Internet applications range from university teaching to e-commerce and from virtual organizations to online dating. Traditional modes of communication have been replaced, expanded, and enriched by online interactions. In that sense, the psychological study of Internet usage has, over the same time span, evolved from being a study of fringe phenomena to being the study of an important and pervasive aspect of everyday life.
There are various forms in which the Internet is significant to psychology. One is that the Internet has become the object of psychological research. In traditional approaches to studying the Internet, psychologists attempted to predict its impact by making comparisons to other media. Where this strategy was useful insofar as the Internet was similar to traditional communication media, the Internet has evolved to make this approach less feasible: it functions increasingly less like any other medium. This is due to the fact that the Internet functions both as a social network, connecting people, and as a medium that can be shaped (programmed) to transmit any communication or information that has the potential to be mediated. This means that on the Internet people can fulfill a range of communication functions, from passive reception of persuasive advertising messages, through interpersonal communication, to being a mass communicator.
Moreover, it means that as the Internet becomes an increasingly central vehicle in our interactions with others, it affects and transforms our social world and the parameters by which we engage with it. The Internet enables people to maintain existing ties and form new ones, to reinforce existing social networks and identities, and to construct and explore new ones, breaching boundaries of geography, social structure and social stricture. In the context of this, the field is moving away from studying the Internet for its technical features, and it is moving towards the study of the very real psychological and social implications of the virtual world. Increasingly, psychological research in this interdisciplinary field acknowledges the uses and consequences of the Internet in their full breadth: the fact that some are emancipatory, others reactionary, some individualist and disconnective, and others collectivist and connective.
However, for the discipline of Psychology as a whole the Internet also provides a challenging new environment within which research can take place. On the one hand this is evident in the methodological challenges that we face when using the Internet as a research tool. The Internet has inspired many methodological developments, and poses unique methodological challenges, such as dealing with dropout and large amounts of data. Furthermore, the Internet serves as a new (and massive) laboratory for psychological research. Psychologists use the programmable feature of this network to run their experimental and questionnaire research using the surfing community as participants for a wide variety of studies. Both facets enrich the instruments and reach of psychological research, and empower the discipline.
The Internet as an Object of Psychological Research
The Internet provides a heterogeneous mixture of applications. Hence, research on people’s behaviors on the Internet and use of the Internet is a heterogeneous field that can not be completely covered in one journal issue. Nevertheless, this issue summarizes a nice sample of papers addressing different aspects of this field:
o Research on predictors of Internet use
o Research on Internet use itself and individuals’ perceptions of the Internet use
o Research on the consequences of Internet use.