John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated March 00 (v1.0)
An internet software company asked me to consult on a marketing project. They wanted to lock three volunteers into separate hotel rooms for one month, giving them nothing but a computer, internet access, and - after the volunteers emerged from their ordeal - a very hefty sum of money. The Today morning program had already carried out a publicity stunt in which several people were sequestered into hotel rooms for one week with only internet access as a way to communicate with the outside world. And then, of course, there's DotComGuy (http://dotcomguy.com/) who has vowed to spend a year in his cybercave home. The hypothesis behind these cyberspace "immersion" projects is whether the internet alone is enough to sustain us. In particular, can DotComGuy make a living in cyberspace while nourishing himself mentally? Can the Today Show people purchase the products they need to survive?
The software company was interested in a more comprehensive and dramatic hypothesis. The Today people and DotComGuy were not truly immersed in cyberspace while being fully isolated from the f2f world. One of the Today women had her sister and pug to keep her company. Another threw a party for friends in her hotel room. DotComGuy has - perhaps among other visitors - a fitness expert come in once a week to help him stay in shape. What if these people also were isolated SOCIALLY from the f2f world? Surely, we can buy any products we need via the internet. There are plenty of reading material and games to entertain our minds. But can we survive only on cyber-relationships?
The software company decided not to go ahead with their project - probably because they felt the Today Show stunt and DotComGuy had taken too much steam out the novelty factor. Nevertheless, their hypothesis was an interesting one, and one that indeed has not yet been tested. What would happen if people were fully immersed in cyberspace while fully isolated from the in-person world? During my consultation on this short-lived project, I did formulate a research plan to answer this question. While survey or experimental research involving the testing of large groups of people is one good possibility, my formulations instead focused on intensive case studies.
The Primary Research Question: Human Needs
The most comprehensive hypothesis is how living exclusively in cyberspace addresses human needs. Not just mental stimulation, or the ability to earn a living, or to buy necessary products, or even social engagement. The WHOLE range of human needs. It's very possible that people could find satisfaction in one area but not others. A thorough research project would assess the impact of immersion and isolation on at least the following dimensions:
- physical needs (food, clothing, physical comfort)
- mental and intellectual stimulation
- friendships and a sense of belonging
- self-esteem (achievement and mastery)
- love and romance
Secondary Research Questions: Privacy (and Fame)
In order to carry out the study, it would be necessary to extensively record the subjects' thoughts, feelings, and behavior. They'd lose much of their privacy. That factor easily could become a complicating factor in the interpretation of the results. For example, if people became anxious, it might be the result of a lack of privacy rather than just cyberspace immersion and f2f isolation. On the other hand, part of living in cyberspace is the fact that all of one's words and actions can be recorded and potentially made public. The immersion research might be greatly amplifying an intrinsic feature of cyberspace life.
If the research was carried out as a commercial publicity campaign - as the software company intended - then the people would also become micro-celebrities. In the age of JenniCam, The Truman Show, and MTV's Real World, technology gives ordinary people the opportunity to willingly (or unwillingly) become celebrities. What motivates a person to attain media fame and what are the psychological consequences? In a research study not linked to a media stunt, this complicating factor could be eliminated.
The Ideal Subjects and Screening Criteria
Even when given a large sum of money, as the software company intended, only certain kinds of people would volunteer for the study. Comparing people who flatly refuse to participate to those who are willing could clarify the social and personality factors that fuel the self-selection process. Also, recruiting subjects who differ on dimensions that might influence how they experience the immersion would give the researcher a chance to study the effect of those dimensions:- age and genderThe person's computer skills and personality style are especially important variables. Computer and internet novices will probably find it quite difficult surviving in cyberspace immersion. They'd have to climb that learning curve very quickly, or become very frustrated trying. People who are introverted - such as those with schizoid personalities - may have a much easier time dealing with isolation from the f2f world. Because they prefer solitary activities and often live inside their heads, the information resources, games, and relatively anonymous relationships available online might be all they need. Being able to describe one's thoughts and feelings, either verbally or in writing, is necessary for gathering data for the research, but it's also a complicating factor. Whereas people who can describe their experience are "good" (informative) subjects, it's also important to understand how non-introspective or alexothymic people react to the immersion and isolation.
