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date: 14 October 2019

Introduction to the Handbook

Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article begins with a brief discussion of how the Internet has changed our lives, and of how the field of Internet Psychology and this Handbook can provide some answers. It then presents an overview of the key themes covered in this book.

Keywords: Internet, psychology, Internet Psychology

It feels like the Internet has always been here. It's difficult, as editors, to imagine a world where we couldn't email authors of chapters, host draft chapters on web pages, or use a wiki to co-edit work. Reviewers can be sent electronic copies of draft chapters instantaneously. The Internet is also changing where we work — no longer need we be based exclusively in a particular physical location. For example, the process of conducting research on the Internet, one of the foci of this book, has freed many of us from the need to be physically co-present with participants.

This change in how we do things, as well as where we do them, is, we would argue, a sign of a truly transforming technology akin to the automobile or telephone. Travel and commuting should reduce as people increasingly work at home, university campuses will empty as students learn and socialize online, and the peer review process in academia will speed considerably without the delays caused by ‘snail mail’.

Except, of course, that none of the above are happening yet, nor are they likely to happen in the near future. Congestion worsens, campuses continue to be filled, and peer review is still often a tortuously slow process. How can it be that something that has seeped into so many areas of our lives, and has the potential to transform how we shop, socialize, work and learn, leaves us fundamentally unchanged as humans? We believe that the field of Internet Psychology, and this Handbook, will provide some of the answers. From the many chapters included in this volume, we believe that a number of key themes emerge.

First, regardless of what media people use to communicate, basic human motivations and emotions remain. In Chapter 13, Yair Amichai-Hamburger discusses personality and Internet use, and outlines some of the motivations that might dictate how people act online. Motivation is also discussed in the context of deception by Jeffery Hancock in Chapter 19, and privacy by Adam Joinson and Carina Paine in Chapter 16. Conversely, in Chapter 17 Spears, Lea, and Postmes focus not on an individual's personal motivations, but rather on their group-related behaviour during computer-mediated communication. All the examples above (and there are many others in the Handbook) argue that while the Internet is not transforming the basics of human behaviour it is enabling new forms of more traditional processes.

This approach, which is adopted by many of the authors, discourages the ‘scorched earth’ approach to understanding new technology — the idea that new media warrant a new psychology — by emphasizing the importance of existing, (p. 2) related theories and approaches within psychology. For instance, Martin Tanis combines the existing literature on social support with work on computer-mediated communication in Chapter 10 to illuminate the dynamics and pros and cons of online social support. Similarly, in Chapter 3 Monica Whitty draws parallels between pre-Internet dating rituals and online romance, arguing that to understand present day cyber romance we must examine pre-Internet techniques such as letter writing. In Chapter 12 Tom Postmes argues that although the Internet offers radically different forms of achieving collective goals, the processes involved in collective action are fundamentally unchanged. This approach is supported by the work of Ronald Rice and colleagues who argue in Chapter 2 that social interaction on the Internet supplements rather than displaces more traditional modes of interaction.

This approach to understanding psychological aspects of Internet behaviour should not be taken to mean that there is nothing new about the Internet. Indeed, the very fact that what we can encounter on the Internet can be very much the same as we knew before highlights the special status of the Internet for psychology. After all, the widespread expectation that the Internet would introduce rapid social transformations was based on established understandings of personality and self, relationships and interactions, groups and communities. That the Internet would transform these seemed inevitable, given what we understood about them: in fact, as demonstrated in these chapters, the Internet can be used successfully to achieve intimacy, relationship formation, social influence or the formation of communities. The very possibility of such uses undermines existing theories that assume that physical co-location and direct visual contact are necessary for such things to occur. Given the prominence of implicit and explicit assumptions that there is a ‘magic touch’ and that ‘the eyes have it’, this increasingly necessitates a reconsideration of established thinking.

Examples of this can be found in the Chapter 9 by Caroline Haythornthwaite, which re-examines traditional conceptions of community, making the case that the online community is no more than an extension ofexisting and long-emerging community practices. Andrea Chester and Di Bretherton make similar points in Chapter 15 in discussing impression formation. Regardless of the medium, they argue that many of the same psychological processes occur.

