The Paradox of Internet Groups: Alone in the Presence of Virtual Others

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The new virtual era is already here. We use the internet every day, to retrieve information, to purchase merchandise, and to connect with others. But do we really understand the psychology of the internet and how it affects our lives?In this book, Dr Haim Weinberg looks at cyberspace from a group analytic perspective, conceptualizing internet forums as large groups with the illusion of being small groups, and using his expertise as a group therapist to shed new light on internet connections. He explores issues of attachment, relationships, inter-subjectivity, and neuroscience, and shows their relevance to the virtual world. He discusses the question of intimacy and develops a new concept of E-ntimacy that better suits internet bonding. He also examines the multicultural issues found in internet forums, and the leadership qualities needed to manage these issues. Finally, he claims that there is a link which connects us through the world wide web: the internet unconscious.

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Chapter One - It is all about Relationships

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Internet popularity and its spread

In December 1995, sixteen million people around the world were using the Internet, accounting for 0.4% of the population in the world at that time. In June 2010, it was estimated that 1,966 millions of people were using the Internet, which equals 26.7% of the world's population (www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm). This means that the use of the Internet multiplied itself by more than 123 times within fifteen years. It seems that the use of the Internet is accelerating and its impact on everyday life is enormous. In some continents, such as North America, the growth between 2000 and 2010 was 146%. In Africa this growth is estimated as 2,350%. Some of this impact is direct and clear, and some is subtle and covert.

A 2010 poll for the BBC World Service (news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8548190.stm) discovered that almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the internet is a fundamental right. The survey was conducted among more than 27,000 adults across twenty-six countries. Countries such as Finland and Estonia have already ruled that access is a human right for their citizens. In 2011 the United Nations also ruled that internet access is a human right (www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/08/internet-access-human-right-united-nations-report_n_872836.html).

 

Chapter Two - The Frame of Reference of Group Analysis

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The unique frame of reference that I use in this book to understand groups on the Internet is the group analytic one. Group analysis (Foulkes, 1975) is much more than a therapeutic approach and is grounded in the social sciences. It is a way of analysing data and looking at the world: it is a research tool. Group analysis is as much a methodological system as a theoretical system (Parker, 1997). It is useful for the analysis of small therapeutic group processes but also for the analysis of large groups such as communities, ethnic groups, and even societies. It provides tools to analyse unconscious processes and learn about society and communities (including Internet communities) in more depth. In this chapter I will describe how group analysis illuminates the philosophical, sociological and psychological aspects of groups, cultures and society at large.

Group analysis as a qualitative research tool

In the previous century research has been dominated by the scientific method. This positivist and quantitative research emphasised objectivity, neutrality, measurement, and validity. In the last forty years the domination of positivism has been challenged. Increased dissatisfaction with its primary position has led to the development of a variety of methodologies (Lather, 1991). One of them is the qualitative research.

 

Chapter Three - Cultures and (Virtual) Groups: The Internet Culture

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In a movie titled The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980) a Bushman from Africa finds an empty Coca-Cola bottle that someone threw from an airplane, and brings it to his tribe. The Coke bottle that dropped magically from the sky is considered a generous gift of the gods. They have never seen such a useful present that the gods sent them. They use it to pound tubers into mash, to smooth snake skin while curing it, as a stamp to apply decorative ink to leather, and as a musical instrument where you blow across the top to make a whistle. It seems that when people do not know of the original purpose of an object, they make creative uses of it.

But as time goes by the useful present from the gods becomes an evil object for this culture, which so far had no possessions and no ownership. Suddenly everyone is in need for this precious object and unfortunately there is only one bottle. So fights and competition start in this peaceful happy tribe, until finally they decide to get rid of that corrupting object.

 

Chapter Four - The Non-Body on the Internet: Presence, Immediacy, Subjects, and (Group) Therapy

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Introduction

One of the common arguments, perceiving Internet connections negatively, is that these are “virtual” relationships, totally different from the “normal” way that people connect face-to-face. People are used to embodied, body-to-body relationships, and relate to non-body contact as strange and “not natural”. Therefore, before continuing the discussion about relationship and groups on the Internet, we should deal with the common criticism about Internet interaction that argues that such a relationship is not real because no one is physically present in Cyberspace.

The Internet is revolutionary not only because of the way people connect with one another or retrieve information, but also because of the philosophical and psychological premises that reside behind it. The non-existence of the body in Cyberspace enables exploration of postmodern ideas that so far has had no way of being tested. The ability people have on-line to create different characters, play several roles, change their age, and/or appear as another gender was perceived as problematic and even dangerous by some psychologists, but clearly demonstrate the multi-facets of the self and of subjectivity. It seems that without being connected to their bodies people can explore more possibilities of the self and their subjective experience in ways that were blocked for them before the Internet era. It brings an “understanding of human subjectivity…as a partial, polymorphous and adaptable phenomenon” (Sey, 1999, p. 26).

