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The psychology of the Internet- Book Review

1 January 2007

Dr. Moria Levy

Writing a research-based book is a time-consuming process that spans several years. The decision to embark on such research is rooted in a phenomenon or hypothesis, necessitating a well-established reality as a starting point. The study involves meticulous planning, execution, collection of complementary research data, structuring, writing, editing, and distribution.

In fields like the Internet, the resulting book often ceases to represent the current reality by the time of its release. Paradoxically, this is precisely the merit of Patricia Wallace's 1999 book, "The Psychology of the Internet." Despite the evolving technologies, the phenomena analyzed in the book remain significant in the present Internet landscape. What adds to the fascination is the enduring relevance of the analyzed phenomena, which stand the test of time and apply to recent developments.

The book delves into various aspects of the Internet world, which we will explore individually in this article. This article is not an exact summary but an adaptation based on the book's content, incorporating the author's general thoughts and implications for organizational knowledge management.

Upon entering the Internet, one of the most evident aspects is the prevalence of written jargon, akin to a professional taxonomy. In business, we critique grammatical and speech errors in obscure language. Numerous grammatical and linguistic distortions exist on the Internet, exemplified by expressions like "Ask not what yer country kin does fo' yo', thas what yo’ kin does fo' yer country."

This usage reflects a statement of openness and freedom akin to various speaking styles tailored for different contexts. It signifies the emergence of a new culture. Language holds particular importance in this culture, where verbal communication is one-dimensional—restricted to writing. Unlike other communication channels with body language or speech intonation, the Internet lacks these dimensions. As opposed to one-dimensionality, human beings attempt to enrich communication by deliberately using inaccurate language.

The prevalence of abbreviations (TNKS, U) and symbols (=:)) further underscores this phenomenon. While these shortcuts were initially developed for technological efficiency, the absence of communication problems for years renders them unnecessary. Additionally, using uppercase letters (SHOUT) is another example of adopting Internet language, emphasizing the cultural aspect and our enjoyment of this unique form of communication.

"There's no second chance to make a good first impression." The need to assess people and form initial impressions is deeply ingrained in the human genome, as is our desire to present ourselves in the best light possible. Recognizing the significance of first impressions is universal. Experts assert that, in face-to-face encounters, the first impression is typically formed within 30 seconds. Job interview candidates often practice a firm handshake, maintain good eye contact, and focus on factors influencing these crucial initial impressions.

However, these factors do not translate directly to the online realm. While it's true that you can include a picture to depict yourself, this image is currently limited to specific web applications. As mentioned earlier, it does not encompass the array of elements that contribute to a positive first impression.

On the Internet, first impressions develop more gradually. The determining factors are rooted in the content of the messages we write. Experiments have explored the qualities (wisdom, politeness, warmth, etc.) that hold significance in shaping a first impression. Surprisingly, the quality of warmth or coolness emerges as the most influential in creating a positive or negative impression of the writer. Initially, our situation is not as favorable, as online interactions tend to be more relaxed than other communication channels.

In a face-to-face conversation, for instance, body language is rich with cues indicating active listening, agreement, or disagreement. The counting and weighing of words occur on a different scale than in online conversations. A parallel discussion on the Internet resembles a game of ping pong, lacking the nods of agreement seen in face-to-face interactions. The discourse lacks mutual pauses and complete closures. It is succinct, with responses focused solely on relevant clauses. Concluding an online conversation, even after a breakup, often feels one-sided, as one party typically initiates the end.

In knowledge management, this dynamic significantly affects the ability to build trust, a critical condition for community formation and its ultimate success. The perceived coolness in online interactions challenges the consolidation processes necessary for community development.

On the Internet, we assess individuals based on first impressions using two key parameters: their gender and age. This determination is often made by estimating their gender through their name. In English, gauging a person's gender based on language is challenging. While a name can provide a helpful clue, it's not always definitive. Over time, experiments have revealed distinctions in how men and women express themselves. Generally, men tend to be more direct and practical, while women exhibit more emotional expressions, including agreement, engaging conversations, and emotion-related statements. However, this remains a generalization, and determining a person's gender solely from their writing content is not foolproof.

