John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Jan 00
It's all about integration
If there are any universally valid principles in psychology, one of them must be the importance of integration: the fitting together and balancing of the various elements of the psyche to make a complete, harmonious whole. A faulty or pathological psychic system is almost always described with terms that connote division and fragmentation, such as "repression," "dissociation," and "splitting." Health, on the other hand, is usually specified with terms that imply integration and union, such as "insight," "assimilation," and "self actualization." Many religious philosophies also emphasize the attainment of connectedness and unity as the major theme of spiritual development. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That greatness can only be realized when the parts are joined together.
So what does this have to do with the psychology of cyberspace? There are two basic ways the internet tends to create division in one's life and identity.
First, people tend to separate their online lives from their offline lives. You may have online companions, groups, and activities that are quite distinct from those you have in the face-to-face world. For some people, the two worlds are worlds apart.
Second, among the thousands of different groups and activities online, with each specializing in a particular topic or activity, people easily can join a handful of them. A movie group here, a parent group there. It's fairly easy to compartmentalize our various interests and activities. In this complex, modern society of ours, we juggle dozens of different tasks, hobbies, and social roles: mother, wife, daughter, professional, cook, reader, bicyclist, investor.
Cyberspace provides places for you to perch all of your identifications - places all separate from each other, each containing people who may know little or nothing about your other perches. How different than the societies of centuries past, when people lived in small towns and villages. Many of your neighbors knew about all your interests and activities. Your daily tasks, the people you engaged, the groups you belonged to, were all overlapped and connected.
Some splitting is normal
This split between online and offline living and the compartmentalizing of one's identifications are not necessarily bad things. Hanging out online can be a healthy means of setting aside the stresses of one's face-to-face day. Online groups with specialized interests offer you the opportunity to focus on that particular aspect of your identity, with information and support from people that may not be available elsewhere. Dissociation can be an efficient way to manage the complexities of one's lifestyle and identity, especially when social roles are not easily compatible with each other. The president of the corporation may need to keep his participation in the "I Dream of Jeannie" fan club separate from his business life. In more precarious situations, an aspect of one's identity is sensitive, vulnerable, or possibly harmful to oneself or others. It may be necessary to keep it guarded within a specific online or offline location until helpful conditions allow it to be emerge safely. I'll say more about this later.
Integration = Synergy
As a general rule, the integrating of online and offline living and of the various sectors of one's internet activities is a good idea. Why? Integration - like commerce - creates synergy. It leads to development and prosperity. Both sides of the trade are enriched by the exchange. If the goal of life is to know thyself, as Socrates suggested, then it must entail knowing how the various elements of thyself fit together to make that Big Self that is you. Reaching that goal also means understanding and taking down the barriers between the sectors of self. Barriers are erected out of the need to protect, out of fear. Those anxieties too are a component of one's identity. They need to be reclaimed, tamed. Maybe it would do that corporation president some good to bring his fondness for Jeannie into his office. Maybe bringing something of one's online lifestyle into the face-to-face world would make that in-person lifestyle less stressful. It's interesting to note that "internet addiction" - or, for that matter, any kind of addiction - entails an isolating and guarding of the compulsive activity against all other aspects of one's life. Overcoming the addiction means releasing and mastering the needs and anxieties that have been locked into the habit. It means reclaiming the isolated self back into the mainstream of one's identity.
So how does one achieve integration? Below I'll outline some possibilities. I'll focus on connecting one's online and offline living. But it's very easy to adapt these strategies to integrating the various compartments within one's online world, as well as within one's offline world.
1. Telling online companions about one's offline life.
Lurking, imaginative role playing, and anonymous exchanges with people online can be perfectly fine activities. But if a person wants to deepen and enrich his relationship with online companions, he might consider letting them know about his in-person life: work, family, friends, home, hobbies. Those companions will have a much better sense of who he is. They may even be able to give him some new insights into how his offline identity compares to how he presents himself online. Without even knowing it, he may have dissociated some aspect of his cyberspace self from his in-person self. Online companions can help him see that.
2. Telling offline companions about one's online life.
If a person lets family and friends know about her online activities, she may be allowing them to see parts of her identity that she otherwise did not fully express in-person. They can give her insightful feedback about her online lifestyle and companions. When communicating only with typed text in cyberspace, it's easy to misread, even distort, the personality and intentions of the people she meets. Offline friends and family - who know her well - can give her some perspective about those distortions.
3. Meeting online companions in-person.
As friendships and romances evolve on the internet, people eventually want to talk on the phone and meet in-person. That's usually a very natural, healthy progression. The relationship can deepen when people get to see and hear each other, when they get a chance to visit each others environment. They also get a chance to realize the misconceptions they may have developed online about each other. That, in turn, will help them understand themselves.
4. Meeting offline companions online.
If a person encourages family, friends, and colleagues to connect with him in cyberspace, he is opening a different channel of communication with them. Almost everyone does e-mail nowadays, but there's also chat, message boards, interacting with web sites, online games, even imaginative role playing. He may discover something new about his companion's personality and interests. And his companion may discover something new about him.
5. Bringing online behavior offline.
River, an online friend of mine, once described cyberspace living as "training wheels." On the internet a person may be experimenting with new ways to express herself. She may be developing new behaviors and aspects of her identity. If she introduces them into her f2f lifestyle and relationships, she may better understand those behaviors and why previously she was unable to develop them in the f2f world.
6. Bringing offline behavior online.
Translating an aspect of one's identity from one realm to another often strengthens it. You are testing it, refining it, in a new environment. So if it's beneficial to bring online behaviors offline, then it's also beneficial to bring offline behaviors online. Cyberspace gives a person the opportunity to try out his usual f2f behaviors and methods of self expression in new situations, with new people.
Cautions about Integration
As I suggested earlier, there is a caveat about this integration process. Some aspects of a person's identity may feel shameful to the person. They may be rejected by or hurtful to other people. If acted upon, they may even be illegal. In that complex universe of cyberspace, there are many places where people can go to give expression to these problematic aspects of their identity. Should they tell people about it? Should they express these things in-person? Should they carry into cyberspace a problematic behavior from their f2f life?
There is no simple answer to these questions. Under optimal conditions, translating troublesome issues from one realm to the other can be helpful, even therapeutic. A person who learns to accept his homosexuality in an online support group may benefit by coming out in the f2f world. But a pedophile who goes online to carry out his intentions creates only harm. Offline/online "integration" that results in a blind acting out of impulses that hurts other people is not healthy. In fact, it's not psychological integration at all. Integration involves self-understanding and personal growth, which involves working through - and not simply acting out - the problematic aspects of one's identity.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
The Psychology of Cyberspace Home Page