Monday, September 26, 2005

Internut Psychology 101

Some of the back-and-forth on my blog of late has gotten me thinking about the psychological intricacies of internet communities...

Back when I was at Tufts, the Psychology Department offered courses on engineering psychology and industrial psychology along with the more garden-variety social psychology and abnormal psychology courses. Given the changes in the world landscape since my late nights in the Gott Room at Wessell Library (as well as drinking dollar beers at Nick's Beef and Beer in Somerville, doing Aerobics on the Hill and other silly things that kids in college do), I've started to wonder: Do universities now carry courses about the psychology of internet communities?

Wouldn't you think that there would be some interest, nowadays, in how internet communities develop and form pecking orders? How people react when given a forum in which they can anonymously rant, rave, ask for advice and endlessly complain? In the 10 or so years I have spent as a participant on the web, I've noticed certain patterns, and such patterns have left me is it that every internet community ends up with a group of "alphas" and a group of "deltas"? Who ends up an "alpha"? Why are some people shunned and made to feel like outsiders? How does the selection of the "alphas" in any given internet community differ from the selection of "alphas" in a real-life, non-anonymous community? Do the people who "troll" for controversy on the internet troll for controversy in real life as well? Or is there some other dynamic at work?

I have been pondering these questions in some form or another since early 1994. That was the year that I discovered the internet while working as an attorney at Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, an intellectually snobby midtown law firm that had a large intellectual property practice. One of my first clients there was an internet firm called "Reach Networks," which, from what I can tell, no longer exists. At the time, Reach was hired by large companies (like Big Eight Accounting Firms...remember those?) to create "intranets". But Reach was also amongst a very small and select group of ISP's that had a presence on the net very early on in the game, when Yahoo and Netscape were private companies, when Google didn't exist, and when Prodigy and CompuServe were still forces to be reckoned with. These were the days when it was unusual for a company to have a web presence, when it was virtually unheard of for an individual to have a web page, and when "blogging" did not yet exist (except in the form of "journaling", i.e., talking to onesself, on usenet forums).

Reach's internet presence was The Transom, which was very much like AOL except way, way, way smaller. It was a private, online community that one had to pay for, and it provided internet access as an INCIDENTAL (!!!) benefit. The MAIN attraction of The Transom was its message board community. It is the only message board community that I can think of that REQUIRED its members to use their real names. I don't know how they pulled this off, but somehow they did. As a result, members had to be incredibly self-conscious and to monitor what they wrote fairly carefully. Nevertheless, we still had our share of scandals and in-fighting.

Amongst the early members were Daniel Radosh and a group of his very cooly intellectual media friends, many of whom were Spy magazine refugees. Remember Spy?? The Transom had a similar sensibility. And I was soooooooo not an alpha member of this group.

The days of The Transom were the days of Usenet's reign over the world of internet "bulletin boards":, and stuff like that. Anyone remember those days? I remember someone telling me around this time that soon we would be buying our groceries off of Prodigy. This made no sense to me at all. It sounded like crazy talk! It never happened, of course, at least not via Prodigy (what happened to Prodigy anyway?). But here we are in 2005, and Fresh Direct is virtually the only way that my family buys groceries these days.

Fast forward to the year 2002. Usenet was long gone - or at least it no longer had any sort of prominence on the web. In its place, were giant internet communities with "bulletin boards" or "message boards", communities as large as iVillage (with hundreds of message boards on hundreds of topics), which is where I found the Breast Cancer Support Board when I was first diagnosed. I had already used the Trying to Conceive Support Board years earlier and the March 1997 and May 1999 "Playgroup" Boards after I had my kids. So, it seemed logical to tap into the iVillage Breast Cancer resources now that my time for that had come. Unfortunately, I didn't yet know about other communities like the Young Survival Coalition that might have been more appropriate for someone like me (young, fit, ethnic, urban, angry), so I just stayed with the iVillage group.

Until I was run out of there on a rail.

