The Internet is profoundly affecting how people form relationships, organize, collaborate, help one another, consume and produce information, and make collective decisions. Though forming social networks is not new, what is new is that electronic networks can help people to maintain networks, but also to expand the reach of their networks. The Internet enables new forms of organizing at an unprecedented scale, from creating distributed social groups to mobilizing political action. Online collaborative peer production has created Wikipedia, an encyclopedia that experts have judged to be no different in quality from the traditional print version (Giles, 2005). Citizens have become news correspondents and editorialists, using platforms such as microblogs, blogs, and social-networking sites to report and comment on current events, in many cases faster than traditional news media. When crises occur, people no longer need to depend on formal official responders for aid; people are using an array of Internet applications to locate lost victims, send resources, and broadcast situational awareness about the crisis. Last, through crowdsourcing, people combine small contributions to achieve large effects such as solving complex scientific problems.
The Internet allows people to be social beings for nearly all their waking hours. The ubiquity of the Internet and social media raises numerous questions about its effects on social behavior across many spheres of daily living. For instance, many young people now bring laptops to classes and iPhones to the dinner table, where they are able to stay connected to their social worlds, through e-mail or social networking. Unknown is how this
has affected their ability to attend to the demands of their current situations, such as paying attention to lectures, engaging in conversation with friends and family, and more worrisome, driving. How easily can people disconnect from the Internet? Devices such as mobile Wi-Fi hotspots allow for constant Internet connections, which also leads users to expect near instantaneous responses from others who they assume will be connected. It is unknown how such expectations shape social dynamics and how they may interfere with self-regulatory ability (such as being able to delay gratification).
While the Internet clearly has the potential to enable social collaboration on an unprecedented scale, there are also concerns about how its increasingly central role in social interactions may fundamentally change human society. For example, the Internet provides individuals with the ability to interact very widely with other individuals that agree with them on political issues, which may intensify political polarization and reduce the ability to compromise. We also do not know whether the mental and physical health benefits of social interaction extend to the virtual world. How will concerns about privacy, identity, and deception on the Internet affect how people interact? New research approaches are needed to better understand how human social function is being impacted by increasing immersion in a virtual social world, particularly on the development of social function in children.
• How has technology changed social relationships? What aspects of social networking are good and which are bad?
• Does the availability of online social networking increase or decrease the openness to new ideas? Does online social interaction encourage “assortative friendship” in which individuals interact only with others who agree with them on fundamental issues?
• Does the Internet bring people together or pull them apart? Does the blogosphere lead to greater partisanship and narrow thinking or does it unite the global community and expose people and societies to new ideas? What implications does this have for political systems within nations and for relations between nations? Is the current political climate more partisan and polarized because of the Internet?
• How does connectivity affect the creative process, and how we learn, communicate, process information, and behave with each other face-to-face? Is there a difference between digital natives and immigrants?
• Have social networks, such as Facebook, changed the meaning of what it means to be “friends?” Early theories suggested that online communications would displace and reduce connections to friends and family (see related story in http://chronicle.com/article/Faux-Friendship/49308/). Alternatively, some recent theories have suggested that online communications stimulate and enhance the closeness of relationships, perhaps by leading people to disclose more personal information online.
• How do electronic social networks influence health behaviors, both positive and negative? Social support is an important component of many health interventions and social networks may be implicated in health issues (e.g., obesity).
• How, if at all, does continual connectivity affect skills in offline social interaction? While many studies have addressed online behavior, especially in young people (e.g., Turkle, 2011), few studies have carefully examined the relationship of Internet use and social skills in real life.
Benkler Y. The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, 2006.
Ellison NB, Steinfield C, and Lampe C. The benefits of Facebook friends: Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 2007;12:1143-1168.
Giles J. Internet encyclopedias go head to head. Nature 15 December 2005;438:900-901.
Turkle S. Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. Basic Books: New York, 2011.
Because of the popularity of this topic, two groups explored this subject. Please be sure to review each write-up, which immediately follow this one.
IDR TEAM MEMBERS—GROUP A
- Alison Bruzek, MIT
- David S. Hachen, University of Notre Dame
- Kenneth M. Langa, University of Michigan
- Kalev H. Leetaru, University of Illinois
- Jeffrey Liew, Texas A&M University
- Aaron D. Striegel, University of Notre Dame
- Yalda T. Uhls, University of California, Los Angeles
Alison Bruzek, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar Massachusetts Institute of Technology
IDR Team 4A was asked to identify the ways in which the Internet positively and negatively affects social behavior. Historically, new technology has always changed the way people behave with each other, whether the shift was away from oral traditions to the creation of novels or the invention of television. The team chose to examine this question through the lens of human development in the digital age. Specifically, the group examined the Internet through use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in the United States.
