John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article created May 1996, revised Jan 2000 (v1.5)

Intensive Case Studies in Cyberspace

and the Evolution of Digital Life Forms

An earlier version of this article was published as:
Suler, J.R. (2000). Case studies and the evolution of digital life forms.
CyberPsychology and Behavior, 3, 219-220.

One day in my undergraduate biology class, the professor suggested that all of biology should focus its research on a single species of fly. Every dimension of the fly should be examined in detail - including its anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, behavior. The massive amount of information gathered on that single fly could then be integrated into a complete, holistic understanding of what that fly is all about. "Then we would really know something!" the professor exclaimed.

Humans are a bit more complex than flies - not just in the fact that our biological make-up is more complicated, but also due to the seemingly infinite variety of ways we express ourselves. In this new millennium, we have entered the next stage in the expression of what it means to be human. Cyberspace is a powerfully complex, versatile environment that is creating previously unimagined forms of digital "life" - social entities that did not exist just a few years ago. How can we study these new human expressions? How can we fully understand and maximize the well-being of these digital life forms?

In this age of complex experimental designs and statistical analyses, the power of the case study often is overlooked. We sometimes forget how many of the most influential theorists in psychology started with observations of single subjects - Freud, Piaget, Kohlberg, even Skinner. Case studies are a powerful tool for generating finely tuned hypotheses that can be further explored using experimental methods. But case studies are not simply a preliminary step. They possess strengths that are missing in many of the more controlled quantitative research, which is why combining them with experimental strategies is so important. By carefully examining all of the intricate components of an entity - and how those components are related to each other - case studies reach an understanding of the whole that surpasses the sum of analyzing parts. They are self-correcting, flexibly adapting their focus and readjusting hypotheses as new findings are discovered. While the results of one case study may not always generalize to other cases, this holistic understanding can tell us why the results may not generalize. When it comes right down to it, no two organisms are ever exactly the same and no results are unequivocally universal. The case study accepts, even embraces this fact.

Given the very wide range of digital life forms in cyberspace, a flexible and comprehensive approach like the case study is essential. We must be creative in our vision of what a "case" is, as well as in our methods for studying those cases. We can focus on a single individual who is representative of a group; a unique individual who plays a special role in cyberspace; groups created via e-mail, message boards, chat, and video conferencing, including large scale communities consisting of hundreds or thousands of people; services and organizations positioned on the internet; and networks of interlinked web sites. We should focus on how the conventional boundaries of time, space, and sensory stimulation can all be altered to give expression to the new life forms. To investigate these phenomenon, the case study approach should integrate as many tools as possible: unobtrusive observation, participant-observation, empathic-introspection, focus groups, quasi-experimental manipulation of variables in the field setting, quantifiable questionnaires, and structured and unstructured interviews conducted via e-mail, bulletin boards, chat, phone, and/or face-to-face contact. Some tools may be adaptations of traditional in-person techniques; others will involve innovative applications of internet technology.

Beyond the case study comes the practice based on that research. What is the role of the psychologist and other applied social scientists in this new millennium of the internet? If new digital life forms are evolving, will traditional methods for clinical and community interventions work? In some cases, yes. We can build on and adapt strategies from the past. But as I suggest in my article on psychotherapy in this issue, new models may be needed. As social scientists attempting to improve psychological well-being within and via cyberspace, our methods need to evolve innovatively to match the needs of the new digital life forms. Combining cognitive, clinical, and community psychology with human factors engineering, we need to think in terms of software interface, communication channels, and networks. We need to recognize that what we traditionally thought of as a "case" - a person or a group of people - is changing. Just as the identity of a person or group can be altered, sifted, and sorted in a fascinating variety of ways online, so too can the roles and interventions of the cyberologist.

See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

Ethics in cyberspace research
One of us: Participant observation research

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