I had the opportunity to open the LSE Polis Media Dialogues on Tuesday, a series of lectures for postgrads that aim to stimulate debate around topics of interest to the leaders, spin doctors, editors and bigwigs of the future. A daunting task.

The area under discussion this year is “What is Media For?” and, given my background with the Web, I was asked to argue that media is for networking. Of course, I chose to take it one step further by making the argument that media is for influence, and networking has both its advantages and its disadvantages for this outcome.

As the blurb said, “Dr Krotoski will be arguing that the current digital revolution brings with it both dark threats as well as huge opportunities.”

The respondent was Charlie Beckett, Director of Polis. He, moderator Damian Tambini and the extraordinary brains in the lecture theatre challenged me in ways that have certainly inspired that I revisit some of the theses that I put forward, but only to test them even further.

Thanks to Charlie and Alison Powell for inviting me to speak.

Here’s a summary from Danielle Moran, and keep reading for the content of my talk.

In late 1999, I presented and produced a television series for Channel 4 called Bits. One of my roles as a producer was to source the games we would review, and one week a new genre came to my attention that, unlike the arcade and console culture I was familiar with, used the Internet to connect thousands of people in a giant playing field at once. I’d heard of the massively-multiplayer online game, but I was pretty ignorant about what people did in them; I assumed players got together online and pretended to be elves, sorcerers and ogres. Still, I was curious what to think about this oddball phenomenon.

My experience after only a few hours of play transformed my prejudices about people who use the Internet, and put the Web at the centre of my world. It sparked a professional career that has been occupied with understanding how our offline relationships and identities have been transformed by our online interactions in social networks like Facebook and Twitter and how people from around the world are using these online communities to revolutionise our world.

The Web has been widely attributed with creating extraordinary social movements, from electing a President to helping neighbourhood groups make real change in their lives. It has been lauded for its role in bringing down corrupt governments and freeing information, for facilitating a new kind of social enterprise, and for galvanising crowds of people separated by oceans to tackle both global and local problems. It is, in many people’s imagination, the most revolutionary social technology of human history.

But these specially selected stories are frequently summoned by utopian pundits, who only focus on examples of the great and good power of online communities. They can be counteracted with their dystopian foils, who describe cyberbullying, anti-social behaviour, rabble rousing and prolonged and often out-of-proportion arguments that devolve quickly from logic into “flame wars” of epithets, questions of character and astoundingly crude insults about mothers. Incidents like these are far more numerous than examples of world wide web revolutions, so surely on balance the pendulum should swing in the direction of the dissolution rather than the ascension of society?

And what about those cyber critics who argue that the Web is a menace, that it makes us more segregated, fostering extremism? What should we believe? The current digital revolution seems to bring with it both threats and opportunities.

In this lecture, I’d like to take a look at how the Web brings about dark threats and huge opportunities, and what this says about human psychology.

The question
The Web challenges us to question some of the fundamental ideas about our psychology: what does it mean to our sense of identity to live in public and to have all our actions archived? What does it mean for our sense of self-worth to have tens of thousands of people wanting to know what we ate for breakfast? What does it say about how we value friendship when we can have 700 “friends” on a social network? What does it mean for civil society when we use the computer to mediate our social interactions, rather than getting together face-to-face? What are our lives on the screen doing to who we are and how we feel we fit into the world?

Ultimately, it’s a question of what the Web does to social influence.

The web is a mirror for our society: it tells us about how we interact with one another, what we want from each other and society, and what it means to be “me”. It is an agnostic communication medium designed with “openness” in mind. It is a tabula rasa. And so, we project our existing concepts of identity, companionship and social order. We can do no differently, because we base our online experience on what we know offline.

However, it does have some essential features that can extend our humanity: it is an enormous archive that anyone can contribute to that is accessible 24-hours per day. It has the potential to instantly connect us with people from around the world. But both of these features can equally be used for good or for evil.

  • The Web offers us the opportunity to self-actualise and to come together to do great things.
  • But it also threatens to make us more extreme in our values, beliefs and behaviours.

First, we have to understand that the web is ultimately a communication technology that connects people, crucially, with each other. But there are some important differences between it and our offline experience dominated by other forms of media.

The function of online community vis a vis offline community

However, the function of online communities is no different than the function of offline communities: we go there to belong, to feel like we’re part of something, to get positive feedback about ourselves and to conform to the social identity that we feel the community represents. The game, the network, the newsgroup, the blog are just excuses for people hang out, like at the mall or the pub, and to learn the boundaries of what we believe is appropriate and inappropriate. And the people we hang out with are the people we think of as more similar to ourselves. Just like offline.