The team listed several unique factors that characterize contemporary social media including: anonymity, speed, instant gratification, self-selecting isolation of viewpoints (“cyber-ghettoization”), 24/7 access, decentralization, large user base, and lack of regulation by authority. One of the major questions posed by social media is whether it is truly bringing us closer together as is so often stated.
How We Build Relationships
It has not yet been determined whether the ways in which people communicate with each other online affects the extent and qualities of people’s offline communication. Online activity could affect not just the number of offline social contacts people have but also the content of offline conversations, the emotional character of those conversations, and the exit strategy for any given interaction with an online “friend.” In particular, IDR Team 4A looked at the difference between strong ties and weak ties in the offline and online worlds. Weak ties were defined as acquaintances or contacts that could not be relied on as a strong support system, and were less frequent, intense, pervasive, and reciprocal in nature than strong ties.
The speed and scale of the Internet has allowed for the rapid growth of weak ties. There are indications that the Dunbar number (proposed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar), a count of the average person’s social network size, have grown from 150 to 300 or more in recent years. This is also consistent with the idea of Albert-László Barabási’s characterization of the Internet as a “scale free” network. While there are several hypotheses for what this increasing number of weak ties means for individuals, IDR
Why strong ties are important
Strong ties were defined as relationships that are reciprocal, long-lasting, and characterized by high intensity. Research indicates how important strong ties are for individual mental and physical well-being, as well as for larger societal benefits they bring, including a population capable of empathy. Strong ties build trust and reliability between two people. They allow for the practice of social interactions and because they occur in real-time, can permit expansion of initial ideas and self-reflection. This leads to perspective taking, a critical part of developing empathy. While often based on the individuals’ similarities, these real-time relationships offer a strong feedback loop (a way for both participants to receive feedback on their behaviors), as well as an exchange of emotion in a shared physical space.
IDR Team 4A identified several questions that are crucial for the development of strong ties and asked if these traits had analogues online:
• How do we build trust and reciprocity online?
• How do we create online relationships with persistence and reliability?
• How do we “slow down” online time so that people have the ability to self-reflect?
• How can we mimic physical shared space online and the synchronic nature of offline conversations?
Strong ties in a digital world
While acknowledging that the beginnings of strong ties can be created in an online world, Team IDR 4A agreed that in order to fulfill some of the components of strong ties, the online relationship would need to move offline. Complicating this, the team realized that we currently conceptualize offline strong ties as important for personal and societal development, but we do not know to what degree face-to-face communication will be valued in the 21st/22nd century world. Rejecting the idea of technological determinism, it is possible that there is a feedback loop such that the technologies being created for Internet communication merely reflect the ways
in which people now choose to communicate. It could be that these changes in people mean that strong ties are no longer the “gold standard” and are being devalued in favor of many weak ties (i.e., YouTube instant fame).
Examining Strong Ties
To investigate the potential displacement of strong ties in a digital world, the following research questions were developed:
• What factors are critical to creating, maintaining, and preserving strong ties offline that can be brought online?
• Are offline strong ties really weakening and disappearing?
• Is the Internet driving/amplifying the demise of strong ties, or is it reflecting broader societal changes?
• Are there positive aspects of strong ties that already exist in some form in the digital world and are being encouraged?
• How can we use the Internet’s tools to preserve and maintain strong ties?
Team IDR 4A further examined the first question, specifically how strong ties are developed and how the Internet can facilitate positive behaviors for the creation of these ties. It was determined that one of the several critical factors for strong ties online is synchronous emotional connection, such that the specific level and type of emotion a person exhibits in a conversation is correctly perceived by the other person. Given this emotional component, several other questions arose including:
• How do the mediums, online or offline, meet an individual’s needs and goals for expressing emotion—emotion being a way that builds strong ties?
• Does the Internet limit or facilitate the ability to exchange emotion based on individual differences (autism, extroversion, introversion) and how?
• How does gender/age/culture/SES affect the exchange of emotion online?
• Is the ability of children to understand the emotional expressions of others underdeveloped due to increased use of the Internet?