A different set of chapters focuses on the ways that the Internet doesn't just reapply a psychological process to a new context – instead, it transforms what it means to be a member of a group or community or even what it means to be ‘ourselves’. For instance, in Chapter 14 Katelyn McKenna argues that CMC may enable people to be their ‘true selves’ — something not possible in many face-to-face situations, while in Chapter 20 Azy Barak argues that the Internet might encourage the experience of ‘phantom emotions’ — seemingly real experiences that have little or no foundation in reality.

The final section of the handbook, which focuses primarily on the use of the Internet as a research tool, illustrates perfectly these shared themes and approaches. The Internet enables researchers to do things simply not possible using more traditional methods — Ulf-Detirich Reips shows this for Internet-based experiments in Chapter 24, Michael Birnbaum for Internet-based study designs in Chapter 25, and Anja Göritz for online panels in Chapter 30. At the same time, many of the same processes, concerns and considerations of face-to-face research also exist online, for example in qualitative research and multimethod approaches (Claire Hewson, Chapter 26), regarding context effects in surveys (Jolene Smyth, Don Dillman and Leah Christian, Chapter 27), and in research ethics (Charles Ess, Chapter 31). Using a different medium may have an impact on people's behaviour and the results of personality research using the Internet, as discussed in Chapter 28 by Tom Buchanan. Many, sometimes simple, issues need to be observed and learned about in Internet-based research, even just on the level of the technologies involved in the Internet (William Schmidt, Chapter 29).

Of course, part of the problem is that there is no one ‘Internet’, no single effect of the Internet on behaviour, and no simple link between an individual and how they choose to use the Internet. Instead, we shape the Internet in accordance with our needs and desires, and in turn the Internet shapes us. Some examples of this are examined in Chapter 23 by Diane Schiano and colleagues on the use of mobile technology, (p. 3) Chapter 19, by Jeffrey Hancock on deception and Karen Douglas (Chapter 11) on hate groups and the chapters on trust and interactivity. We hope that this Handbook begins the process of consolidating our understanding of how these myriad interactions operate.


We are grateful to Martin Baum and Carol Maxwell of Oxford University Press for their support of this project, and for the anonymous reviewers of the original proposal for their valuable comments and insights. We are also indebted to our many colleagues who reviewed the chapters of this book, including Zachary Birchmeier, Pam Briggs, Scott Caplan, Nicola Döring, Waldemar Dzeyk, Jan Eichstaedt, Gunther Eysenbach, Immo Fritsche, Mark Griffiths, Dirk Heerwegh, Thomas Koenig, Yuliang Liu, Germán Loewe, David Nicholas, Norbert Schwarz, S. Shyam Sundar, Rhonda Swickert, Tracy Tuten Ryan, Monica Whitty, and others who wish to remain anonymous.

Adam Joinson is Senior Lecturer of Information Systems at the School of Management at the University of Bath. His research interests include computer-mediated communication, e-social science, privacy and disinhibition online. He is the author of Understanding the Psychology of Internet Behavior (2003, Palgrave), Truth, Lies and Trust on the Internet (with Monica Whitty, Psychology Press, 2007), and has published over 50 journal articles, book chapters and conference proceedings in the field.

Katelyn Y. A. McKenna (Yael Kaynan) is a Senior Lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and at The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in the Department of Communication. Her research interests are in the areas of relationship cognition, the self, and social identity, particularly in terms of their applicability to Internet interactions.

Tom Postmes is Professor of Communication and Social Psychology at the University of Exeter. His research interests are group processes and communication, in particular on the topics of social influence, the formation of group norms, collective action, intergroup conflict, perceptions of discrimination and oppression. His work has been published in over 40 journal articles, more than a dozen book chapters and several other publications.

Ulf-Dietrich Reips is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, University of Zurich. Reips' research interests include methods, tools, and techniques of Internet-based research, in particular Internet-based experimenting, e-/i-learning and -teaching, online privacy and self-disclosure, Internet-based data mining and log file analysis, cognition, social psychology, and e-health. Reips is founding editor of the International Journal of Internet Science, and has published over 60 journal articles, book chapters and books in the field, including Dimensions of Internet Science (with Michael Bosnjak, 2001) and Online Social Sciences (with Bernard Batinic and Michael Bosnjak, 2002). (p. 4)