Yes, I was the persona non grata of the iVillage Breast Cancer Support Board. I am sure there have been others before, and others since, but at the time, I was the girl to despise. I came to the board, scared out of my mind, awaiting the final results of my biopsy, but knowing full well that the "suspicious" fine needle aspiration already told me that I was looking at a cancer diagnosis. The ladies on iVillage were quite supportive at first, wishing me "B-9" results and telling me to "just breathe" (which, even before I discovered the calming aspects of yoga, made good sense to me). They told me they would pray for me, and I believe they did. It didn't matter to me that they asked Jesus to help me, and my religion doesn't recognize Jesus as our God. It didn't matter that I had nothing in common with these women, most of whom were old enough to be my mother or even my mother's older sister, most of whom had never seen the inside of a gym, let alone a yoga studio, most of whom lived in depressed rural communities in the middle of the country, most of whom were nothing like me at all, on any level, in any way, shape or form. All that mattered that there were people out there, people who didn't even know me, people who promised to hold me up with their invisible hands.

Unfortunately, trouble began brewing almost immediately after my official diagnosis came in. At that point, it became harder and harder for me to coast through the "denial" phase of my grieving process (grieving for the healthy me that would never get a disgusting disease like cancer). Instead, I found myself running into the brick wall of "anger", although it was so subtle that I didn't even recognize it. All I knew was that I couldn't believe this was happening to me, and Goddamnit, I didn't want this to be happening to me. Not only did I not want to die, but I didn't want to have to suffer all of the indignities of the treatments that might keep me from dying, particularly because they might NOT keep me from dying, and THEN what? I would lose my breasts, lose my hair, gain 20 pounds and a steroidally-induced moon face and then die anyway?

It wasn't fair, and I was PISSED.

One day, soon after I was diagnosed, but before I had begun my treatments, I posted on the board that I was really upset because, among other things, I didn't want to "end up bald and fat" and then die anyway. Thus came to a close, my salad days on the iVillage Breast Cancer Support Board...forever.

Let's just say that hell hath no fury like a bald and fat woman scorned. I was EVISCERATED by the ladies on the board, who told me that I had some hell of a nerve caring about my appearance when there were women DYING of breast cancer right now, this very minute, women with children, women like me except that THEY didn't give a hoot about their hair or their weight. I tried to explain myself: "But you don't understand who I am, what I am like...I am young and fit, and my appearance has always been part of who I am!"

The battle cries only grew louder, and understandably so...I mean, I was trying to fit in, and yet I was setting myself apart...I wanted them to like me, but I was telling them that they couldn't possibly understand me and had nothing in common with me at all. I was called shallow and vain (which can be an accurate assessment, at least at times, I know), and I was accused of ageism (which is NOT accurate). I protested the ageism accusations, explaining calmly that breast cancer in young women is actually a different disease than breast cancer in older women. Aha, they responded, so you're saying that you have some special sort of disease?! That you have some sort of greater RIGHT to survive it than we have?!

I decided to take a different tack. Instead of focusing on myself, I decided to focus on the way this might impact my kids. I posted that I was concerned that my kids would be frightened when my hair started to fall out, when I started to look different, and I was wondering how I should handle this eventuality. But this only served to further stir the pot. One woman wrote to me that she would gladly be wheeled to her son's soccer game in a wheelchair if that's what it took for her to get there, and that I ought to be ashamed of myself for allowing my vanity come between me and my children. WHA? Did I say that?

I guess I should have just skulked away at this point, licked my wounds and found a group that "got me" a little better (like Young Survival, for example). But I couldn't accept that a group of women who had breast cancer wouldn't accept me as one of their own. Up until that point, there had never truly been a group of people who simply wouldn't accept me. If I wasn't an "alpha", I was always friends with the alphas. I was always a part of things that I wanted to be a part of. So, this whole dynamic made no sense to me, and I couldn't accept it. Instead, I kept trying to make them like me. But everything I said drew criticism and hatred.

Eventually, I got kicked off the board by the powers that be at iVillage. It was put forth by some of these women that perhaps I didn't even HAVE breast cancer. Perhaps I wasn't even female. Perhaps I was a "gay man living in a mental institution", they posited. But my absence from the board did not stop the hatred. Even though I could no longer post to the board, I kept reading it, and every time someone new came along with something to say that didn't hit these ladies as "right", it was assumed that it was ME, in another guise! One day, one of the ladies on the board found a way to discern my real name and publish on the board the name of the law firm where I had most recently worked as well as links to some writings I had published (one of which was pretty damn funny, actually: Botox and Me, or My So-Called Face, which was published on the now-defunct I wasn't even on the board you can imagine how creepy this was for me.

