Technical possibilities in new age

This is a draft of an article that was published in a special edition of the Journal of Group Analytics, March 2002.


There is little doubt that the Internet will continue to have an increasing effect on social interaction in the new millennium. Yet the Internet remains widely misunderstood. It is seen by many as merely a new technology of communication. However, it is in point of fact many different types of medium, offering a rich array of enhancements to the forms our communication can take, and about which considerable research has already been done. This research is useful for the Group Analyst in preparing for the technical possibilities of the new millennium. This article will define the uses of the Internet, including the benefits, challenges to overcome and issues involved, then discuss some of the specific applications that can be made from a fuller understanding of group processes on the Internet, with the aim of focusing on the many new opportunities for growth in all aspects of group-analytic psychotherapy.

Keywords: Internet, large group, technology, members, group processes


For many people, the Internet is only what they access from their browser. This misses many key aspects about what the Internet is and how it is affecting our world. At its simplest, the Internet is nothing more than the set of all computers communicating together via a common language known as the Internet Protocol. This is a technological viewpoint that also misses many important social nuances. From a broader, more socially aware perspective, it is a force in our world affecting every aspect of life. The popular press asks constantly asks about the impact of this technology, including how it affects therapy. People are going online to find comfort and direction, struggling with technology as they do it. Like it or not, the Internet is primed to have an enormous impact on large groups in the new millennium.

Across the Internet, there are many ways to access information. The most common forms of access are probably Email and Web pages, although as Web-based email becomes more and more common, the dividing line between the two becomes blurrier. However, the Internet delivers information in many ways other than the Web and Email. In the early days of the Internet much of the traffic was terminal emulation sessions, file transfers and “news”. “News” is similar to a mailing list and provided some early forms of group interaction over the Internet. It is still used extensively today.

Terminal Emulation allows access to text based virtual environments. These are the precursors to the chat rooms that are so popular today. They are also a richer environment than current chat room, providing a greater level of nuance in the communications. Often these text based virtual environments are referred to as MUDs (Multi User Dungeons), MOOs (Multi User Dungeon using a programming technique called Object Oriented Object programming to provide additional richness) and several other variants. MUDs and MOOs were created based on the fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons. The richness of the communications, the synchronicity, and history of role playing has caused MUDs and MOOs to be extensively researched.

As an example, shortly before the authors wedding, a text based wedding took place in a chapel in LambdaMOO, one of the most popular social MOOs. Friends from around the world joined in. Everyone read the same text describing the room and the ceremony. Rings and wedding gifts were exchanged. People not only spoke to one another, but they hugged, kissed and interacted on many levels.

In many ways, the chat rooms and Instant Messenger services of today are merely simplifications of the richer and more complicated MUDs. Whether one is chatting via an Instant Messenger, a chat room or a feature rich MUD, there is a rich set of group processes occurring.

Social Research in Synchronous Communications

As early as June 1996, researchers began laying the groundwork to study online synchronous therapy. Bartle (1996) analyzed the different types of people who visit MUDs and explored how to help the communities develop in a manner that would attract specific types of people. Subsequent research examined the psychological and social aspects of cyberspace (Sempsey, 1997) and anxiety in MUDs (Larsen, 1998).

Sempsey(1998) expanded up this with an exploration of the possibilities for therapy in MUDs. Barak and Wander-Schwartz (2000) delved deeper with an empirical study of Group Therapy conducted in a chat room. They concluded that “an anonymous, Internet-based, chat-room group therapy is a legitimate method of psychological intervention and has a positive impact on interested individuals in need” (Barak, 2000).

In a larger study, Sempsey and Johnston (2000) explored group interactional factors of MUDs, including expressiveness and group cohesion. They found that MUDs provided a more expressive medium with no noticeable impact on group cohesion. Further research should be done on how to maximize the benefit of the increased expressiveness available in MUDs.

This research continues on ever changing media and ever changing methods of using the media. As people spend more and more time using synchronous text based communications, “people learn to verbalize online that which is nonverbal offline.” (Utz, 2000).

Recurring themes in these articles included the possibility for Internet based therapy and the need for more research.

