment can influence the way we behave, sometimes for the better, sometimes not

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Patricia Wallace's survey of psychological issues related to the use of the Internet is simply the best overall book about the topic. Detailed, yet highly accessible, it is written so that anyone with an interest in the topic (and who wouldn't be?), can find some useful and helpful fact or story in this book's pages." Edward J. Valauskas

"Wallace has written an ambitious book on the psychological dynamics of the Internet in all its forms—e-mail, chat rooms, the web etc. Recommended for larger public libraries..." Library Journal

"Wallace has written an ambitious book on the psychological dynamics of the Internet in all its forms—e-mail, chat rooms, the web etc. Recommended for larger public libraries..." Library Journal

"The writing style is scholarly but not stiff. It is rigorous but rigor mortis hasnot set in. The reader is enlightened by anecdotes... The text is further enlivened by jokes... This book is a substantial scholarly contribution to our understanding of the experience and behaviour of the person on the Internet." W. Lambert Gardiner

"This book is critical reading for anyone interested in what the Internet really signifies for people. If you've already read what some other authors have penned about the Internet and the new era in civilization it represents, this book may serve to reeducate you." The Bloomsbury Review

"Is online pornography turning people into sex maniacs? Do men and women behave differently on the Web? Is the Internet addictive? If answers are available, they're here." Psychology Today

"This book is critical reading for anyone interested in what the Internet really signifies for people. If you've already read what some other authors have penned about the Internet and the new era in civilization it represents, this book may serve to reeducate you." The Bloomsbury Review

"Patricia Wallace's new book is a timely and thoughtful attempt to provide some answers. To call it an attempt is no insult...it is premature to draw firm conclusions on this subject." The Amarillo, Texas News-Globe

"This title is one of the very few so far to approach the Internet from a more respectful angle, through the focus and interpretation of an academic perspective. Yet this is no typically dull academic result, but a fascinating and insightful examination of what is emerging from the growth of the electronic network....From compulsive overuse to role playing and electronic brainstorming, this book can help Internet users—individuals and businesses—get a better grasp on what is going on, what is possible, and what may happen in the future." The American Forecaster Newsletter, September 1999

"well written...an important book for individual web surfers, but should be particularly enlightening to those who manage electronic work groups, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and other online facilities where many users gather — and squabble." Puget Sound Computer User

Library Journal
New-media expert and Director of Information Management at the University of Maryland, Wallace has written an ambitious book on the psychological dynamics of the Internet in all its forms--e-mail, chat rooms, the web, etc. With chapters devoted to a variety of Internet issues, this book perhaps bites off a bit more than it can chew. While it is organized in broad, textbook fashion, few of the 12 chapters do their topics justice; Internet pornography, for instance, is given only about 13 pages. The discussion of several factors, such as impression formation and aggression, are thought-provoking and develop some interesting ideas, but much of Wallace's evidence is anecdotal and reveals the relative lack of experimental rigor in this emerging area of human experience. This very newness partly explains the absence of substantial scientific data on the Internet in popular culture while also making Wallace's one of the few books on the subject; perhaps we should wait for better efforts on both counts. Recommended for larger public libraries only.--David E. Valencia, King Cty. Lib. Sys., Federal Way, WA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521632942
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/1999
  • Pages: 264
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Meet the Author

Patricia Wallace is Senior Director of Information Services and Instructional Technologies in the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. She is author of an interactive psychology CD-Rom called Prism and of the textbook, Introduction to Psychjology, Fourth Edition
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Read an Excerpt

Your Online Persona

The Psychology of Impression Formation

Consultants eager to help us create the right impression abound, whether the goal is to impress a personnel officer, get elected to public office, make a sale over the telephone, or get a date. The tips they offer might include "Show confidence with a strong handshake" for a job interview, or "Show interest with good eye contact" for the potential dating partner. The verbal and nonverbal nuances associated with our real-life personas - appropriate for each individual on different occasions with different audiences - have been explored in great depth in popular magazine articles, and also in psychological research.

Most of us enter cyberspace, however, giving little thought to the online persona - how we come across to the people with whom we interact online. Many times those people are already known to us because they are friends, family members, or business associates, and they will interpret whatever we project through email, discussion groups, or personal Web pages within the context of the familiar real-life personas. If we sound harsh or abrupt in an email, they may temper any conclusions based on what they already know about us. Increasingly, however, the online persona is playing a larger role in first impressions as people rely on email, Web sites, and discussion forums more for the first contact, and the phone call, letter, or face-to-face meetings less. For some Internet relationships, communication starts on the net and later develops in other environments. For others, the entire relationship never strays away from the net, not even with a phone call, so the online persona is the whole story.

