Real benefits in a virtual world
Today, the estimated billion-plus people who use the internet do so primarily as a way to form and maintain relationships. Naturally, this discovery has instigated a bout of sociological hand-wringing. Initially, the prognosis was bad. A 1998 HomeNet study concluded that we could expect the emergence of virtual societies to cause reduced family communication, shrinking social circles, a multiplication of loneliness and depression and real-world social instability.
Happily, research has since unearthed distinct advantages to virtual societies. To the initiated this is not entirely surprising, by the way. Before the second world war, research proved conclusively that stay-at-home mothers produced better-adapted children. Post-war studies, conveniently followed social, economic and political changes, and produced fresh evidence showing that working outside the home benefited mothers and children.
The current psycho-sociological thinking about the internet, then, reflects the times as much as anything else. In particular, researchers claim that virtual societies provide psychological benefits that are difficult or impossible to source in any individual's limited real-world social circles.
People join virtual groups for the same reasons they join real-world ones: to attain a goal and, as a byproduct of that, to enjoy a sense of social validation. The initial goal may simply be to relieve loneliness or feel supported at a time of loss or illness. Others may seek reinforcement for strong opinions, attitudes or political or religious beliefs. In all cases, the internet offers an infinitely larger pool of people than an individual's real-world social circle. Active participants in such groups invariably rate them very highly.
This is especially important for people with hidden taboo elements of identity, such as stigmatised homosexuality. Such individuals tend to identify very strongly with internet groups devoted to their stigmatised self-aspect. But in this respect, internet groups are not alternatives to the real world - more a new form of support. The anonymity of the internet helps like-minded people make contact without fear of ostracism.
After that, participation in the group and identification with its members fosters greater self-acceptance and 'normalises' the hidden aspect of a person's identity. This experience eventually encourages some form of 'coming out' behaviour - some researchers suggest up to 40 per cent as a direct result of internet support and reinforcement.
The internet also helps shy people who have more difficulty forming social bonds and are less liked and accepted by others. Without the situational pressures of immediate face-to-face interaction and in the absence of non-verbal signs of their anxiety, they tend to behave and are perceived as just like everyone else. They begin to feel more comfortable, likeable and outgoing - both on and offline.
One of the most discussed phenomena present in virtual communities is the undesirable behaviour that flows from 'deindividuation'. This emerges when a person is deeply submerged in a group and can result in a reduced sense of responsibility, in impulsiveness and in disinhibited behaviour, such as highly hostile and offensive exchanges. Depending on participants, however, it can also ratchet up understanding, producing heightened positive feelings.
Physical appearance plays a major role in determining how people will initially react to one another and if a relationship will develop. In virtual societies, weight is redistributed towards other features, such as like-mindedness, values and interests, and even conversational style - all known powerful determinants of friendship and attraction. The internet, thus, fosters attachments that would not even have had a chance to blossom in the face-to-face world.
Together, anonymity and lack of physical cues broadens the scope for unbiased understanding and attachment, and increasing the supportive power of group identification.
The internet is on its way to becoming one of our most important social venues. It may be as close as we can ever get to a truly global meeting place - a location where an increasing range of people feel they can come to satisfy basic social and psychological needs. Given this role - and emerging issues of moral, legal and economic control of virtual communities - it is fortunate that psychologists are no longer leaving its assessment to technological curmudgeons and catastrophists.
Jean Nicol is a psychologist specialising in issues of cultural identity and change in an era of globalisation