Social psychology has a long history of researching the effects of communication technologies, such as the telephone and television, on individuals and groups. Social psychological research on the Internet has focused predominantly on text-based computer-mediated communication (CMC), such as e-mail, bulletin boards, newsgroups, conferencing, and chat. These have been compared both theoretically and empirically with face-to-face communication or with some other standard that controls for certain critical features of CMC, for example, anonymous or identifiable communicators, real-time or asynchronous communication, distributed or co-present interaction.
However, as Internet technology advances, CMC is being realized in an increasing variety of forms ranging from real-time audio and videoconferencing to virtual reality interaction systems, and these newer forms of CMC have also begun to be the subject of social psychological research. Social psychological studies on audio and videoconferencing made prior to the emergence of the Internet are also relevant to these developments.
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Social psychology has been defined as the scientific investigation of how the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others. As such, the discipline is particularly germane to understanding human behaviour in a communication medium that takes as many varied forms as the Internet and in which the real or virtual presence of individuals is the subject of both social and technological construction.
Social psychological research on the Internet has focused predominantly on text-based communication (such as email, bulletin boards, newsgroups, conferencing and chat), which have been compared both theoretically and empirically with face-to-face communication or with some other standard that controls for critical features of CMC. However, as Internet technology advances, CMC is being realized in an increasing variety of forms ranging from real-time audio and video-conferencing through to virtual reality interaction systems, and these newer forms of CMC have also begun to be the subject of social psychological research (e.g., Lea, Spears & De Groot, 2001; Lea, Spears & Watt, 2003). Earlier social psychological studies on audio and video conferencing prior to the emergence of the Internet are also relevant to these developments (Short, Williams & Christie, 1976).
Social psychological research focuses upon a range of domains that are both theoretically important and crucial to understanding the practical implications of Internet use. Social influence and group decision-making are foremost among these in that they are central to social and work groups and the wider organizational context of Internet use. How CMC affects group-definition and group dynamics is an important question for developing and evaluating new ways of working on the Internet (e.g., teleworking, computer supported collaborative work). How the Internet affects perceptions of self and others has implications for all aspects of relating on-line, including developing personal relationships, using counselling services and social support groups, and achieving a sense of belonging to virtual community groups. The Internet not only provides a context for communication within groups and communities, but also for intergroup communication: that is, communication across group boundaries and social divides such as gender, ethnicity, and social class. How perceptions of status and power differences that normally operate in face-to-face interaction and which are particularly salient in intergroup contexts may be affected by Internet communication is a further issue. More fundamentally still, is the issue of how identity is defined in “cyberspace”, where some of the visual reality constraints relating to physical embodiment and face-to-face communication do not always apply.
Studies of the Internet have the potential to inform social psychology theory, especially as most theorizing about group dynamics and relationship development has assumed face-to-face interaction as the norm. How well these theories can account for social behaviour between people when face-to-face interaction is diminished or entirely absent is a question that study of the Internet can help to answer.
Three social psychological perspectives
Social psychological research about the Internet has been driven primarily from three conceptual origins. These are communication bandwidth, deindividuation, and social identity. Communication bandwidth approaches derive from information theory and seek to equate the social efficiency of communication with its technical efficiency. For example, the social information processing approach proposes that social interaction processes are similar but slower in CMC than in face-to-face interaction, because CMC forces social information into a single, limited-capacity linguistic channel. This tends to retard the process of impression formation, though not eliminate it; given sufficient time, interaction on the Internet can be as effective as face-to-face interaction (Walther, 1992, 1997).
Theoretical constructs such as ‘information richness’ (Daft & Lengel, 1984) have been employed to quantify the amount of social information carried by different media, such as email, while the related concept of ‘social presence’ attempts to define the relative information carrying properties of different media in phenomenological terms (Short, Williams & Christie, 1976; Rice, 1993). From this perspective, face-to-face interaction, as full bandwidth communication, is the standard against which every communication medium is measured.
Deindividuation theory is a large and important topic within social psychology (Zimbardo, 1969; Postmes & Spears, 1998) concerning the sense of anonymity accompanying immersion in a group. Deindividuation theory has also become influential in accounting for the apparently anti-normative behavior observed in on-line discussion groups and chat rooms on the Internet as well as in group decision support systems (Jessup, Connolly & Tansik 1990; Kiesler, Siegel & McGuire, 1984; Kiesler & Sproull, 1992). Like bandwidth approaches, the deindividuation perspective also proposes that CMC effects relate to the reduced social dimension in CMC. Importantly, however, this perspective focuses primarily on the relative anonymity experienced in the medium and the psychological state of reduced self-awareness, reduced awareness of your audience and reduced accountability that supposedly results. This in turn affects communication efficiency, participation, relational behaviour and group decision-making.
In a seminal paper, Sara Kiesler and colleagues reported on a series of experiments that compared the social psychological impacts of computer conferencing, electronic mail and face-to-face communication (Kiesler, et al., 1984). CMC produced more extreme group decisions, less information exchange, more uninhibited language or ‘flaming’, greater task focus and lower attraction responses was observed (Kiesler, et al., 1984; Kiesler, Zubrow, Moses, & Geller, 1985; Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler & McGuire, 1986). Despite the inevitably negative conclusions about the medium drawn from these studies, it became clear that the same processes could also give rise to more beneficial social consequences such as reduced status and power differentials, and more egalitarian, democratic and liberating interactions (e.g., Dubrovsky, Kiesler & Sethna, 1991; McGuire, Kiesler & Siegel, 1987; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). These and similar studies have helped to shape both dystopian and utopian visions of the Internet’s effects upon society. Nevertheless, many subsequent studies have shown that the Internet’s social psychological effects, far from being inevitable, are very variable depending on circumstances. The challenge for much social psychological research has therefore been to explain when and why specific effects occur.
