I’ve been online quite a few years now. Actually, I first used the internet in college in the late 1970s. There were only a handful of non-governmental university sites back then, and I happened to be an undergraduate at one of them. A decade later, in the late 1980s, I was a member of the first online community, called The Well. In the years that followed, I was active in online forums about psychiatry and other topics.
By the early 1990s, after my psychiatry residency and research fellowship, I had begun to think about the psychological dynamics of online communication. Now that it’s almost 2009, many dissertations and books have been written on the subject, online communities are commonplace (e.g., see here, here, and here), and most everyone is at least somewhat familiar with online communication. But nearly 20 years ago it still felt new and ill-defined, and an idea dawned on me that seemed to explain a lot about what I saw happening online.
In the 1980s, the main place for freewheeling discussion online was Usenet, a huge collection of topic-based forums (newsgroups) covering every imaginable subject. From highly technical discussions of computer technology to frivolous chatter about celebrities, this text-only, worldwide, generally anonymous medium served as a massive reservoir of information and “computer culture.” In addition, local “bulletin board systems” (BBSs) provided similar forums on a much smaller scale, and individual email discussion lists arose where subscribers could read and post commentary outside of Usenet. In all of these, emoticons (e.g., smiley faces), in-group jokes, and acronyms (like LOL for “laugh out loud”) were popularized, and have left their mark ever since.
What most caught my attention, though, were the extremes of emotion expressed. I was struck by the incredible hostility many users directed toward others. Snide putdowns, withering sarcasm, and utter contempt were fair game and surprisingly common. This was collectively called “flaming,” as in blasting someone with flames. Flaming was social behavior that would never be tolerated FTF, IRL (face-to-face, in real life).
My first thought about flaming was that it existed because flamers could get away with it. They were untraceable due to anonymity and unreachable due to lack of physical proximity. There were typically no consequences for flaming other than flames directed back in response. But this failed to account for the hostility in the first place. Are young men (the demographic of most internet users back then) naturally inclined to such levels of raw aggression anytime they can get away with it? Not entirely implausible, but a sad conclusion if true.
Then I noticed the opposite as well. Organized online dating would not catch on until the advent of the World Wide Web and commercial websites in the 1990s, but cyber-romance was already well-known in 1980s computer culture. People who scarcely knew each other — and only through text, no pictures — would flirt eagerly online. There was an idealization of the unseen other, a belief or hope that he/she was everything one dreamed of. Of course, stories were rampant of disappointing (or horrifying) results when a meeting finally took place FTF. But these romances struck me as the other side of the flaming coin. Hmm, idealization and devaluation — where had I heard of those before?
Transference was a concept invented by Sigmund Freud to apply to the psychoanalytic situation. The analysand (patient in analysis) experiences feelings toward the analyst that are “transferred” from parents or other important figures in the analysand’s life. These feelings are often erotic if positive, harshly rageful if negative, and often a mixture of both. Successfully analyzing the transference is a main task of psychoanalysis, and thought to be central to its curative effects. For this reason, transference is promoted in psychoanalysis. By sitting outside the analysand’s field of view, refraining from personal disclosure, and maintaining “therapeutic neutrality,” the analyst provides space for the patient to ascribe facts and feelings to the analyst and to react to them. These facts and feelings are created in the patient’s imagination, and are not realities about the analyst. However, the patient’s emotional reactions are real, and shed light on long buried feelings and emotional assumptions about others.
I realized that online anonymity, and online communication more generally, unwittingly encouraged transference. During the 1980s era of text-only discussions on the internet, users literally sat outside each others’ field of view and provided little personal disclosure. (This formed the basis of a now famous 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker.) Facts and feelings were ascribed to the unseen others online. These presumed facts and feelings in turn prompted primitive erotic and aggressive feelings, and these in turn led to cyber-romance or flaming. The main difference from psychoanalysis was the lack of a professional to interpret and contain the transference. Thus, there was nothing healing or curative about it; it was bad-tasting medicine with no benefit.
Transference helps to explain important aspects of online dynamics in the 1980s. But much has changed since then. The graphical user interface of the World Wide Web began to erode user anonymity by the mid-1990s, as home pages with photographs and personal information were uploaded by the millions. This trend has accelerated with Web 2.0 and current social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and many others. Anonymity now seems to be the last thing on the minds of internet users. Personal details and the minutia of everyday life are routinely shared online. Job-seekers google potential employers and vice versa. Potential romantic partners google one another. In theory this discourages transference; my own unscientific impression is that flaming has become passe, cyber-romance more cynical than idealistic. I now wonder if we need not fear unwitting transference so much as its opposite: an undue familiarity that makes romantic love and admiration of heros less possible.