But they are disproximate: they can be accessed at the touch of a button. We no longer need to meet face-to-face to talk about a common media experience; we don’t have to wait until we get to the water cooler the next day. Our community is not just perceived. It is always there.

The strong bonds of online communities: people we know
They have an effect on our existing relationships.

The interactions we have in these communities are intimate, like we are sharing experiences. These “great good places,” as described by Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s, are locations of meaningful, casual interaction that help to cement community cohesiveness. People use these places to develop strong interpersonal bonds with people they can’t meet face to face with as often as they might like, like the divorced, non-custodial parents who spent quality time with their kids playing online games. Business networks use them for team-building. Pundits like digital campaigner and Silicon Valley VC Joi Ito even described popular games as “the new golf,” referring to the job seekers who got to know employers whilst slaying virtual dragons together. Contrary to the headlines in the popular press, impersonal computers actually bring us closer together, rather devaluing our relationships.

The strong bonds of online communities: people we
don’t know
They also have an effect on how we meet new people, and how we form new relationships.

Time and time again, I have come across research that describes online relationships as stronger than offline relationships, where people describe feeling like they can be who they privately feel they really are – their True Selves – rather than the people they feel they publicly have to be when they’re offline.

The Web provides a release from offline baggage, from expectations, from consequence. There’s a lovely study by John Bargh, Katelyn McKenna and Grainne Fitzsimmons which describes how people who used the Web in their experiment felt self-actualised, and believed that, because they felt self-actualised, they thought the people they were interacting with did too. And it was on the basis of this that they felt they could be more open and honest, projecting that the person on the other side of the screen was being more open and honest too. Any basis for similarity – a like or dislike, for example – was generalised to that person: they couldn’t see the differences, so they assumed the person was more similar to themselves than they actually were.

When we go online, we feel we have found our gang.

Social influence in online environments (in a nutshell)

Social influence has two basic requirements: 1) that we are exposed to an innovation, and 2) that it socially behoves us to adopt or reject it based on what the people we hang out with do. So, if the people in our community are using a particular kind of corn, a type of air conditioner or a have put up a sign supporting a political figure or a recycling programme, we will be exposed to that and will – if we identify with the community – adopt the attitude or behaviour too.

Now, online, we think the people in our communities are more like us than the people in our offline communities because we are generally only exposed to selected information. We’ll base our similarity on a leaked detail – age, sex, location are good starters – and then project more “likeness” than is warranted. This can, of course, backfire.

But more often, this has translated into some pretty impressive offline collective action.

The good side
In the late 1990s, Professor Barry Wellman and his colleague Keith Hampton at the University of Toronto documented an early example of the first real-world community to have always-on, high-speed Internet access. It was called Netville. Their research described how computer-mediation affected real-world civic participation. They found that it transformed the number of contacts residents had: community members who used the local online forum interacted with more of their neighbours than those who didn’t. It transformed the sense of proximity between residents: neighbours communicated with people who were more physically dispersed throughout the suburb. It transformed the speed with which people became part of the community: new residents who used the Web services reported that they were integrated into neighbourhood life more quickly than those who didn’t.

It helped that the community was based on a real-world location; neighbours were able to use the Web to mobilise around local issues by offering a virtual location to arrange neighbourhood gatherings, report unusual activity on the streets or galavanise support and organise coordinated action.

There was an observable, real-world outcome for the online activity, and that helped to maintain the community online. We’ve seen this kind of response more recently, but on a much larger scale.

But, are bad sides too: the first is that the Web can make us lazy.

The bad side: Case 1 – Armchair Activists
As I’ve argued, the Web is an excellent tool for bringing people together, but its social transience makes it more difficult to sustain social action unless there is a real-world outcome/parallel. Public displays of support are relatively cheap on the Internet, especially if all a user needs to do is to click a button to show allegiance. Campaigners have found that getting people to join a Facebook group, for example, does not necessarily translate into a real-world action like donating money.

“Click-activism,” or slacktivism as it’s sometimes called is useful for raising awareness about a cause, but demands little commitment. The apparent tools for change therefore become tools for social marketing. Clever marketing managers thus focus on using awareness-raising techniques that require as little investment from the Web public as possible but announce participation to as many people as possible, recognising that only those people who would have engaged anyway are likely to go further with financial or other in-kind support because of the connections we’ve established with our many weak ties (pdf). These connections tend to be infrequent contacts or acquaintances – they’re rarely considered close friends – but they proliferate online because it’s easy to reach out to a former school friend, a friend of a friend, or even a celebrity. These are the people who make up our modern online communities. They are our cadre of similar others.