 

Chapter Five - Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries (and the Forum Manager/Group Leader's Role)

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Introduction: boundaries and systems

Open any textbook about groups and you will find at least one paragraph about the importance of boundaries for the development of a healthy group. In fact, boundaries are important for the development and functioning of any human system, including the individual, the family, and social groups. Mahler's (Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975) developmental theory, describing how a human infant moves from symbiosis to object constancy and focusing on separation-individuation, is actually a description of the infant's struggle to develop normal boundaries which will be crucial to his/her future relationship. Although Daniel Stern (1985) proposed that an infant develops in a series of overlapping and interdependent stages or layers, which are increasingly interpersonally sophisticated, thus showing infant awareness of self/other from the beginning, Mahler's basic idea of developing boundaries is still important. Minuchin's (1974) structural approach to family therapy emphasises the importance of flexible boundaries between the family and its environment, and among sub-systems in the family (such as parents and children), focusing on the polarities of enmeshment (blurred boundaries) vs. disengagement (rigid boundaries). In the field of group therapy, the system centred therapy (SCT) model, developed by Agazarian (1997), described the main task of the group leader as increasing communication across boundaries, working on establishing functional subgroups and helping them explore similarities and differences.

 

Chapter Six - A Large Group with the Illusion of a Small Group: Listserve and Forum Dynamics

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Introducing the group psychotherapy discussion list

Hello, I've been lurking in the shadows for a while now. It's time to come out, encouraged by another colleague who just joined the group. I'm a mental health therapist at New Mexico State University. I'm being trained in psychodrama. I also run a psychodrama group at the Counseling Center in the University. If there are any psychodramatists out there please let me know. I'll share insights and ask questions as appropriate to this group. (Personal communication, group psychotherapy discussion list, 20 February 1996)

Hi,

I am a new member having been on the list for a few days and I have been trying to get the thread of the ongoing discussions.

My name is Moustafa Habib. I am a psychiatrist and I am at present working as the Senior Consultant Psychiatrist and am Head of Psychiatric Services in one of the Persian Gulf Sultanates. I have been doing groups for the last 18 years and find this forum most interesting. I look forward to learning from the cross-cultural and world-wide experiences. (Personal communication, Group Psychotherapy discussion list, 26 Jun 1998)

 

Chapter Seven - The Internet and the Social Unconscious: From Intimacy to E-ntimacy©

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More about the social unconscious

Freud described the unconscious as existing beyond space and time. The individual unconscious is not bounded by reality limitations of time and space. Bion (1959) expanded this argument to the group unconscious and its basic assumptions, claiming that time and space are ignored in the group unconscious. Cyberspace seems as if it was originated in order to explore the unconscious because it is the ultimate boundless-timeless environment where conventional reality's rules do not exist. It can become a place to explore utopian possibilities, or a wrecking yard for traditional culture. Knowing how the internet is perceived as a boundless space, and how online forums exist beyond time limitations, it is only natural to wonder whether the Internet becomes a fertile ground for the creation of a new kind of unconscious: the Internet unconscious.

But before entering the realm of the Internet unconscious, already knowing how boundaries differ in different cultures and that online forums resemble large group in some ways (see previous chapters), perhaps we should explore what is written about the large group unconscious, and especially what we know already about the unconscious of people in social large groups.

 

Chapter Eight - Yalom's Therapeutic Factors Virtually Examined (This Chapter was Written in Collaboration with Ravit Raufman)

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(This chapter was written in collaboration with Ravit Raufman)

Yalom's factors

Since Irvin Yalom (1970) described the therapeutic factors functioning in every psychotherapy group, these factors appear in any textbook about group psychotherapy. It is impossible to discuss group therapy, or groups in general, without considering them, examining their emergence and function in the specific group. In the latest edition of their book, Yalom & Leszcz (2005) discussed the essence of successful group therapy and proposed a list of eleven elementary factors of therapeutic change. Table 1 describes thirteen therapeutic factors according to the American Group Psychotherapy Association.

As noted by Yalom, not all factors are always present or equally important in every group. There is substantial variance among groups and group leaders in the emphasis they put on each of these factors. Thus, in some groups (e.g., Yalom-type groups) there is more emphasis on interpersonal learning, while other groups emphasise imparting information (for example, psycho-educational groups). Furthermore, group participants may differ in how much they are able to profit from each factor. For example, one participant could experience the imitative behaviour as being most important, while for another the strongest therapeutic factor could be instillation of hope. The distinction between these factors is arbitrary, and the factors are interdependent and cannot be dealt with separately.

 

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