• Does increased Internet use ultimately retard the ability of 21st century children to develop their “emotional scale” in the offline world?
All of these issues could affect an individual’s ability to create lasting strong ties both online and offline. From these ideas, two research directions were proposed. The first examines individuals’ current state of what IDR Team 4A referred to as “Emotional (Intelligence) Quota” (EQ), a measurable standard for the capacity of people to express and interpret emotion. The second includes potential experiments to identify factors that could help people online grasp each others’ emotions.
Studies and interventions
IDR Team 4A recommended more comparative studies on high media users and low media users, particularly analyses broken down by age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, culture, and personality differences. These studies should examine the differences in an individual’s emotional health and the number and strength of their strong ties. For example, there is recent literature to support ideas like “Rich Get Richer” and “Social Compensation.” In the former, the online social sphere is beneficial for extroverts who are able to continue their many and frequent offline interactions in the digital world and can even expand the size of their networks and become even more popular online. In the latter, introverts can use the digital world to create new social interactions and the beginnings of new strong ties that would not normally occur in offline life. In addition, longitudinal studies should be done to understand what happens to their networks (strong and weak ties) and mental health or EQ as people start to increase or decrease their online usage.
Based on current knowledge of strong ties and online communication, IDR Team 4A proposed the development of tools to facilitate emotional exchange and identify/promote methods for synchronous communication. This could include items like an “Emotion Scale.” This scale may offer insights into how people receive emotions as opposed to how they are broadcast and could give a quantifiable way for people to examine what their EQ is. Simply by knowing if they are deficient, they can perhaps resolve the issue. There is also the technology of sensors or other biofeedback devices to let individuals know each others’ specific emotions at specific points (i.e., visual displays). For example, much like a video game might indicate how a particular character is feeling in terms of health or happiness, a similar device might indicate to the world how a person is feeling. Alternatively, a less desirable and ultimately less achievable goal is to decrease online usage, particularly in young children, in order to allow for
Because the Internet is still new, many of the studies considered and proposed have not yet been undertaken. It is difficult to know now whether the relatively new digital world will or will not reflect the offline world’s organic creation of strong ties. We do not yet know if the Internet or social media is bad for your health. We cannot say that it is a zero-sum game and that online weak ties are replacing offline strong ties.
However, because individuals differ, it would be most beneficial if we could predict whether the Internet will limit or facilitate strong ties for specific types of individuals and then tailor their use of social media to best adapt to their needs. If we can address the potential issue of changing strong ties as a result of social media, we can improve the emotional, mental, and social health of society and its individuals who are developing in an era of high media consumption.
IDR TEAM MEMBERS—GROUP B
- David C. Cook, Government of Western Australia
- Nicole B. Ellison, Michigan State University
- Eva K. Lee, George Institute of Technology
- Anthony C. Olcott, Central Intelligence Agency
- Eliot R. Smith, Indiana University
- Diane M. Sullenberger, National Academy of Sciences
- Kelly Tucker, Texas A&M University
Kelly Tucker, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar Texas A&M University
IDR Team 4B was tasked with identifying the ways in which the Internet positively and negatively impacts social behavior. The rapid evolution of the Internet, online social media, and various networking platforms has led to changes in how people communicate and what norms and standards regulate communication. While communication has changed over
the course of human history, the pace of that change has accelerated so much in recent years that individuals less than five years apart in age have very different perceptions of what constitutes a “friend” or a conversation. Determining the impact of the Internet on social behavior is essential to understanding trends and new forms of communication.
Redefining the Question
The IDR Team first determined that the assigned challenge was too broad to tackle in its entirety and that it would be more useful to focus on an aspect of the challenge instead. However, the IDR Team struggled to determine what the focus and scope of such an aspect should be. IDR Team members each suggested topics related to their backgrounds. Potential subjects included the exponential increase in information available to Internet users, the impact of online reviews on consumer choices, the creation of online groups and clusters of like-minded users, and the Internet’s role in social and political movements.
Based on the discussion of possible topics, the IDR Team ultimately agreed to examine how users filter what information they take in from and what information they submit to the Internet. In this context, “information” includes data, relationship-related exchanges, and viewpoints. This aspect of the broader challenge also covers topics such as the formation of polarized groups that exist in online “echo chambers” and how users feel that they have a right to have their voices heard online regardless of credentials or background.
