Love it or hate it - the truth is we are living on the threshold of an extraordinary internet revolution.

computer 88 (photo credit: )
computer 88
(photo credit: )
If the words 'surfing' and 'web' conjure images of the rolling ocean and eight-legged crawlies then clearly you don't have many close encounters of the Internet kind. There are those who are born Internet-users and those who have had it thrust upon us. Love it or hate it - the truth is we are living on the threshold of an extraordinary internet revolution. If you think it has already happened then there are some surprises in store. A recently published book - The Social Net: Human Behavior in Cyberspace, (Oxford University Press) edited by Yair Amichai-Hamburger, gives insights into the far-reaching potential of this invention. Yair is an old friend who now lives with his family in the Jerusalem area and teaches in the Department of Psychology at Bar-Ilan University. I recently caught up with him to discuss his work. We met at the end of one of his 16-hour days. Not all his days are quite this long but for the 15 years I've known him he has always seemed to pack a lot of family life and science into every day. We first met when I was living in Oxford, UK. He was doing a doctorate at the university on stereotypes. The research was ground-breaking and offered a completely new model - which has subsequently become dubbed as the 'Hamburger model.' Previous work had basically come to the conclusion that it is very hard, if not impossible, to change people's stereotypical opinions of a particular group. Suppose you have a negative perception of a group and then you actually meet someone from the group who, even you acknowledge, is very nice. What happens? Not much, was the view based on classic research techniques. You think so-and-so is unexpectedly nicer than you expected but it doesn't change your view of the group. Conclusion: stop encouraging contacts with individuals; it's a waste of time. In Yair's research he used much more sensitive measurements and found that such individual encounters could produce a gradual shift of opinion within the group. "The implications are huge... you have to be very patient," he explains reassuringly. Nowadays his research interests revolve around the Internet. It is a new field for psychologists and The Social Net is the first book to bring together the many different aspects of socio-psychological work on the uses of the Internet. Internet origins are of course so recent that most of us were unwittingly witnesses to its emergence and evolution. Ideas appeared in the 1960s and 70s. And in 1993 there is a defining moment - the US White House goes online and Bill Clinton is given an email address of his own: . At first the Internet was regarded as merely a 'virtual' world, but Yair states firmly that "it is not a poor relative of reality". One of the most important conclusions of The Social Net is that the Internet is not a limited medium for social interaction - in fact, it is very rich. Of course much of the psychological research associated with the web is little more than five years old. To date, there have been two main areas of this research based on Internet use: collecting data and studying the nature of web-based interactions. Even the collection of data isn't nearly as mundane as it sounds. Let me give a couple of examples mentioned in The Social Net. A study in 2003 used German online auctions to study ethnic discrimination. "Sellers with Turkish names (a minority group in Germany) reportedly took longer to receive winning bids than those with German names," the research concludes. In another "novel approach," researchers posted a range of different "problems" on Internet "discussion lists" of a hate-group. Members of the group responded with various violent solutions and the psychologists investigated whether the amount of violence advocated was linked to the nature of the "problems." The anonymity of the Internet enables psychologists to gain access to all sorts of groups, making them unwitting participants in socio-psychological experiments. It is this same anonymity which has provided opportunities for individuals to explore a wide social environment. They can meet people on the Internet with whom they share minority interests. And of course they can meet and chat without having to cope with the added complexities of face to face exchanges. The impersonal nature of exchange means that many people are happier bringing sensitive personal problems, both physical and psychological, to clinical experts and support groups who they don't have to meet. Yair recollects a meeting two years ago with a well-known clinical psychologist who dismissed the idea of treating people using the Internet, "No way!" he said - and then recalled that he actually had used it to continue treating a patient who had moved away. "The Internet is a place where everyone can express themselves freely and this has been shown to be especially useful for introverts," explains Yair. And if they do finally meet the person they've been communicating with -they have already gone through all the preliminary stages of getting to know each other. Studies suggest that physical appearance might then become less important in establishing relationships - although of course there are tragic and scandalous stories of people issuing a false photograph of 'their ideal self' and luring all sorts of interest! While social interaction is facilitated by the Internet, it can also generate feelings of isolation. The concept of 'cyberostracism', mentioned in The Social Net, is defined as 'being ignored and excluded from various forms of online interaction.' In the book an experiment is described where the degree of participation of students in a basic Internet game is controlled. The more they were excluded from this simple online game the lower they ranked their mood and self-esteem. It is clear, and worrying, that there is considerable scope for manipulating Internet users in all sorts of ways. Yair focuses on the positive. He explains that "many psychologists who see the variety in human beings don't yet recognize the richness of the Internet… We have to work together to design a more varied and relevant Internet environment." This means that charities, support groups, information services and of course the commercial world could all communicate more effectively with their cyberclients. Yair has helped various organizations to redesign their websites to ensure that they target their users more appropriately. Communicating effectively with a diverse group of clients is not the only challenge. Businesses themselves are nowadays global organizations whose employees have no physical contact with each other. Yair notes that "the Internet gives a lot of empowerment to people who are located in remote places;" they become part of a 'virtual team'. Business needs to know the personality types best suited for working in this virtual environment. One of the main developments in Yair's work echoes his Oxford research on stereotypes. It is especially fascinating because it could have important implications for improving understanding and relationships between Jews and Arabs. He has designed software that effectively provides a database that runs concurrently with social interaction. Each party builds a database before the cyberchats with the other party, giving information that they feel will be useful for the other person to know. The information can be accessed during contact and new information can be requested. This means that the social exchange takes place with onscreen relevant information easily accessible. And of course it avoids all the anxieties that build up and inhibit meaningful face to face dialogue. Developing an Internet forum for initial meetings is an inexpensive way to bring people together and prepare them for subsequent face-to-face meetings. The software is being tested initially with religious and non-religious students to help improve relationships between them. And from the "Hamburger model" we know that if we improve perceptions of each other at the individual level the group stereotype will shift. The Internet is of course not only a 'good news' story; it also has many negative aspects. Yair believes "it should be controlled" - not a popular view at present. It is essential that parents are aware of how their children are using the Internet. A child in front of a computer merely shows you where his body is but, Yair warns, "his brain can be in a totally different world". That could be very scary. But he emphasizes that the Internet has many positive aspects which can be developed to help people, and it is these remain the prime focus of his work.