Social Research in Asynchronous Communications

Parallel to the research that has been done in synchronous communication, there has been considerable work done on the group processes in asynchronous mailing lists. Over the past few years, several mailing lists started focusing on group processes. Some of these, such as those focusing on Group Relations ( and Group Analysis (, the ISPSO mailing list (, the Group Psychotherapy list ( and the psychiatric-nursing forum ( ) focus primarily on content. Yet large group phenomena often emerges in such mailing lists, as the list moves from content to process (Davidson, 1998).

Other mailing lists, such as Experiences in Groups Online ( and AlphaSearch ( were created to be primarily experiential or process oriented. The International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, (ISPSO) discussed one of the first groups created with an experiential focus, NetDynam at their annual symposium (Meek, 1996), and further commentary was provided on the web (Young, 1996).

These lists often started with members introducing themselves, trying to get comfortable with their environment and wondering what the experiences would be like. Several of the lists had discussions comparing the beginning of the list to the beginning of a small study group. Yet usually, these groups decided not to be a small study group and often drifted away from being experiential. Often members of the lists would question to what extent group processes can take place online yet over time find themselves caught up in the group processes and experience a realization that group processes online can be very powerful.

Usually each list evolves in specific ways and there is interesting interaction now occurring between some of the lists. This is often seen as the evolution from the feeling of a small study group, to the feeling of inter group activity at a group relations institutional event. It is clear from all of this, that group processes are alive and well in cyberspace, whether or not psychologists choose to be involved.

Even the groups that attempt to focus primarily on content find themselves drawn into process when the group experiences anxiety. This is most notable during times of tragedy such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Yet it can also emerge during less threatening times such as when a key member faces individual stresses or the group goes through times of little activity.

During these times political opinions often get expressed. This leads to discussions about what is and isn’t appropriate material for the group to be sharing. Often questions about the role of the leader gets brought up at these times including questions about the best way of keeping the group on track. At times people will the group around such issues, since leaving an online group can be much easier that leaving a face to face group.

Challenges and anxieties surrounding using technology

Lack of visual cues

Along with the new opportunities for group experiences, the study of them, and a medium for publishing some of these findings, the Internet also presents new anxieties or, perhaps more accurately, some old existing anxieties in a new form. Many of these anxieties come from a discomfort with the medium being used and a lack of visual cues which are so important to group processes.

Comfort with technology

One such anxiety is being comfortable in the language being used in a large group. In a Group Relations conference this can be an issue when different members have different primary languages. Often an extra effort needs to be made to translate a thought, feeling or concept from one language to another. The same applies to computer-mediated communications. In the Experiences in Groups Online list, there have been members from Bulgaria, Brazil, Holland and Norway, as well as several different countries that speak variants of English as their primary language.

On top of the natural language issues, there were issues of people speaking a different academic language - anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and technicians all bringing their own nuances. Of course none of this is unique to computer-mediated communications. What is different is the question of whether one is using the technology properly. Many lists start off with messages announcing one's presence, asking if anyone else is around and checking to see if the messages are going through.

The language of online groups and the cues that are provided can be confusing and lead to misunderstandings for those not used to the environment. A good example is the difficulty understanding times of silence on a list. Is this caused by people thinking and processing what has been said? Is this caused by disinterest? Is this caused by people having problems with their computers and being unable to connect? Is this caused by people not being available due to other time commitments? Some lists develop and agree upon language to help clear up these potential areas for misunderstanding.

This is complicated by how involved the group member is with the technology. Often users are aware of the technology they are using and this awareness impedes their ability to be truly immediate, present and authentic. As users become more comfortable, they can experience ‘an illusion that a mediated experience is not mediated, a perception defined by Lombard (1997) as presence . This concept as it applies to all Internet communication is explored further by Barbatsis, Fegan and Hansen (1999), and specifically in relation to MUDs by Towell (1997).

Does the here and now exist in email

The concept of presence can be very important in the development of a group online. In group therapy there is often a focus on the “here and now". What does “here and now” really mean online, especially in asynchronous communications like email? It is not uncommon to receive an email which is a reply to a message which has not been received yet.

