John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated July 00 (v1.0)

Maximizing the Well-Being of Online Groups

The Clinical Psychologist in Virtual Communities


Psychologists and other mental health professionals are exploring the various opportunities for doing clinical work online. For many, that involves one-on-one psychotherapy and counseling, such as e-mail and chat interventions. Another possibility is working with groups. When consulting to virtual communities, or leading, facilitating, and creating online groups, the mental health professional confronts a range of issues about how to maximize the well-being of the individual member as well as the whole group. This work involves a mixture of principles and techniques from traditional group therapy, community psychology, and organizational psychology. But it also involves some rather unique situations that demand new ways of thinking and intervening. Let me briefly describe four scenarios from my own work to illustrate these kinds of situations:

-1- A well-know psychologist leads an online message board devoted to a discussion of his theory of psychotherapy. All goes well until one day a person shows up and challenges his theory. At first the psychologist responds to the challenge very politely. He explains and clarifies his points. But this newcomer is what some experienced onliners call an "energy creature." He very vigorously, very persistently, and eventually very disrespectfully tries to convince everyone that the psychologist is ineffectual, unethical, and even harmful in his work. With this particular message board software, there is no way to block the person from the group. What should the leader do?

-2- Mary is a well-liked member of a chat community. Her online friends are very upset when she tells them that she is chronically ill with AIDs. In fact, she is dying. Weeks later someone receives a message from Mary's mother saying that she passed away. Her online friends are very distressed by this. They decide to hold an online memorial service for her. A few days pass, and the lingering sadness in the community changes drastically when the truth is discovered. Mary never died at all. She never had AIDs. She staged the whole thing. In fact, like a modern day Tom Sawyer, she attended her own memorial service in disguise in order to see how people would react to her death. The community exploded in an uproar. Was this a deliberate, hurtful deception? Should Mary be banned from the community? Was she perhaps suffering from a form of online Munchausen's Syndrome and needed professional help. Or was this, in some strange way, acceptable behavior? After all, in this particular chat community, it was well known that some people did assume imaginary identities.

-3- In a closed, rather intimate e-mail group of 10 members, people discuss how their online and offline lives affect each other. One member of the group becomes silent for many months. Even when directly asked a question in the group or contacted privately via e-mail, he doesn't respond. Maybe it's a very passive-aggressive act on his part, or more likely he isn't even reading the mail. But the group members don't know for sure. The people start to wonder why he might not be reading the mail. Is he OK, or very busy, or just doesn't care about the group anymore? Does he have his mail program set-up to filter their personal discussions into the trash? Why doesn't he just leave the group if he's no longer interested? He becomes the ultimate blank screen onto which everyone projects all sorts of ideas. Should someone contact him by phone? Should he simply be deleted from the group?

-4- A socially shy, unassertive woman doesn't want to be shy and unassertive anymore. She decides to go into an online community, pretending to be a male so she can develop the assertiveness and social strength that she imagines men possess. Or in a reverse situation, a male who is having trouble relating to women in "real" life decides to go into an online community as a female, so he can better understand what it's like to be a woman. His psychotherapist is not sure about this. Do these gender-swapping strategies work?

Now I deliberately didn't provide answers to the questions raised in these scenarios, and I didn't reveal the end to the stories. If you feel a bit teased or frustrated - GOOD! Because I'd like to use these situations to motivate us to think about the pathological and therapeutic aspects of life in online groups and communities. Rather than offer answers, which aren't necessarily the right ones, and rather than reveal the end of the stories, which weren't always happy endings, let me instead highlight some of the important issues about online groups and communities. These are issues that help online psychologists understand and maximize the well-being of such groups. Also, understanding these issues will help any psychotherapist work with clients whose life online is important to them. I'm going to run through these issues rather quickly, but links within the text will take you to other chapters in this book that contain supplementary information. So, a la David Letterman, here are:

Suler's Top 10 Issues in Understanding Online Groups and Communities

10. The Media

You have to use some kind of software - a media or communication channel - to create an online group. Different software have different communication features that affect how people express themselves and interact with each other. Synchronous or asynchronous communication, member profiles, whispering, avatars, message linking, audio-visual enhancements.... This is a huge topic unto itself. It's what human factors engineering of online community software is all about. Right here, all I want to do is emphasize how important it is to think about how the communication tool is affecting the group's dynamics.

9. The Dynamics of TextTalk

In most online groups we use typed text to communicate. This has a big impact on people in many ways. Voice and body language cues are missing, which is a loss of important social information. On the other hand, that partial anonymity can disinhibit people. They'll say things that they wouldn't say in-person - sometimes nasty things, but sometimes personal things. Also, writing is a skill. Some people have it and they turn TextTalk into an art form. Others don't and they may never join such an online group. It's a self-selection process. Or if they do, they find themselves at a disadvantage. People who are very expressive and influential in-person, verbally, may not be in an online group. In fact, people who are shy in-person may find themselves as leaders in cyberspace. That contrast between in-person and online behavior can greatly influence the group's dynamics.

