Is The Net Redefining Our Identity?

Sociologist Sherry Turkle argues that online encounters are reshaping human relations

Lurking in the corners of the Internet, Sherry Turkle has become the Margaret Mead of cyberspace. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology sociologist and psychoanalyst is a celebrity in computer circles for her studies of seductions, gender-swapping, democratic uprisings, even virtual rape--all of it conducted online. But she was stopped cold when she stumbled across her online double a few years ago.

Turkle encountered "Dr. Sherry," a self-described "cyberpsychologist," in one of several virtual communities she frequents. Her doppelganger was passing out electronic questionnaires and conducting online interviews. "I told myself that surely one's books, one's intellectual identity, one's public persona are pieces of oneself that others may use as they please," Turkle recalls. Yet here was "a little piece of my history spinning out of control."

For Turkle, it was life imitating art--or research. Her 1995 book, Life on the Screen, argues that computers and the Internet are redefining human identity, as people explore the boundaries of their personalities, adopt multiple selves, and form online relationships that can be more intense than real ones. The World Wide Web is "redefining our sense of community and where we find our peers," she says.

"PEOPLE SIDE." Turkle has developed a following beyond academe. Consultants and executives at Xerox' Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), America Online, McKinsey, and other members of the business community have taken to quoting her books and discussing her ideas. McKinsey consultant John Hagel says Turkle is one of the few investigators "pushing the people side of research on virtual communities, as opposed to the technology."

It's an important distinction for the corporate world. Turkle's research on children who grow up with computers, for example, gives insights into what type of adult consumers they might become. She finds that children are developing new patterns of thinking by piecing together concepts from fragments they find scattered around the Web. "Children from the earliest age have been teaching themselves how to make the most of life on the screen," she says. As a result, today's children will likely buy more, work more, and socialize more in the virtual world.

Turkle gained widespread recognition with the publication of The Second Self in 1984. The book, a hot seller, was praised for the way it combined the tools of psychoanalysis with detailed observations of computer users. Since then, popular attention has focused on the more sensational aspects of her work: How people use the Internet to engage in online sex, or "tinysex," as she calls it, and the surprisingly large number of men who adopt female personae online.

But all of her work revolves around the same issue--the ways in which computer interfaces are blurring the psychological boundaries between people and machines. She is intrigued, for example, by virtual communities known as multi-user domains (MUDs). There, people interact through personae they have created, and they navigate through virtual cities. The online site Habitat, in fact, started as a MUD but evolved into a game with multiple players using guns and other weapons.

Soon, she recounts, the "citizens" of Habitat started the same debate over violence that obsesses the real world. Some proposed banning guns, but others liked the Wild West atmosphere. In the midst of the debate, a clergyman founded the "Order of the Walnut" within Habitat, whose members pledged never to use weapons. Eventually, guns were banned from Habitat's town but allowed in the surrounding wilds.

BOUNDARIES. Turkle has also taken a hard look at how women use computers--"more as a harpsichord than a hammer," she says. Because the culture of technology has been largely male, Turkle says, its values have been hierarchy and control. With the rise of the Internet, a broad shift is under way to a culture that values collaboration and community--attributes more hospitable to women. Ted Leonsis, president of AOL's content division, says the numbers prove Turkle right: AOL's female membership has grown from 18% to 45% in the past two years.

Some of Turkle's ideas are old concepts dressed up in cyberclothing. She believes computers provide people with the means to explore the boundaries of self by shifting from one persona to another, even when they jump from writing a memo in one window to joining an online chat in another: Different roles are required for each task. But role-juggling didn't start with the PC. The telephone demands juggling, too, as does a switch from the workplace to parenting. John Seely Brown, research director at Xerox PARC, recalls the thrill of using Morse code to communicate with people around the world who had no idea he was only 12. "There are a lot of things in cyberspace that actually have much longer historical roots," says Brown.

NONTECHIE. Turkle's own roots are in psychology, not technology. Her first book, published in 1975, was about the role of Freud in the French intellectual awakening of the 1960s. "It wasn't in the cards, given my training, that I would find the computer," she says. Soon after she landed at MIT in 1975, she became curious about the relationships between people and machines. When Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintoshes began turning up at MIT in the early 1980s, she saw people bonding with the machines, partly, she surmised, because the easy-to-use interface allowed nontechies to explore them.

Her observations gave rise to The Second Self, which was criticized by some for its lack of hard data. Turkle says her approach is designed only to reveal a range of behaviors, not assess their frequency. "You have to trust my intellectual taste," she admits. Mitchell Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corp. and president of Kapor Enterprises Inc., defends Turkle as a pioneer in "investigating the new psychological realities--how people's experiences of themselves and others are different because of the way they interact on the Net."

What about the danger of addiction in the virtual realm? Turkle regards such fears as overblown, but some researchers disagree. New York psychologist Mark Stafford is generally supportive of Turkle's research but says she is overly optimistic about the beneficial impact computers can have on their users. "The technology allows for some very perverse behavior," Stafford says. Perhaps Turkle's mysterious online double, appropriating her life and work, is an example.