Determining someone's age in online interactions is even more challenging. One might question the significance of these assessments, but for us as humans, knowing the identity and estimated age of the person we're interacting with holds considerable importance. The interlocutor's mode of expression can offer some assistance, as the language and jargon used by different age groups vary. Clues to an interlocutor's age may surface in the content they write.

In organizational knowledge management, the age estimation challenge is somewhat simplified. Occasionally, the role itself may offer hints about a person's age. Age awareness is less problematic in local forums, where the community is often small and familiar.

Throughout various discussions in knowledge management, we've emphasized the importance of face-to-face meetings to complement virtual discourse. The synergy created by combining these components enhances both the quantity and quality of knowledge sharing, surpassing what each channel could achieve independently.

However, some large local or international groups never meet, presenting similar challenges online. Solutions to this problem arise from two main avenues. Firstly, in some existing forums, moderators may request newcomers to introduce themselves, providing a personal touch. Another alternative is the use of Personal Home Pages. Accepted in both the online and organizational spheres, these pages allow users to introduce themselves, shaping the impression they wish to convey. However, proper utilization is not universal, with some pages featuring ineffective presentations, attempts to be overly comprehensive, and excessive links diminishing their overall value.

The book dedicates an entire chapter to the phenomenon of dressing up on the Internet, exploring various disguises adopted in forums and games. However, we won't delve into this topic as it lacks relevance to the business world, especially in the context of organizational knowledge management. It is worth noting that sustaining a disguise for an extended period proves challenging, as the true gender and age of the individual behind the facade will eventually be exposed. The resulting mistrust and feelings of betrayal are as potent in this context as in other communication channels. Those choosing to conceal their identity should carefully consider the potential consequences, as their actions can cast a shadow over the trust within the entire community.

Another intriguing aspect discussed is online grouping. Studies by Korman and White reveal that the primary motivation for joining a group on the Internet is information gathering, with a secondary emphasis on creating a sense of belonging and providing a platform for sharing personal experiences and discussions.

Once again, the combination of rational and emotional elements proves complementary. Recognizing this aspect holds importance in the establishment of knowledge communities within organizations. Employees expect professionalism, seeking added value through information and knowledge. Simultaneously, there's a desire for emotional support and care.

A recent experience in a knowledge managers forum of a respected professional group illustrates this balance. A commitment to professionalism was maintained in face-to-face meetings, with non-professional offerings politely declined. However, a performance lecture was introduced for the year-end meeting, blending professional information with a magic show named "Professionalism." While the event undoubtedly conveyed professional knowledge, the emotional pleasure derived from the performance garnered the majority of applause and appreciation, as evidenced by the continuous flow of letters of thanks following the event.

An intriguing question arising in group discourse is how sharing impacts opinions and decisions, with a particular focus on online discourse or virtual community interactions. Experiments indicate a distinct difference, revealing that responses tend to be more radical within an Internet group than when expressed individually.

This doesn't necessarily translate to more decisive or courageous decision-making than individual choices. While a group may provide courage, it can also amplify hesitation. If there is uncertainty or fear, being in a group tends to magnify these emotions. This surprising result poses a challenge, making decision-making difficult within such a group due to extreme opinions, leading to decision paralysis.

In such instances, it is recommended that this channel be avoided for decisions. Instead, it should be utilized for information, knowledge exchange, and support, with decisions preferably made in face-to-face meetings where the group's impact is present but less pronounced than in online experiments.

The paramount criterion for successfully establishing a community is trust. Active participation requires the development of trust among members. Face-to-face meetings naturally foster this trust through ongoing discourse before and after the encounter. Creating this confidence in virtual settings is complex and demands substantial investment in its success.

The synergy between virtual and face-to-face meetings is emphasized in organizational knowledge communities, as face-to-face interactions strengthen trust in virtual engagements. An illustrative example relates to the issue of language in global communities. In one community operating in English, a leader organized virtual interactions for a year before arranging a conference for face-to-face meetings. A Japanese participant, expressing relief towards the end of the meeting, noted that only now, realizing that the South American's English was as imperfect as his own, did he feel comfortable speaking out. This rational and emotional relief emerged only after establishing trust, signaling that mistakes were acceptable and the group would embrace them.