The Current Online Landscape
One of the most important features of the Internet is the lack of barriers to information production and distribution. Historically, only a small number of people in a society were capable of creating, distributing, receiving, and processing data and information. The Internet has expanded the availability of these abilities from an elite minority to the vast majority of people. This change has lowered the barriers to information production and distribution. In addition, many individuals now have the sense that each person has a right to empowerment and to be heard online. By shifting these aspects of and attitudes toward access, the Internet has allowed more people than ever to find and utilize information and connect with other individuals.
With a working definition of the redefined challenge and the contemporary backdrop in mind, the IDR Team came up with three principal research questions aimed at filling in knowledge gaps related to the challenge.
What are the effects of these changes?
One of the major negative aspects of the increased flow of information is the large number of voices jockeying to be heard. The credibility of these voices is often unknown and suspect at best. This creates a noisy online environment that complicates decision making. Conversely, these changes have created a virtual space that allows individuals to express their views and be heard by others that would not otherwise be able to listen. Offline research suggests that this may be beneficial by allowing people to better identify with institutions that provide such a platform and may increase the likelihood that people will accept institutional decisions that run counter to their interests.
Potential studies related to this question could take several different avenues. One possibility would be to examine where the threshold for triggering these positive feelings lies. Another study could explore whether these feelings can be caused by merely “posting” or whether there must be some form of positive feedback or encouragement from other users to create positive feelings. A contemporary example of this sort of activity is the rise of online petitions or “slacktivism.” Do people who simply electronically sign a petition get positive feelings equitable to, greater than, or less than those of people who physically sign a petition? Do the feelings come from the perception of “doing good” or “looking good?” Does the petition need to be successful in some way or is signing it sufficient? Might these types of easy online activities cause people to feel “I’ve done my share,” substituting for more traditional (and possibly more meaningful) forms of activism such as volunteering for organizations, doorbell ringing, or contributing money?
How do people conceptualize online information filters?
This question highlights the existence of filters that sift through the information that reaches an individual. Information does not have to flow through these filters linearly or in any specific order. The IDR Team identified five major filters:
• Content Creation—the origin/originator of the information
• Social System—online reviewing systems for products and content, tools that monitor the “most viewed” content and designate it as such
• Technical—behind-the-scenes programs that promote content based on user history such as Facebook’s algorithm for individual newsfeeds and Google’s PageRank
• Source—the individual’s choices about what information to see and further process
• Psychological/Cognitive—cultural background and demographics, individual traits that affect what a given user is more likely to look at, and how an individual determines information or a source’s credibility and value
Research exploring this aspect of the Internet’s effect on social behavior would first have to ascertain to what extent people are currently aware of these filters. For example, are people aware of how Google personalizes each user’s searches and how Facebook determines what appears is in an individual’s newsfeed? After determining this baseline, further studies could explore the strategies users implement to manage filters and whether increased filter awareness could alter their behavior in seeking, evaluating, and using information from the Internet. If behavior can be altered, what sort of intervention would be both appropriate and effective?
What are the implications of these filters?
The existence of filters seems to indicate that they may be responsible for the creation of online “echo chambers.” These chambers are formed by users that seek only those individuals or voices that have similar interests. This phenomenon deters online debate and access to new information and encourages like-minded individuals to cluster and feed each other’s existing views. The resultant positive feedback loop creates the “echo chamber” where likeminded users only hear what they already know or what they are likely to agree with. Users that never leave the “chamber” will not have the opportunity to encounter different or opposing viewpoints and may never encounter material or ideas that could spark a new interest or idea.
On the positive side, filters may be able to amplify existing relationships between individuals with different viewpoints. For example, if a Facebook user’s friend posts an article and the user comments on it, the poster’s other friends can see the user’s response and respond to it. By virtue of having a mutual friend (the poster), the user and poster’s friends can interact and
The Benefits of Understanding Social Behavior and the Internet
The IDR Team concluded their discussion by examining the broad benefits that may result from a better understanding of how the Internet affects social behavior. The group identified governance (not to be restricted to government), education, and civic participation as the three major areas that might benefit from the aforementioned research. The IDR Team expects that even more research and study questions would emerge from those posed here. Such questions might include:
• Where is government authority derived from in this changing environment? How do we regulate social media systems? Who is the agent of change?
• How is expertise determined and signaled? Who has the authority to design and implement curricula?
• Whose voice counts? How are voices counted?