Azy Barak and Michal Wander-Schwartz (2000) say, “This technology [email], however, lacks a key feature of human interpersonal communication characterized by spontaneity, authenticity, immediacy, and directness.” Many emails are sent spontaneously, authentically, immediately, and directly, but not all. This presents the challenge of trying to sense authenticity in an email. This challenge, however, may not be substantially different than trying to sense authenticity in a face-to-face meeting, except for the lack of visual cues.

The “here” of one member may be an office while the “here” of another member may be a public access internet terminal at a local university. Seasons and weather can also affect the dynamic of a group. In a global list, some members may be experiencing spring like weather, while others experience autumnal weather. This can affect the mood of the different members and it is useful to have this acknowledge in the dynamics of the group.

Likewise the question of “now” has several interesting facets. Is “now” when the message is thought of, composed, sent, read, replied to, or some combination of these? Even if the times are very close in email, or in fact synchronous in chat rooms, the concept of “now” varies across time zones. It is not uncommon to have a chat going on between members in the United States, Europe and Australia. What is happening at ‘the same time’ may be happening early in the morning for members in the States, mid day for European members and at the end of the day for Australian members. Azy Barak and Michal Wander-Schwartz avoided this problem with the sense of “now” by having all the members in the same time zone. It would be interesting to see their research expanded to include cross time zone members.

Elimination of time and physical boundaries

With the concept of “here and now” taking a radically different shape on the Internet, the establishment of time and physical boundaries presents another challenge. In synchronous communications the time boundary is easier to hold. The chat room can be set up to be only available during a specified time. The consistency of the chat room provides a better potential for a sense of presence and a conceptual physical boundary. Azy Barak and Michal Wander-Schwartz chose this medium for their online therapy group.

With a mailing list these boundaries are less clearly defined. Most mailing lists are set up with no definite time boundary. The opportunities that abound at the normal boundaries in a group are not present in a mailing list, and the establishment of useful boundaries becomes a challenge for the mailing list members to take up.

Impression formation

As members become comfortable with the technology being used and get a sense of who is in the group, the process of impression formation can begin. Again, impression formation is not unique to computer-mediated communications. Members of a group meeting face to face also need to form impressions of one another. However, in a face-to-face meeting, there is a lot of non-verbal communications that are used to form the impressions. Usually it is very easy to tell the gender of a member in a face-to-face meeting. It may not always be as easy online. There have been many papers written about gender-swapping online (eg Bruckman, 1993). Without visual cues, the formation of such impressions may include developing a mental image of what the other members physically look like (Jacobson, 1999). Yet the more interesting aspects of impression formation concerning thoughts about another members personality, intelligence or other qualities, needs considerably more investigating.

This process may be complicated by what aspects of oneself a member chooses to present online. As with the example of gender swapping mentioned above, there may even be false information being presented. However, the false information presented may be as revealing as true information is about the underlying makeup of the personality.

It is also interesting to note that impression formation is an ongoing process and is dependent on context. In online groups where members have met face to face, the face to face experiences may become dwarfed by the online experiences, leading to shifting perceptions of the other members and changes in the relationships. For some groups this results in a desire to meet face to face more frequently. In other situations this can lead to much different behavior between members when interacting face to face than when interacting online. An example of this is co-workers who interact via email and face to face. When they are communicating face to face they are operating with one set of impressions and behave in one manner. However, when they communicate online, even if they just seen each other face to face they behave differently. This difference is also noted between how people interact via email versus how they interact in a synchronous online medium.


Without the visual cues or physical contact that occur in a face-to-face meeting, the process of establishing a trusting relationship online is more complicated. Often this results in a desire to use the Internet to see pictures of members or hear their voices. Very often in online groups a desire for face-to-face meetings is expressed. Also, it is not uncommon for some of the members of an online group to have met face-to-face outside of the group. This can create sub-groupings and potentially damage the process of developing trust online.

Since there are no visual cues, it is also impossible to tell what else is going on. Communications between members of an online group may be occurring without other members knowing. The fear of this happening can likewise negatively affect the development of trust on line.

Since the development of trust is so important to the therapeutic process, therapists have often expressed anxieties about developing trust on line and their resistance to using the Internet for therapy. This seems to diminish as therapists become more familiar with the technologies and ways to address these issues. The general public seems less concerned with these issues and perhaps overly trusting in the technology as can be noted on more general mailing lists where there is frequently a high level of openness.

