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Monday, 16 February 2015

Online space- from going to being

In response to this blog post from Aaron Balick about work that he and others are doing in online depth psychotherapy, here are some thoughts about how the psychology of online space is changing.

I will be showing my age when I describe the first time I gained an understanding of what the internet is, and what it can do. I was at a friend’s house, and he was on “the internet”. To get onto the internet, he had to connect his computer via a modem to his phone line. I remember the distinctive chirping sound of a connection being made, long before the era of tweets. After a minute or so, the chirping ceased, and he was “in”. And while he was “in”, his phone line was engaged (which explained why I couldn’t get hold of him on the phone to arrange to meet up). I was puzzled as to how he could spend hours on end on the internet, this being before I had experienced the strange sensation of several hours at a stretch being obliterated through browsing from one website to another. Online space seemed to rule over time. Apart from the drumming of fingers as you waited for a new website to load up. It seemed easy enough to “get lost” on the web. My friend was attracted by the possibility of getting lost and being found- he was using the web to make new connections and maintain existing ones in the gay community.

Looking back, there was a time when being online felt like a different kind of being. Entering the online space involved a little ritual. You had to sit down (almost always), and decide to go online. You had to request entry, via the modem, and you had to wait to enter. Sometimes entry was denied. Once you were online, being there cut you off from other ways of interacting, such as using the telephone and moving around (these were days before many people had mobile phones). It was a very “headbound” experience, with the occasional mouse-click. But with the physical restraint came the promise of psychological freedom. Sites such as “Second Life” offered to liberate us to be someone different online, with a different persona. It was a step out of time, and away from one’s established identity. There could be interruptions to break the flow- a knock on the door, a failure in the connection- but getting back into the flow was easy. And then once you were done, there was a rapid re-integration into the world of things in physical space. The browser was exited. The phone line was silently released. You would re-emerge from your own headspace, realising your shoulders were feeling stiff. Re-embodied, you would stand and stretch your legs as you went to fetch a drink.

Moving between modes of embodiment is nothing new. Storytellers down the ages have been drawn to physical and psychological journeys involving technology which enables disembodied action, be that the letter, the telephone, the internet. Focusing on rites of passage (without an explicitly technological flavour), the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep outlined the stages of preliminary, liminality and post-liminality. Joseph Campbell saw the same pattern in heroic stories of Departure, Initiation, and Return. These theories tended to be applied to epic journeys, pilgrimages or religious experiences, rather than the online meanderings of people in the 1980s and 1990s, but I can see parallels of these ideas with what was happening to my own e-learning students as they joined the learning community, flourished (or occasionally withered) and then exited at the end of their quest for learning.

Fast forward to 2015, and most of us are the twitch of a thumb away from being online. As we travel through physical space, we know that we are moving in and out of wifi areas, towards and away from hotspots, under a growing cloud of connectivity. There is little or no ritual involved in going online. The journey is effortlessly mundane, and we experience little in the way of discontinuity. We simply have to turn on our devices, or avoid turning them off, to be pursued by social media, and assailed by email. In fact, we now have to make a conscious decision to go offline. So paradoxically, van Gennep’s journey now also applies to our embodied lives, where in order to take a “digital holiday”, we must journey away from electronic connectivity for a period in the analogue hinterland before being reintegrated into the practice of everyday online life, by way of “getting back in touch with ourselves”.

Even as this flip is occurring, the metaphor of time has become dominant over space. Timelines rule social media. Twitter asks you, “What’s happening?” Facebook asks you, “What’s on your mind”? Information is shown trailing back from the present moment. We “follow” other people through their own narration of time. The most recent is the most meaningful, and is being continually refreshed. Speed is of the essence. Websites no longer function quite so much as virtual spaces, more as ways in and out of other data streams. Opportunities for online interactions are seeping into our spare time. For many people, work is becoming more of an activity than a place, something we can do any time and any place, more verb than noun.

The internet is saturated with affordances for connection, and it is these connections, rather than the online space, which have successfully colonised time. As we present ourselves in everyday online life, we learn to count the psychological costs and benefits of this colonisation.

Campbell, J. (1949) The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press).
Van Gennep, A. (1960) The rites of passage (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).