In a pretty short period of time, the internet has changed how we take care of our basic needs, stand up for ourselves, and talk to each other. But psychologists are still debating how much this rapid change has changed us in return. Enter the internet psychologist, who is working to understand our psychological relationship with the web to serve science—and help companies that want you to buy and use more services online.
Internet psychology (or web psychology or cyberpsychology, depending on where you are in the world) gained legitimacy in 2007 when Oxford University Press published the field's first textbook. Since then, a few peer-reviewed journals have sprung up. But the roots of internet psychology, as the name implies, are in psychology theory and research that has been around for a long time in related fields, including social psychology and neuroscience.
"Some would argue that internet psychology goes back to the 1970s, when folks were first interested in a thing called presence," said Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication and information science at Cornell University.
That was when psychologists first started to wonder how remote communication would affect people's impressions of and relationships with one another. Researchers' answers have changed a lot over the years, but the question is still central to the field of internet psychology.
"[Internet psychology] all comes down to trying to understand how people behave online and what changes in their brains as they're doing so," said Graham Jones, a UK-based internet psychologist who focuses on communication.
Some internet psychologists, like Jones and Hancock, got advanced degrees in psychology, then found their way to the web based on their interests. These days, some universities offer courses in cyberpsychology, like at the University of Maryland in College Park, or even entire degrees, such as the masters program at the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Dublin, Ireland.
A number of psychologists and neuroscientists are conducting research on the internet and the brain in academic institutions. Some of the big topics are ones you've been hearing about for years, including how the internet use affects attention spans and different personality types. At Cornell, Hancock is working on understanding how people interpret algorithms, like the ones that generate that those "trending" stories on Twitter and Facebook. Their work is often scientifically sound in comparison to some non-academic studies, Jones added, which sometimes lack enough participants or even a control group.
But some cyberpsychologists have chosen to veer away from academia, sought out by companies and online retailers that want to better engage potential consumers. Jones is an author and lecturer but has been a consultant for online businesses for many years.
"In the past retail psychologists were more focused on physical things; Walmart still employs retail psychologists to work out where they should put things on the shelves, to see how lighting and flooring affect how much you will spend in a shop," he said. "Now retailers are keen to find out how we behave online, how to get people to press that 'buy now' button. So they're using psychologists to help them understand how to sell more."
Hancock has seen a number of his students become user experience designers, working to optimize a new web site, app or product for the people that will be using them. That requires an understanding of the user's psychology, he said.
"So much of tech is centered around designing for users, so a big part of that equation is understanding the user, the user's interaction with the tech or with other people through it," he said.
With internet users as an large group of test subjects generating ample data, internet psychologists have been able to answer some of the basic questions that have been bothering social psychologists for decades, Hancock said.
We used to believe there were six degrees of separation. Facebook proved there are five.
For example, social psychologists have long hypothesized that random people in the world are more closely connected than they may think—a concept that we colloquially refer to as "six degrees of separation." In the 1990s, one researcher even predicted it mathematically. In 2011, Facebook found the average number of steps between two random people out of a billion of its users, and found that the outcome was just under five.
"This is a fundamental human social phenomenon," Hancock said. "It doesn't matter what kind of technology you're using to see it." Some psychologists have noted that the internet has been as revolutionary to their field as the telescope for physics or the microscope for biology, he said.
Even now, many internet users struggle to understand whether the internet is designed to fit their psychology or change it. As more internet psychologists infiltrate the digital corporate world, internet users may find that this distinction becomes even more muddied as the systems themselves exert more control.
Hancock mentioned that up until now both users and designers have embraced the internet as a tool, as a means to an end. "That will change—it will be more about us interacting with things that are trying to augment us," he said. "For example, my email system will show me my spelling errors but also make suggestions for how I can come across as more masculine in my message."
When asked if this future of the internet inspires more hope or dread, Hancock said, "It's a little of both—like a lot of stuff on the internet." It's hard not to be impressed at the types of communication the internet affords us and the insights that internet psychologists have gleaned as a result, he acknowledged. "But we're going through rapid change, and the legal policies and social norms are still catching up to the things that technology will let us do."
Corporate control of your online consciousness may not go unchecked forever, but it is a fact of life for now, in part thanks to (and in turn studied by) the internet psychologist.