Confidentiality and Permanence of record

One of the most important factors in developing trust on line is confidentiality. Like the other issues discussed, confidentiality is not a problem unique to cyberspace. However, given the ease of forwarding a message, of cutting and pasting information from one program to another, it is much easier to violate confidentiality. On top of this, with many online groups there is a permanence of record that can even further erode any possibility of confidentiality. The Experiences in Groups Online list, the Group Analysis list and the Group Relations list have archives online that can be accessed by anyone.

Online groups can elect to not keep archives and to encrypt their messages, but generally this does not happen.


Elimination of time and physical boundaries

While there are many difficulties and anxieties surrounding online communications, there are also many benefits that on line communication provides. One of the most obvious and interesting is the elimination of time and physical boundaries. As noted above this can be an anxiety producing challenge for an online group. However, the groups mentioned in this article all have a wide international membership, which wouldn’t be possible for face-to-face meetings. The elimination of the time boundary also makes it possible for members with busy schedules, who normally wouldn’t have a chance to join a group, to participate during gaps in their schedule.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of this to online groups is the ability to have a much wider diversity of membership that can greatly enhance the group experience.

A different mirror to look at oneself with

Another interesting aspect of online groups is the ability to explore different aspects of oneself. Bruckman discusses the experiences that members of groups have had presenting themselves in a different gender (Bruckman, 1993). While it is possible and beneficial to explore different aspects of oneself in a group setting, the ability to explore different aspects of oneself online is greatly enhanced by the same lack of visual cues that can also be problematic.


This can be amplified by the disinhibition that can be experienced in pseudonymous environments. The issues of confidentiality are shifted in a pseudonymous environment. The concern becomes less how trustworthy are the other members about revealing information that has been said. The concern becomes how does a member make sure that ones pseudonym does not get associated with identifying material about the member outside the group.

Specific Application

With all the challenges, anxieties and benefits that the Internet provides there are many different areas where online communications affects or could affect the lives of group analysts. Perhaps the most obvious is the opportunity to be in groups related to one's work. As noted above, there are already several such groups with lively interactions. It is also worth noting that members of patient- or other such groups led by group analysts are likely to also be members of online groups. More and more, one should expect to find intergroup dynamics where one of the groups is an online group.

There is also the potential for new types of groups to emerge. For example, the Internet could be a wonderful medium for exploring sociodrama, given the disinhibition mentioned above, the range of different 'mirrors' to look at oneself with, and the ability to attract a much wider membership.

For group analysts doing organizational consulting, online communications is a crucial part of the business world. An ability to take knowledge and expertise about group processes and apply them to the online communications within an organization is a skill that is sorely needed.

Delving even further into the business world, a recent research report by Durlacher Corporation Plc, argues that “communities are not simply a ‘nice to have’ adjunct for a web-based business, but that their creation is central to a sustainable business model” (Marathe, 1999). The group analysts who have learned technology and how group processes apply online have the potential to be instrumental in the evolution of online communities.

Emerging Technologies

While there are plenty of opportunities to apply one's knowledge of group processes online already, it is important to keep in mind that technology is continuing to change rapidly. As encrypted online chats become more accessible, some of the challenges and anxieties of online therapy will be lessened. As the speed of people’s connections to the Internet becomes greater and video cameras or 'webcams' become more prolific, the lack of visual cues will become less of a problem. Already there is exploration going on into therapy over the Internet using videoconferencing. In the next few years, we should expect to see this expand to include group therapy. Given the added diversity that the Internet can provide, the benefits could be profound.


There is a saying popular among information technologists, “When a new technology comes along, you can drive the steamroller, or you can be part of the road.” This does little to lessen the anxiety of people struggling with a new technology. However, it does reflect quite well the idea that managing to get ones anxieties under control can present many great new opportunities for growth. Like it or not, the Internet will increasingly provide the medium for groups, large and small, to come together and develop. The willingness of the group-analytic community to bring their expertise and insight to bear on this process, however, and engage in this development, remains to be seen.


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