I recall receiving an email many years ago from a distant colleague I had never met in person that highlighted how clumsy we can be at constructing an online persona. It was 13 screen pages long and closed with one of those automated signatures containing the sender's name, a string of letters announcing his many degrees and certifications, a list of academic affiliations, and a lofty quotation surrounded by asterisks. I was tempted to click delete immediately, but then I thought, he is struggling with his online persona, just as we all are, and without the aid of the image consultants. I don't know how to address a stranger online, how to make the impression I want to make, and I might be making similar blunders. I printed it out and read his missive.

Warm and Cold Impressions

First impressions are notoriously susceptible to misperception. Soon after World War II, Solomon Asch did a simple but provocative study on first impressions and found that people tend to leap to conclusions with blinding speed and few cues to guide them .9 He first described a man as "intelligent, skillful, industrious, warm, determined, practical, and cautious." The people who heard this brief description had no trouble painting in the rest of the personality. They assumed he was also honest, good-matured, wise, popular, sociable, and imaginative - an all-around good fellow. In retrospect, I could imagine a friendly cat burglar with the same traits that Asch listed, but the subjects apparently could not.

Asch wondered how small changes in the list of traits might affect the impression the man was making, so in variations of the same experiment he read the list again to other groups, substituting cold, polite, or blunt for the single word warn?. Neither polite nor blunt changed the impression very much, but when the man turned cold, he was transformed into a very unlikable fellow. He became an unpopular, disagreeable, cheapskate. The change in his psychological temperature was the step in the recipe that turned Dr. Jeckyll into Mr. Hyde.

Warm and cold say a great deal about our dispositions and influence how others will react to us in social settings. They are heavily weighted central traits when people are forming a first impression. You may be considered brilliant and industrious, but these will pale next to your warmth or coldness.

The Chilly Internet

The cues people use to form some impression of your warmth are mainly nonverbal. Your facial expressions can be a giveaway: a scowl is all your observers need to take your measure. Your vocal patterns, body posture, gestures, and eye contact will also tip the scales toward one end of the warm/cold continuum. Folding your arms and looking away will lead to a cold impression, while moving a little closer when your partner speaks will make you seem warmer. Research on nonverbal communication and its role in impression formation is very extensive, and there is no question that your words - what you actually say - take a back seat to other cues when observers are drawing conclusions about warmth and coldness.

In many corners of the Internet, your typed words take center stage and observers have little more than ASCII characters to take your temperature. Much of the early research on socioemotional expression online, the kind that leads to impressions of a person's warmth or coldness, showed that we all seem cooler, more task-oriented, and more irascible than we might in person. In the 1970s, Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff conducted one of the first studies to compare the way people express themselves in computer-mediated and face-to-face meetings, and their results did not bode well for this youthful medium. t° They analyzed utterances in the two settings and found that the face-to-face groups expressed more agreement with one another. The simple "uh-huhs" that a person uses to show understanding and agreement with the speaker were far less common in the online meeting. This isn't too surprising - it would seem odd to type an utterance like that, but perfectly natural to say it. What was more surprising was that the computer-mediated groups made more remarks to express disagreement and fewer remarks that might relieve a tense situation. It sounds like they were getting on each others' nerves and acting in ways that made it worse rather than better. Those differences would easily account for the chilly impressions.

Many people have at least a passing acquaintance with the Myers Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) personality test. Rodney Fuller, a researcher at Bellcore who investigates human-computer interfaces, used a similar but shorter test derived from the MBTI11 to learn more about online impression formation, and found that mistakes about warmth and coldness were common. He asked people to identify someone they had never met in person, but with whom they communicated on the Internet, to take this brief test -but not with their own answers. He told them to put themselves into the shoes of their email partner and answer the questions as they thought the other person might. The colleagues, or targets, also completed the test, but they answered for themselves.12 As a control, people who knew one another face-to-face also completed the test, with one member of each pair playing the role of the other.

How well could the role players guess how their colleagues would answer the questions? The ones who had the advantage of face-to-face contact did reasonably well, but the email-only partners showed some intriguing misperceptions. They thought their partners preferred the logical and analytical "thinking" approach far more than they actually did, and they underestimated the possibility that many of them would prefer a more people-oriented "feeling" approach. The targets' need for structure and order, at the expense of spontaneity, was also overestimated by the role players who only knew them through the wires.