But I digress...I guess the purpose of my tale is to show that anyone can be the "delta" in an internet community (in any community, really), and it's not always those who tend to be "alphas" in life who become alphas in the internet communities of which they become a part. I would imagine that the internet is a perfect place for all people to be "equal" at the outset - looks don't count, social status doesn't count, being "cool" doesn't count, being "smart" doesn't count (as much - we do know that SPELLING counts for something), how much money you make and how you make it don't count. On the internet, it's something else, something that may be much more intangible, something that I can't really define at the moment, that makes you either fit in....or not.

So, where are the scholars of this? Perhaps at the New School? The Learning Annex? If not the Tufts Universities of the world, then where?



chris said...

That's interesting, I've notice similar things but obviously not to the degree that you've experienced. Do you think the Alphas know they are alphas? Do alphas know they're alphas outside the internet? Does it change day to day?


Susan said...

I have also noticed these things, and I have always wondered how these social hierarchy's develop.
There is one one on our little net, definitely. I do think that some alphas know they are, and I do think that some have felt a little shunned.
There are also those who don't give a shit.
I think the really weird thing about blogging as opposed to chat rooms, is that it is in the guise of a diary.
But a diary that you leave laying around for people to pick up and read and comment upon.

I figured that anonymous was a proofreader!

Susan said...

And by the way, I sure missed a lot today!
And you are a bit unbalanced and nutty, and so f&#@ing what.
It is your blog. Do people think they will change your mind? Help you out of your nuttiness?
Or are they just pissed off and have no where else to
"mad bloggin' yo"( I love Jody)???
This is completely and utterly a college class, even a major.....

He's Dead, Jim! said...

Brilliant post, Lauren. Though I have never been an "alpha" for as long as I can remember. Have always been a geek; something of an outsider. But, like you, I have been accepted by all of the various groups, including the "alphas."

My mother, who was a remarkable woman, was incredibly progressive. She had the gift of seeing people for who they are inside. She taught us to do that. But here in cyberuniverse, the "inside" must be gleaned from what is written. And those manipulative or talented enough can create whatever shroud they wish.

What's funny, and what (of all people) Chris London pointed out, is that many of the "in" bloggers out there would never associate with their "fans" in real life.

As you so accurately explain, the internet is a free-flowing medium. We have no idea who people really are. This blogging community is sort of a "Breakfast Club" setting. Here we all are: a bunch of mismatched people forced to sit in the same "detention" for as long as it takes to make up for our "transgressions." But would we sit with the same kids in the lunch room? Would we snub them in the hall? Rather, would they snub us?

Again to steal an idea from Chris... Would be truly fascinating to have a "Great American Blog Out" event here in NYC. See all of these folks in real life.

Thanks again for the thought-provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Google "computer mediated communication" or run it through any academic database (e.g., ERIC database). There's tons of research on this stuff.

radosh said...

For the historical record, the Transom's official policy was real names only, but since it had so few registered users, several of us were paid to assume multiple identities to populate the boards and spark discussions -- including by trolling if necessary, though we didn't know that word at the time.

yoga chickie said...

Damn you, Radosh. You taunt me with your comments, when we both know that I am merely using you to get my gawker invite. No cough it up!!!

(Did I mention I am a yoga teacher now - no longer a, cough, lawyer?)

Anonymous said...

Wow when Susan calls me a proofreader it sort of comes off like whore, or murderer.


Susan said...

Hey proofreader!
I am so glad you have a sense of humor!
One of my best friends is a proofreader.....

yoga chickie said...

some of my best blogging friends are whores, Good Speller. There's Industry Whore and Subtext Whore, to name two....


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About Me

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Northern Westchester, New York, United States
I live by a duck pond. I used to live by the East River. I don't work. I used to work a lot. Now, not so much. I used to teach a lot of yoga. Now not so much. I still practice a lot of yoga though. A LOT. I love my kids, being outdoors, taking photos, reading magazines, writing and stirring the pot. Enjoy responsibly.


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