I recently read an article about New Emotions created by the Internet that struck a chord with me. The associated graphic shows the map of human emotion, and lists just a handful of new emotions created by the internet, but I think that this graph, while a good start, barely scratches the surface of the entirely new social space created by the internet. If anything, it seems to focus on the individual sitting at a computer, when that is the wrong light to take the internet at. Sure, you can passively surf through pages and do a minor amount of messaging, but the entirety of the internet gets really interesting when you understand it as a dynamic between two or more people existing across different mediums.
The internet has popularized many new, bizarre mediums to communicate across, and we as a species have adopted it with surprising enthusiasm. As a thought experiment, I began to visualize each website that humans use for massive communication as a crowded room, and how they would communicate via that specific medium. I started with the idea of a message board- a room full of people wearing cowls that obscured their face, and could walk up to an overhead projector and write whatever they wanted on a transparency and add it to the overhead projector. That simple message board, one of the earlier internet communication mediums, was what I grew up and it worked fairly well, and doesn’t seem like such a stretch of the imagination- if anything, it evokes visuals of Plato’s cave. However, when you visualize facebook, twitter, tumblr, instagram, 4chan, things get really bizarre. For example, I saw twitter as people distributing messages they had written on fortune cookie notes to specific people in a crowd, and slowly by showing off other people’s fortune cookie messages, people would become increasingly intertwined until it became impossible to visualize. Facebook takes it to a whole other level of complexity that I actually found myself likening to a game of The Sims.
Yet, for all these different social spaces, I think one of the most important things to look at is how this changes a social space between two people. Going back to basic communication technologies, I remember in high school and college having a number of really interesting experiences (before I became a bit of a digital hermit) that reshaped the real world social space. And while these are just a few anecdotes, the possible permutations of how the internet reshapes real relationships is staggering.
The first experience that impacted me strongly was in my Sophomore year of high school. One of my friends had a webpage with a guestbook. One of my closest friends and I had a spat on the guestbook over something I don’t remember, and then I had to go to class with him. I remember sitting, wondering what he would do, and yet we spoke rather civilly, not mentioning the argument. Then, back at our computers, we were back at it.
What’s interesting about that incident is that the entire experience of having a separate online persona was so new, so unfamiliar. Now, we are both digital natives, but back then, we were still just getting used to the internet, so in the real world, we didn’t have a real way to process the fact that we had just had a fight on the internet. So, we just ignored it until we were back at our computers. Later, once we both got better at understanding that this line of text being an asshole represented a real person, internet arguments became serious business that could legitimately mess things up.
Ahh, high school.
But what I really take away from that experience was there was a major disconnect in our understanding of internet personas and real world personas, so we both experienced some bewilderment (or perhaps didn’t have enough gumption to carry on the fight in the middle of English class). This emotion has since changed, as the real world and the internet are becoming more entrenched in people’s minds, and now Facebook drama spills over into English classes everywhere.
The next experience that really sticks out to me was much more recent, (as in about 5 years ago.) and represents a much more pertinent interpersonal experience, one that can still be experienced today, and concerns my girlfriend. Now, I’ve looked at this one rather extensively, as there were a number of other psychological factors occurring. I used to be very active online back then, as I worked a social work job and generally didn’t want to deal with real world people at home. Now, I work a tech job, and I find myself seeking out a lot more real world social interaction in my free time. However, I don’t know how much of that impacts the following situation.
I had just started dating my girlfriend, and while I liked her and all and we knew each other fairly well from being friends for several years prior, I was just getting used to the whole being in love with her thing. So, after a very passionate date, we went our separate ways- she was going to college in a town an hour’s drive away, and I often didn’t have enough gas money to get there as much as I’d like. So, we’d chat on gchat for hours each night, and I gradually began to grow this really strong attraction towards this screenname. Whenever I saw her online, I got a nice little endorphin rush at seeing my girlfriend, just a line of text in a window. So, this continued for a long time, and then I began to visit her more.
Suddenly, this person that had been a nonthreatening line of text was a real, breathing person. She’s very introverted in real life, so I was rather shocked to see her not really opening up as much as she would online, and then the whole fact that there was a physical, warm, soft body associated with this line of text added another layer of complexity. While it was nice, I often yearned for the text box version of her. In some ways, I loved that version more than the real version. The text version I could read back on what she had just said. The ‘I love you’ at the end of the conversation persisted as long as I had the window open. There were no awkward silences, I could just browse to another tab. (Ironically, these awkward silences between us are now filled with smartphone checking.)
Eventually, I got used to the fact that this person and this line of text were the same, and that was that, but the take away here is that we do behave very differently online, and this dissonance between real world personality and online personality is a very real thing. I imagine many people who go on their first date after meeting and chatting on a dating site experience the same thing.
So, these are just two examples of how the interpersonal dynamic between two individuals can be influenced by the internet. While there are obviously more, I think it’s frankly more important from the point of view of someone who studies the internet and human behavior to take into account the obvious and not so obvious ways that this dynamic is constantly changing (now with smart phones rising as well) and take that into account when studying the internet, especially in reference to things like education, UX and UI, and any other number of fields.
The issue there, I’ve found to my dismay, is that it’s like trying to hit a moving target. I did a cursory look at the state of internet psychology, and was relatively unimpressed. Perhaps I didn’t dig deep enough, but I found the academic world simply couldn’t keep up with documenting all of this. Just as they’re beginning to understand message boards, twitter happens. Just as they’re geeking out about how amazing twitter is, Smartphones explode. God only knows what Google Glass is going to do, if anything.
Anyway, I’m going to wrap this up. If anyone has any suggestions how to better tag this, I am really, really bad at this sort of thing.