A distinct facet related to Internet psychology revolves around expressing anger, frustration, and joy within the online environment. A primary source of frustration for individuals on the Internet is navigation issues. The struggle to find information and the need to exert effort often results in heightened frustration and subsequent anger. This problem also extends to organizational details, where the need for a unified search engine exacerbates the challenge of accessing knowledge and information.

While technologies like Federated search engines offer a solution, they remain uncommon in organizations. Moreover, the potential introduction of such technologies may lead to a situation reminiscent of the Internet, with an overwhelming volume of information that, despite being found by the search engine, risks causing frustration due to an excess of search results, burying crucial information beyond the limits of patience.

Navigational challenges within organizations can find supplementary solutions through structured content trees, collective characteristics, and labels. However, these solutions are not immediately apparent. The book's author conveys heightened anger on the Internet compared to face-to-face interactions, where conflicts might have been resolved more amicably and with less anger.

Expressions of anger online manifest in various forms, from verbally aggressive messages to intentional silences and requests to remove participants from forums. While these actions are not legally prohibited, anger appears to be maintained within controlled limits—the issue of anger warrants consideration even in organizational knowledge communities. A similar intensity of feeling has not been widely observed, potentially influenced by a sense of collective belonging or a lower intensity compared to the Internet. However, such experiences may become more prevalent in the coming years.

Love also finds a place on the Internet. The emergence of online romances is not uncommon; however, many of these virtual connections struggle to transition from the digital realm to real-world experiences. What proves successful in information exchange, business, and hobbies often faces challenges in the emotionally charged world of romance. The limitation to the written word, without the ability to experience each other in additional dimensions, leads to personal acceptance, heightened expectations, and numerous disappointments.

Similar to individuals who cherish books and find it challenging to watch a film that confines their imagination to a defined reality, those experiencing love online often develop additional dimensions in their imagination as they wish to perceive them. Coping with the realities of offline interactions proves difficult, leading many to discontinue their shared path after a face-to-face meeting or two.

Upon analyzing the subject, the internet's role as a platform for virtual romances is rooted in its unique qualities, not despite them. As a gateway to the broader world, the Internet facilitates communication with strangers. In this context, two phenomena unfold that differ from conventional environments. Firstly, the perceived distance provides a sense of security, dismantling the usual defensive walls we erect when meeting people in person. The absence of fear in this context allows for more open communication. Secondly, during distress, individuals find it easier to share with a stranger, someone they won't encounter tomorrow, making it a more comfortable experience than sharing with a neighbor, colleague, or family member. This sharing fosters intimacy, creating a foundation for love.

Regarding its impact on knowledge management, these dynamics have a limited influence. The mentioned factor of reducing concerns does have relevance here. Internal knowledge sites and expansive communities allow employees to pose questions and engage in discussions that might be challenging within traditional hierarchical management channels. This holds in large and international organizations, where employees can ask questions without fear of their inquiries being forwarded to their manager or other higher-ups. However, the development of love itself is likely less applicable to internal knowledge communities, and instances of such occurrences are yet to be encountered.

The book delves into the topic of the Internet. Is it harmful? Does it contribute to an increase in violence and other negative phenomena? Opinions on this matter are divided; some believe it does, while others argue that the legitimacy of the subject reduces rather than increases its harmful effects. Although there is currently an option to restrict access to prohibited websites, the high accessibility of the Internet to teenagers and children diminishes the effectiveness of these restrictions at school and home.

Examining the Internet from the perspective of the time people invest in it, the book raises questions about whether individuals spend an increasing amount of time sitting at the computer and on the Internet. Are people becoming addicted to the Internet? Is there a decline in their ability to manage their time, and do the hours spent on the Internet impact their social fitness?