Once a connection’s been made in, for example, an online social network, it requires a proactive action to undo it, and so information about likes and dislikes are broadcast to a wider network than was previously possible in an age dominated by expensive traditional media. And because there’s little effort in joining a cause or showing allegiance, there’s a bandwagon effect based on the social conformity principles: the speed with which information is distributed from network to network means that a cause can spread like a contagion around the world. If it’s spun in the right way – with the right dose of horror for example – the effect can be profound: the Haiti earthquake, the South-East Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the post-election violence in Iran all received financial and political support. Classic heartstrings and righteousness.

But these viral activities are not sustainable. There are too many causes around the Web vying for eyeballs, and although the numbers appear to indicate that the Web is an effective tool for civic participation, this scale of action is rare and participation is superficial. (evidence? Numbers of people who remember campaign etc).

But there’s an even more concerning aspect of the Web. The second bad side is, ironically, that it can cut us off from the world at large.

The Bad Side: Case 2 – the network that binds and gags

Ethan Zuckerman, speaking at TED Global 2010
FF to 06:54-11:00

Connection with people you care about or have similar interests with is the basis for the success of the World Wide Web.

We consume information and make decisions about which services and products to trust by selecting the information that confirms our beliefs through the recommendations of the people we choose to associate with online: the people we feel, yes, are similar to ourselves. At the same time we are hyper-aware of what’s going on in our social circles through status updates and newsfeeds, which directs us to information that most often substantiates our world view. This can translate into an echo chamber that can confirms our existing beliefs to extremes. And we might not even notice.

Here’s an example. In the aftermath of the 2004 elections in the USA, the liberals – convinced (as many of us around the world were) that the Democrats would win against George Bush Jr. – were dumbstruck by the results. Andrew Leonard at Salon.com reported,

As I survey the wreckage of the lefty blogosphere Wednesday morning, it is easy to wonder: How could I, how could we, have been so wrong?…

For weeks, I’ve gotten up in the morning, made my coffee and then armed myself for the day with arguments and anecdotes, spin and rhetoric often in large part derived from the thrust-and-parry of discourse in the lefty blogosphere. When I visited the right-wing blogosphere, it was like going to the zoo to look at exotic animals. Sometimes I admired the quality of its spin, too, but I dismissed it, secure in the armor provided by the communities of people who shared my values.

…Perhaps if I’d spent less time at Daily Kos and more time talking to people who live in Alabama I’d have been less surprised by the election results. And perhaps I’d be better prepared to deal with them.

This is not a new phenomenon. I read The Guardian, not the Daily Mail. I watch BBC2, not ITV. And although I like debate, I avoid talking about politics with my father because he and I have wildly opposing points of view.

What this demonstrates is that our focus is narrowed by using the facilities made possible by the Web, like news feeds that deliver headlines from news organisations and blogs, links from friends on social networking services like Facebook and Twitter, and suggestions from recommendations services like Amazon. This contradicts the ethos of the Web – the global group hug – and this narrow view could lead to cyberbalkanisation – the sense that others who are not part of our in-group are even more different than they might be – and (eventually, potentially) extremism.

In an analysis of the evolution of attitudes of two user groups – one, an environmentalist web forum, the other a neo-Nazi forum – Magdalena Wojcieszak found that people perceived that other forum members were more extreme than themselves, and that the rest of the group were in agreement. I extended this in my own research, and found that the perceptions of an online community’s attitude were more closely related to one’s own attitude. People ultimately conformed to the attitudes they though their community of similar others had.

In other words, the Web has the power to escalate our differences rather than emphasise our similarities.

Now I don’t want to end on a downer, because I do think that the Web offers some extraordinary possibilities – for self-actualisation, for community participation, for political upheaval on a massive scale. But I do want to emphasise caution when we consider what it is that this digital medium can do.

We can change the world. But first we must recognise that it is broken.

Here is a call to arms: follow three people whose attitudes you don’t agree with on Twitter. Subscribe to the newsfeeds of three papers you are biased against.

We have an enormous opportunity with the World Wide Web. After all, it is an agnostic technology. It does nothing to us: it is we – our networked communities – who do things to one another.