Together, these two studies show that what we type is not quite what we would say in person, and others react to this subtle alteration in our behavior. We don't just appear a little cooler, testier, and disagreeable because of the limitations of the medium. Online, we appear to be less inclined to perform those little civilities common to social interactions. Predictably, people react to our cooler, more task-oriented impression and respond in kind. Unless we realize what is happening, an escalating cycle begins. The online group members could have typed simple phrases to express more agreement and to release tension if they had realized the importance of such utterances to the impression they were making and to the group's functioning. They could have softened their typed verbal disagreements, with "Oh, not sure I quite agree with that," as they might have done in person. Though their emotional intelligence might have been high in real life, it was less acute online.

In the 1970s when this technology was very new, we were struggling just to get our point across and get something done. Over the years, though, our lingering doubts about the harsh, cold-fish impression we seemed to be making online have led to some imaginative experiments. Intuitively, people began to appreciate the need to make adjustments in the way they conveyed feeling.

The Socioemotional Thaw

The drive to get more socioemotional mileage out of the keyboard so we can create a human impression online started gathering momentum even in the 1970s. As people began using email and online discussion forums more regularly, they acquired more skill at expressing themselves. About a decade after Hiltz and Turoff finished their study, Ronald Rice and Gail Love looked at socioemotional content in a sample of postings on one of CompuServe's nationwide bulletin boards, using the same category scheme.13 They found that almost 30% of the messages fell into the socioemotional category, with a surprising 18% in the "shows solidarity" group. People were getting over the early struggles with the new interface and trying to do more than just "get the job done." We adaptable humans are still learning how to thaw the chilly Internet, using whatever tools we can find. Few of us really want to be thought cold, and for good reason, as Asch's studies demonstrated.

Out of this vacuum came the creation of emoticons - those playful combinations of punctuation marks designed to show some facial expression - to add warmth to online communication. In an adolescent way, lying on our sides, we can smile :-), frown :-(, wink;), and stick our tongues out :P.14 In Project H, for example, in which researchers are trying to develop a codebook to analyze material from newsgroups and other online discussion forums, 13.4% of a sample of 3,000 posts contained at least one of these graphic accents to enhance the socioemotional content of the message.15

Linguistic "softeners" atypical of memos or written letters also began appearing online. These are the little expressions we use to add some hesitation or uncertainty to the way we present our views so we will not seem too abrupt and dogmatic. Vocally, we can lift the pitch at the end of a sentence so even a disagreement will sound more like a question. The familiar "y'know" and "like" make any utterance less decisive and bold. Coming from a teenage girl, the remark "Y'know, well, I don't really like like him," is orders of magnitude more complex and subtle compared to its unsoftened version, "I don't like him." Online, abbreviations such as IMHO (in my humble opinion), BTW (by the way), and FWIW (for what it's worth) became part of the lexicon, widely used to ease the brusqueness of a typed message.

Outside of the email world, some environments on the Internet contain even more explicit tools to add socioemotional expressiveness to the online persona, tools that are especially valuable in the socially oriented locales. The synchronous online chats and MUDs offer at least one command people can use to act or emote rather than just speak, and the text that appears on the screen can be clearly distinguished from a phrase meant to be spoken. On a MUD, for example, the players use different commands to create an interaction with speaking, shouting, and acting:

Silas says "I never get any respect."
*Silas lowers his head and stares at the floor sadly.
MythMaster shouts "Don't be such a baby!"
*Silas grins at Myth.

In some of the graphical metaworlds where participants appear as avatars, you can click on "happy" to make your graphical persona do an upbeat be-bop dance, or "angry" to make the avatar flail its arms and wave its fists. Some worlds let you choose a sound, such as clapping or a rousing chorus of "Amen," to send over the wires to everyone in the same virtual room. Though still primitive and blunt, these technological tools are the result of the ineluctable drive to thaw the Internet's icy landscape with nonverbal cues, so we can express ourselves in warmer, more socioemotional ways.

Impression Formation Shortcuts

Our social thermometers give us a quick take on a stranger's warmth or coldness, and we only need a bit more information to form that first impression. Barraged by sensory information and rushed for time, we take shortcuts and rely on just a few cues. Once we have those, we think we have that person nailed and can move onto other matters. Social psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor coined the term cognitive miser to describe our interest in conserving energy and reducing cognitive load.lb It would be too time-consuming to collect comprehensive information ...
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Table of Contents

1. The internet in a psychological context; 2. Your online persona: the psychology of impression formation; 3. Online masks and masquerades; 4. Group dynamics in cyberspace; 5. Group conflict and cooperation; 6. Flaming and fighting: the psychology of aggression on the net; 7. Liking and loving on the net: the psychology on interpersonal attraction; 8. Psychological aspects of internet pornography; 9. The internet as time sink; 10. Altruism on the net: the psychology of helping; 11. Gender issues on the net; 12. Nurturing life on the internet.

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