- ethnic/racial background
- marital status with/without children
- educational level
- level of computer skills
- level of activity in real world hobbies, sports, etc.
- level of social intimacy (friends, family)
- level of extroversion/introversion
- level of religious belief and activity
- level of writing, typing, and oral skills
- ability level in describing thoughts and feelings
If we could select only ONE person for the study, we would look for a person who fell in the average range for most of the above dimensions - an "everyman" (or woman) that most computer users could relate to:- thirtysomething
- married or in a stable relationship (no children but wants children)
- college graduate
- down-to-earth, non-intellectual/non-high-tech occupation
- average computer skills, is comfortable using the web and e-mail
- involved in some real world activities (e.g., sports)
- has good friends and stable family relationships
- able to verbalize thoughts and feelings
- at least average writing skills
- religious (but not extremely so)
The Immersion/Isolation Environment
The design features of the subject's apartment would revolve around the variables of minimizing contact with the f2f world while maximizing cyberspace immersion and the ability to record the subject's activities. In the most extreme form of isolation, windows would be covered and deliveries placed in a foyer to prevent contact with the delivery person. There would be no phone, radio, or TV - only a computer and standard apartment accommodations (bed, refrigerator, stove, bathroom, basic furniture). Video cameras and possibly one-way mirrors would be positioned so that the subject could be observed at all times, with the exception of bathroom privacy. It would be good to include telecommuters or other online workers in the study, but expecting all subjects to survive financially via the internet would be unrealistic. An expense account must be provided for them. However, this "free" money would inject an artificial element into their experience - an element that would alleviate much of the challenge and stress of having to survive completely online. Large financial rewards for participating in the study also would complicate the interpretation of how subjects react to the immersion. Some people will put up with almost anything to get a large cash reward. Others won't. Compensation should probably be roughly equivalent to their real world income for that period of time.
The hardware and software given to the subjects are their survival tools. The logical choices would be a standard model computer compatible with the subject's preferred platform, standard internet applications and software (web browser, e-mail, word-processing), and a fast, always-on internet connect (e.g., DSL). The subjects would be told that they can purchase via the net any other software or hardware they wished, within their expense account.
In order to fully test how well cyberspace addresses human needs, the subjects must be permitted to install internet telephoning and video conferencing equipment. It would be tempting to see how well people fare if limited to only typed-text communication - which currently constitutes a large majority of activity on the net - but that would not be an accurate test of the hypothesis. Cyberspace does offer visual and auditory contact with people. In fact, such communication will be an important feature of the future internet. If we disallow the use of audio/video conferencing, then we are only examining the subjects' reactions to a limited immersion into cyberspace - an immersion that only allows text-based relationships. One important feature of the study could be an analysis of how and why some people seek out visual and auditory communication, while others do not. It's also possible to manipulate that variable - allowing some subjects to use audio/video equipment, but not other people. Giving subjects that audio/video capability from the start does offer the extra advantage of interviewing them with those tools via the cyberspace channel, rather than introducing extraneous channels (e.g., video recordings via a one-way mirror and telecom).
We should recognize the fact that no matter how complete we attempt to make the immersion, it by necessity can only be partial. People have physical bodies. Even though restricted to an apartment, they are still living within a physical space filled with physical sensations. They may hear sounds or voices outside the apartment. They may have a chance encounter with a delivery man or research assistant. The immersion is a see-through, fragile bubble that can pop at any moment. Until we figure out how to immerse our minds completely into the machine - which isn't likely - we will never be able to examine how humans react to "complete" cyberspace immersion.
How long should the subjects be immersed in cyberspace? A week is probably not long enough. A month or more would be a better test of the hypothesis. This is a variable that could be manipulated. No doubt, the longer a subject spends immersed and isolated, the more taxing the experience will be and the more likely we will see variation in how well those seven basic needs are being satisfied.