The third general approach takes a more contextualized perspective to explain the heterogeneity of social psychological effects on the Internet and to predict the occurrence of specific forms of behaviour. Foremost among these is the SIDE Model (Lea, Spears, & Rogers, 2003; Spears, Lea & Postmes, 2001; Watt, Lea, & Spears, 2002), which is rooted in the social identity approach to group behaviour and intergroup relations (Tajfel & Turner, 1986; Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher & Wetherell, 1987). This approach has sought to account for a wide range of group behaviour on the Internet, such as social stereotyping, group cohesiveness, attraction, cooperation, collective action, conflict resolution, leadership behaviour, conformity and decision-making.
In the SIDE model, an important distinction is drawn between different sorts of social cues that may be present (or absent) in CMC, namely interpersonal cues, and cues to social features, such as group identity and category membership. This approach argues that whereas text-based CMC filters out many interpersonal cues that identify and individuate the communicators, group and category level cues that are communicated relatively independently of bandwidth considerations are thereby given more opportunity to influence interaction, and the definition of the self and situation. The precise effects of the Internet upon behaviour depend upon the interaction between the type of social anonymity provided by a particular form of communication (such as email or video conferencing), environmental contexts (such as physical isolation) and the specific social context of the communication (such as group salient or interpersonal conditions). In particular, in situations where a group membership becomes salient (i.e., situationally relevant), relative anonymity encourages a shift in self-perception from personal identity towards social, group-based, identity. This shift from perceiving the self as a unique person to perceiving the self as a group member is referred to as depersonalization. When depersonalized, people tend to accentuate similarities within groups, and differences between groups, stereotyping others and the self in terms of group attributes. This results in increased adoption of the norms of self-included groups when group identity is salient.
In addition to these ‘cognitive’ effects of anonymity, ‘strategic’ effects also occur that help to explain the power of the Internet for providing social and political support, particularly in intergroup contexts in which a power relation is present between groups. In this case the Internet not only allows one to disseminate information widely and to contact a community of like-minded people who might otherwise remain inaccessible or invisible (McKenna & Bargh, 1998; Douglas and McGarty, 2001), but the relative anonymity from powerful outgroups provided by Internet communication may enable the community to express group normative behaviour that might otherwise be punished or sanctioned by others (Spears, Lea, Corneliussen, Postmes & Ter Haar, 2002; Spears, Postmes, Lea & Wolbert, 2002).
Language and social psychology
Language is central to understanding the Internet’s social psychological effects. Language is the major means by which we communicate affiliation, intimacy, power and difference. Even where it is not directly or explicitly implicated, language forms the medium of social influence. The text-based nature of much Internet use means that the focus on language and linguistic factors is all the greater, especially in comparison with other communication media or channels, and is used to convey information about group membership (through headers, signatures, and other identifying labels), as well as carrying the message itself (persuasive arguments, perlocutionary acts, discourses, etc.).
Cues to enduring social categories such class, gender, and ethnicity are often subtly communicated in language, as well as through direct category markers, which can be detected and acted upon in anonymous CMC (Herring, 1996). In one bulletin board study, men’s messages were longer and used more ‘male language’ (assertions, challenges, authoritative tone) than women’s, who tended to use less confrontational and authoritative styles. The salience of these cues to gender is also revealed by their effects on participants’ communication behaviour, which are dependent in turn on the social context for communication. In work-group discussions, women’s messages tend to receive fewer responses (from men and women) and topics initiated by women were less likely to be taken up by the group. However, in recreational situations, women’s messages tend to receive more attention from men.
Stereotypes about outgroups are linguistically transmitted in CMC by means of the linguistic intergroup bias (LIB) and linguistic expectancy bias (LEB). The LIB is the tendency to communicate negative information about outgroups and positive information about ingroups in more abstract terms, thereby reinforcing the favourable standing of the ingroup. The LEB refers to more abstract characterizations of stereotype-consistent information, which thereby perpetuate stereotypic group representations (Wigboldus, Semin & Spears, in press).
Not all communication on the Internet is primarily group-based even though the medium lends itself so readily to collective behavior. The development and maintenance of personal relationships, which has become a well-reported public arena for evaluating the Internet’s social effects, is another important focus for social psychology. Evidence suggests that relationships formed primarily on the Internet can differ in their shape and form from traditional relationships bounded by physical contact (Lea & Spears, 1995), but have comparable survival rates, at least in the medium term (McKenna & Bargh, 2000). Physical cues play a less foundational role in on-line relationships than mutual interests, and personal self-disclosure can be greater, primarily because of anonymity and increased private self-awareness in the medium (Joinson, 2001). High levels of trust, empathy, mutual support and understanding have been reported to develop faster on-line than in comparable face-to-face contexts (Salem, Bogat & Reid, 1997).
Internet use can affect off-line relationships too in complex ways. For example, initial findings of the controversial HomeNet study suggested that Internet use can cause us to become socially isolated and neglect the “strong ties” of our everyday lives (Kraut et al., 1998), although the Internet is clearly useful in maintaining and reinforcing weak ties with dispersed friends and extended family members (Howard, Rainie & Jones, 2001). Possibly, the Internet amplifies feelings of loneliness for some (e.g., introverted) people, while amplifying social involvement for others (e.g., extraverts (Kraut et al., 2002).
Descriptive and anecdotal accounts of the Internet’s effects in this important area of social life abound, but systematic studies of the Internet’s effects on social psychological processes relevant to personal relationships are less numerous than in the field of group behaviour, despite the simplicity of using the Internet itself to collect social psychological data (Birnbaum, 2000).
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