Responses to these questions vary. Some individuals do develop an addiction to the Internet, with studies indicating that this tendency is primarily observed in women, who may not necessarily be young or part of the workforce. Simultaneously, the Internet has transformed the time management habits of many, particularly those in the workforce. It has blurred the distinction between personal life and work, as emails are downloaded and read almost continuously. Traditional boundaries between working and home hours have vanished, especially with remote access. Some find themselves checking for new messages every time they pass by the computer, a habit I admit to indulging in. While the flexibility is advantageous, allowing work to be done at "normal" hours and reconnecting after children are asleep, the question remains whether we only connect during these times.

Undoubtedly, the Internet has revolutionized time management, impacting knowledge sharing positively. The ability for anyone to connect to communities and websites or be notified of new information and knowledge on portals enhances knowledge sharing in practice. Is this a positive development? Likely, as with any technological change, there are less optimistic aspects.

Children, for instance, spend extended hours in front of the computer. However, their interaction has shifted from individual use to communication in pairs, groups, and sometimes concurrently in multiple groups. This alteration in teenage communication patterns also influences knowledge management. These young individuals are the workers of tomorrow. Their high computing literacy, familiarity with using internet resources, and overall level of information sharing will significantly reduce the challenges that knowledge management organizations face today.

Another phenomenon observed on the Internet is generosity, altruism, and the willingness to help one another. Life experiments have shown that men tend to help women more, while women are equally inclined to help both sexes. These experiments also indicate that the willingness to help is lower in a group setting than when individuals are alone. A historical incident from the 1960s in the United States exemplifies this reluctance to help in a group setting.

The Internet and organizational knowledge management have ambiguous impacts on willingness to help. On the one hand, there is a large online community where individuals can potentially share; on the other hand, users are alone in front of their computers, unsure who else is actively present. Altruism does exist on the Internet, with a higher level of support, responsiveness to questions, and generosity than in many other channels.

Although this statement is generalized, specifying instances of increased generosity is essential. Similar to other contexts, sharing is more accessible in situations without direct competition, as seen in cases where two teams are not in direct competition (a zero-sum game). Even when full sharing is not always observed, numerous instances of mutual sharing occur, particularly in online emotional support groups where responsiveness and contribution are notably high, even when individuals may not directly benefit.

The behavior patterns of men and women in online interactions align with real-life observations: men tend to assist women more, and women do not distinguish between the sexes in their willingness to help. However, aspects of sharing on the Internet differ from those in real life. In face-to-face interactions, people often support those similar to them regarding religion, hobbies, race, etc. These personal aspects are usually unknown on the Internet, and shared professional interests or hobbies become the basis for encounters. This shared interest facilitates support and the willingness to help.

Psychologists ponder whether generosity and the desire to help stem from pure altruism or an egoistic need for recognition and appreciation. In my opinion, the underlying motive doesn't matter. People help online and in the realm of organizational knowledge management, and they should be encouraged, rewarded, and appreciated for their contributions, regardless of the most profound reasons for wanting to share.

In this article, we've extensively discussed sex differences. Beyond the points above, there are indeed style distinctions between the sexes. It's crucial to clarify that, despite the significance of these differences, they represent statistical indicators rather than unequivocal behavior for all men or women. Generally, men tend to be more concise in offline and online conversations and likely within organizational knowledge communities.

Conversely, women tend to add layers beyond substantive content—an envelope that includes references to their interlocutor's words, a sense of inclusivity, and a genuine interest in the conversation. This enveloping style appears to contribute positively to the level of knowledge sharing. Statistically, in both Internet and organizational environments with a diverse representation of women, fostering trust in the group as a community and cultivating a knowledge-sharing culture seems more achievable.

It's crucial to exercise caution and not unintentionally promote a phenomenon often reported on many websites. In contrast to women, the majority of men may inadvertently contribute to a more masculine style and culture, which could be adopted by women in the minority. Encouraging the softer aspects that facilitate trust and knowledge sharing is essential.

Undoubtedly, the Internet has given rise to an entirely new and fascinating culture, shaping us beyond the confines of our online interactions. It continues to influence knowledge management and sharing significantly, and this impact is largely positive.

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