As an intensive case study, the project would involve gathering as much data as possible without overwhelming the subject. Both objective and subjective information are critical at all phases - before, during, and after immersion. Here are some possibilities:
- pre-immersion face-to-face interviews and psychological testing to establish a baseline
- video recording of the subject's behavior in the immersion environment
- a continuous record of all online activity (web sites visited, e-mails sent and received, messages posted, purchases made, amount of time spent in each environment, etc.)
- daily checklists, journal entries, and short video interviews to assess mood and thought patterns
- random sampling of thoughts and feelings in the subject's stream of consciousness (e.g., a timer beeps and the subject records what he/she was thinking and feeling at that moment)
- a record of dreams to assess the subject's deeper, unconscious reactions to the immersion
- ongoing e-mail contact with a supervising research psychologist
- an e-mail discussion group consisting of the subjects and the research psychologist (the subjects discussing their experiences with each other may draw out insights that might not otherwise surface individually)
- interviews with the subject's family and friends before, during, and after the immersion to determine how they see the subject reacting to the immersion
- a post-immersion face-to-face interview and psychological testing
- follow-up interviews and testing as the subject reenters the f2f world
It would be interesting to select a matched control subject or "double" for each subject participating in the study - someone who is similar to the immersed subject on the selection criteria, but lives out his or her normal lifestyle without being immersed in cyberspace. The activities and state of mind of the isolated subject then can be compared against the double at random points during the immersion (e.g., "On Friday night, Joe went to dinner and a movie with his wife, while Dick searched the web for information about video conferencing software").
What Would the Results Show?
The data would be analyzed and reported according to the degree to which cyberspace satisfies each of the 7 basic human needs. Objective information as well as the subject's own words are both important. Sometimes they will validate each other. It's also very possible that objective and subjective results will differ or contradict each other, thereby revealing different dimensions of the immersion/isolation experience.
What might those results show?.... Who knows! DotComGuy and the Today Show people already have demonstrated that you can satisfy basic physical needs for food and clothing by purchasing products on the web. There seems to be plenty of material for mental and intellectual stimulation, and probably plenty of opportunities for creativity and achievement to build your self-esteem - assuming your particular interests and skills can be expressed with a computer. Surely people will differ in what needs feel satisfied. Some internet users claim that friendships, romance, sexuality, and even spirituality are as rich and valid in cyberspace as they are in the f2f world. Are they onto something important? Have they discovered a new path for humans to transcend the limitations and hassles of the physical world and the physical body? Or are they deceiving themselves?
If there's one conclusion of modern health science, it's that the mind and body are intimately intertwined, with each influencing the other in complex ways that we are only just beginning to understand. Sitting almost motionless at a computer, our eyes fixed to a screen, our fingers tapping at a keyboard, can we free our minds from the physical body, reaching across space and time to the minds of others, expanding it outward into a universal human Mind? Or, attached to a mostly dormant body, will our cyberminds wander off into a dangerous territory of unrestrained illusion? Perhaps the many millennia of evolution of the mind-body human have reached a point where we can progress beyond the physiological side of that integrated duality. Or maybe we are slapping Mother Nature in the face. If we try to leap out of those millions of years of evolution, maybe we are leaping right into disaster.
These are complex scientific, philosophical, and religious questions. At the moment, we have no answers. Good solutions usually show themselves as a compromise, a Middle Way. In the future, we won't have to choose between cyberspace and the f2f world. We'll choose between different ways of combining the two. In the meanwhile, if we're going to entertain any hypothetical but enlightening ultimatum, consider this one: If you had to choose between spending the rest of your life only in cyberspace, or in the f2f world, which would you pick?
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
The Final Showdown Between In-Person and Cyberspace Relationships
(Can I Hold You in Cyberspace?)
Why is This Thing Eating My Life?
(Computer and Cyberspace Addiction at the "Palace")
Bringing Online and Offline Living Together: The Integration Principle
Intensive Case Studies in Cyberspace and the Evolution of Digital Life Forms
The Two Paths of Virtual Reality
Cyberspace as a Psychological Space
To Get What You Need: Healthy and Pathological Internet Use