8. Membership and Identity

The basic elements of group boundaries for in-person groups also apply to online groups. Who is the group intended for? How big should it be? Is it open or closed? The problem with some cyberspace groups is that you don't know the answer to some of these questions. You don't know how many people are seeing your messages. You're not even sure who the other people are. Groups in which people role play imaginary characters are fine, as long as you know other people are role-playing. It's in the groups where you don't know who is being real and who is play acting that problems come up. The governing rules of the group should be clear about identity, even if the rule is that people may or may not be themselves. This issue leads to number 7....

7. Rules of Conduct

How are people supposed to behave in the group? The people running the group should be clear, from the start, about acceptable and unacceptable behavior. There should be sanctions for gross misconduct and they should be applied when necessary. In cyberspace, privacy and lurking are very sensitive issues - so the confidentiality of the group's discussion is important to consider. Also, it should be clear who's in charge of the group. Some people seem to think that every nook and cranny in cyberspace is a democracy where there is absolute free speech. That's not the case.

6. The Leaders

Who are the leaders who shape the group? What's their agenda, their vision? What are their personality styles and unconscious motives? It's very easy for almost anyone to create an online group, including support groups in which people are discussing sensitive, personal issues. But the leaders may not know what they are doing and they may not be fully aware of all their motives for why they are doing it.

5. Pacing

In asynchronous communication, like e-mail and message boards, people participate at different rates. Some are online all day. Some maybe once a week or so. It's important to recognize and adapt to other people's paces. When you don't get an e-mail response from someone when you expect, try not to project all sorts of fantasies into that non-response! Each group also has its own pace, its natural ebb and flow. You can massage that a bit, but don't fight it. It's better to notice and understand the meaning of changes in that ebb and flow.

4. Integrating Online and Offline

Cyberspace is great, but let's not underestimate the importance of in-person realities. A healthy online group is one where at least some of the people know each other f2f. It's one in which at least some of the people know about other people's real lives and identities. It's one in which the group members talk, at least a little bit, with their family and f2f friends about what they are doing in the online group rather than their online group become an isolated, secret world. I think this "integration principle" is one of the most important issues in maximizing the well-being of an online group.

3. History

People who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it, right? The group should have some concrete way to convey its history, including lessons learned. Newcomers should know something about that history and old timers need some reminding. Remembering and celebrating the past can pave the way for the future. I was a member of one online community that failed to celebrate its own birthday, the day that the community was created several years earlier. To me that was dead give-away. Something was wrong with this picture - especially since this particularly community loved to throw parties and a birthday celebration seemed to be the perfect opportunity. Was there something amiss in the development of the community's identity? Was there a discontinuity with its past, perhaps even a rejection of its past?

2. The Black Hole

I've already hinted at how cyberspace can be very amorphous and ambiguous. There are no voices, no body language, no physical space other than the window you're typing into. In e-mail and message boards, there's no sense of time. It's all the perfect blank screen onto which we project all sorts of fantasies and transferences. Be on the lookout for this in online relationships and groups!

1. Structure, Purpose, Product

Online groups need structure. You don't want to over control them, you want to allow them to express their own intrinsic nature, but it does help a lot to answer such basic questions as: What are we doing here? What's our mission, our purpose, our philosophy? Groups devoted to the discussion of a particular topic are OK - and there are many thousands of these in cyberspace - but they tend to flounder, fizzle out, and sometimes people get argumentative and a bit crazy when there is nothing at stake except their words and ideas. It's good sometimes to have a concrete objective. It's even better sometimes to have a specific PRODUCT to create and show for your efforts. A good example of this from my own work is the Clinical Case Study Group of The International Society for Mental Health Online, which is devoted to in-depth discussions of psychotherapy cases in which the internet plays a significant role. There were several specific activities and products that helped center the group, that gave it a sense of direction and accomplishment - for example the report that describes its first year of work, as well as the ongoing document that articulates its working hypotheses about online clinical work.

Assessing and intervening in an online community demands a consideration of at least some of these ten issues. In some cases, "fixing" a problem may mean adjusting some feature of how the community operates. In others, it may mean working one-on-one with the individual person, or with a subset of members. Sometimes the intervention will be a combination of both strategies because the problematic experiences of the individual can be both unique and indicative of a defect in the community. Some of these interventions will be aimed at the psychological and social dimensions of the group, while others will involve technical changes in the media channel itself. For example, working individually with people who attempt to disrupt the group may be necessary, but every online group should have some software feature enabling the removal of problematic members.

Maximizing the well-being of an online group also involves more than just remedial interventions. Following the principles of secondary and primary prevention in community psychology, it requires an early detection of small problems before they escalate into big ones, as well as a sensible design of the community so that some problems can be avoided from the start.

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See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

Psychotherapy and Clinical Work in Cyberspace


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