Ana Viseu on Tue, 22 Feb 2000 01:25:08 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Book review: The Psychology of the Internet

Book review: The Psychology of the Internet

In the book The psychology of the Internet Patricia Wallace, a Professor at
the university of Maryland, analyses human behavior in a variety of
contexts that range from the all-familiar email, to synchronous or
asynchronous, graphical or textual communication environments. The purpose
of this survey is to highlight the specificities of online contexts, as
well as the similarities between human behavior, online and offline. The
result is an interesting and well-written book that offers an overall
perspective on online behavior. 

What makes this book so distinct from many others is the fact that for
every phenomenon studied, from addiction to gender issues, a parallel is
established between online and offline behavior. This premise is explicitly
stated by the author who argues that "[e]ven though the Internet as a
technology is a moving target, we humans behave predictably when dropped
into certain kinds of environments"[1]. The link to everyday experience
both demystifies the hype that everything is new on the Internet, and makes
this book a good introduction for those who do not have much Internet
experience. For those who do have some online experience this book provides
an excellent overview of the research currently being conducted on online

In 1996, Reeves and Nass [2] published The media equation, in which they
develop a similar argument which, I believe, validates Wallace's approach.
Reeves' and Nass' argue that media are social actors, hence, humans
interact with media in the same way that they interact with one another.
Although the rationale behind both claims is different, it overlaps in that
both authors consider that the study of face-to-face human behavioral
patterns is fairly indicative of the results of interaction in different

One of the recurring themes in this book is 'gender stereotypes'. How
important is gender in an environment where nobody knows you are a dog?
Well, apparently it is much more important than what could be expected.
Wallace begins by stating that the "opposite sexes" metaphor is in itself a
cultural stereotype that cannot be substantiated by empirical research.
However, the author says, due to our tendency for cognitive miser [3] we
are prone to look for first impressions and stereotypes, and are likely to
maintain them. This affects online interaction in a number of ways, some
more inoffensive than others. Consider, for example, the (supposed) female
novice who gets more help than the male novice does. Or, situations where
women are harshly criticized for using a dominant and assertive posting
style, that is, for not behaving according to the conventional stereotypes.
Or, the analysis of two professional mailing lists which shows that
whenever women became unusually active in a previously male dominated
discussion, men either avoided replying or diverted the subject focusing on
a parallel issue. In other words, online behavior often perpetuates, rather
than dissolves, traditional gender stereotypes.

The psychology of the Internet highlights the diversity of the online world
without loosing the connecting string to a more familiar experience: that
of daily offline interaction. It covers a broad range of aspects, and does
so with a clear writing style and exploratory character. However, if this
is its main strength it is simultaneously its main weakness, for the
ambition to cover such a broad scope makes it, at times, vague and
inconclusive. Nevertheless, I recommend this book to anyone interested in
the social and cultural issues of the Internet. 

[1] Wallace, 1999, p. 255.
[2] Reeves, B. & Nass, C. (1996). The media equation: how people treat
computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Stanford,
CA: CSLI Publications.
[3] Cognitive miser is a term coined by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor and
refers to "our interest in conserving energy and reducing cognitive load"
(Wallace, 1999, p. 19). 

[Patricia Wallace. (1999). The psychology of the Internet. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press] 

Tudo vale a pena se a alma nao e pequena.

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