Understanding the Psychology of Internet Behaviour: Virtual Worlds, Real Lives.
Adam N. Joinson (2003).
Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
ISBN 0-333-98468-4; £16.99 pbk.

Reviewed by Dr. Stephanie J. Morgan,
Dept. of Organizational Psychology, Birkbeck College, University of London.

The Internet is increasingly used in every aspect of our lives in the Western world, almost everywhere you turn the information is available on the Internet, or e-mail is the expected norm for communicating. The negative aspects of Internet use tend to get the most press, with concerns about paedophiles, gambling, and ruined relationships leading to increasing concerns about the impact of the World Wide Web. Yet what affect does Internet use have on individuals, and is this really so different to other forms of technology?

Anyone wishing to increase their understanding of the psychology of Internet use, whether as an academic or an informed citizen, should take a look at this book. Joinson manages to pull together a broad range of literature and write in an engaging style to make the subject both meaningful and interesting.

The book starts by putting the Internet in context, and thankfully uses a broad range of technology to compare against, rather than the often-used face-to-face comparison. Reflecting on the development of writing, the telegraph, telephone, radio and mobile text-messaging, the first chapter demonstrates the similarities and possible differences of Internet use. The second chapter discusses the characteristics of the Internet as a tool, and outlines models that may help to explain behavioural changes. There is a good development of critique here and an emphasis on plasticity, casting doubt on the ‘loss’ models of computer mediated communication.

The next two chapters discuss negative aspects of Internet use, but make good use of counter-evidence to demonstrate that simple causal relationships cannot be assumed. Following on from this two chapters discuss the positive aspects and benefits of Internet use, again offering a good overview and balanced arguments for and against.

A key argument of this book is that interactions between the Internet, the person, and the context will lead to predictable behaviour. Although the idea of predictability set off alarm bells in my head, the model developed in chapter seven clearly allows for the complexity of the relationships. The framework develops the view of the ‘strategic and motivated user, expected and emergent effects’ (SMEE), which combines a number of approaches and allows for complex interactions between the user, the media, and the ongoing interaction. The importance of including an ongoing feedback cycle is clearly argued and demonstrated through example behaviours.

There are only some very minor issues to raise. Although Joinson highlights problems with technological determinist approaches, his discussion of alternatives is brief. Only the rational actor and emergent process views are highlighted, with no discussion of social constructionist approaches and related ideas of interpretive flexibility (see McLoughlin, 1999). Perhaps because of this there is also very little discussion on issues such as cross-cultural clashes (e.g. Walsham, 2001). Sometimes the organization is a little forced, but this is perhaps to be expected when pulling together such a broad range of literature.

The issue of the changing nature of the Internet and uncertainties regarding how developments will influence behaviour is emphasised. In the final chapter Joinson suggests the Internet may be more akin to a communication highway than an information highway. It is also argued that future developments will change the nature of Internet behaviour, and that certain types of behaviour can be designed in or out. This book does offer a significant contribution in developing the SMEE framework and clearly outlining the implications of likely responses to different types of design. The final section on designing Internet behaviour was rather short, in particular more could have been said regarding the impact of Internet communication within and between organizations, however it offers a good ‘taster’ for the applied aspects of Internet behaviour.

Overall this is an excellent book, which can be of practical use in designing Internet based systems as well as being intellectually stimulating. The book has good references, and an author and subject index. It is also available in hardback (£49.50), and I suspect will be much thumbed by those interested in understanding our behaviour on the Internet.

References:
McLoughlin, I. (1999) Creative Technological Change: The Shaping of Technology and Organisations. London: Routledge.
Walsham, G. (2001) Globalization and ICTs: Working Across Cultures. Research papers in Management Studies. Cambridge: The Judge Institute of Management Studies. WP 8/2001.

Published in Social Psychological Review (2004) British Psychological Society.