This post was originally published on socialsim

I’m trying to converge two theories in my last empirical study – an exercise that follows the diffusion of voice through the Second Life social networks (interpersonal pathways of connected Friends) from August 2007-April 2008. I’ve got three theories I’m relying on here: the Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1985), the Technology Acceptance Model (Davis, 1989) and Diffusion Theory (Rogers, 1962).

TPB, at its most basic, argues that behaviour is the outcome of intent, which is generated through positive attitudes towards an innovation (including, in this study, the perception that the innovation adds value (socially) and that it perceived as better than what has come before, namely text-based communication), the belief that one can perform the behaviour (behavioural efficacy – i.e., that they’re not limited tchnologically, environmentally or physically) and the expected outcomes (based, in this study, on the social norms of the network). Here’s a piecemeal graph:

TAM, at its most basic, can be viewed as an adaptation of TPB, but specifically for technological systems (and even more specifically, for information systems). It’s been applied to a whole variety of technologies, from the World Wide Web to voice mail. It says that technology is accepted because it is perceived as useful and it is considered easy to use. TAM’s so like the TPB (minus intent and social norms) that I won’t show it off here. Why it’s important, though, is beacuse the perceived usefulness in the case of voice is that it is what’s called an interdependent innovation: other people must use it for it to be viewed as useful, and therefore for it to propagate through the system.

Finally, Diffusion Theory, at its most basic, says that network features – like position in the network and exposure to an innovation from direct network neighbours – contribute to adoption. There are variants: purely structural theorists say that all that’s needed for adoption is the right network position and the appropriate level of exposure to hit an individual’s threshold. Network analysts who veer on the sociological or phenomenological side say that network position is determined by adherence to social norms, which dictates attitudes (the ties that bind and gag), and that the strength of a relationship between the individual and the friend who’s already adopted (their attitude to the friend, if you will) are involved. The latter is a more nuanced, psychological approach, and one which I adopt in my research. Here’s a schematic:

So I’m trying to merge them, to theorise how the psychological influence interacts with the network influence. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Briefly, what I’m saying is that when an individual is exposed to an innovation, two pathways are activated: social norms and the attitude to the friend. This is the dichotomy between personal and social identity described by the Social Identity Theorists (e.g., Tajfel & Truner), and which some researchers (e.g., Spears & Lea) think is problematic online; they say social and personal identity aren’t possible in online communities. I argue that they are. But that’s another post.

So taking the first pathway, I propose that social norms contribute to both the attitude to the innovation and to an actor’s network position. The reason for the former is quite clear: the social environment influences what is considered a correct or incorrect attitude to have about a new thing. According to Social Identity Theory, how much a person identifies with the group will have an impact on how much s/he adheres to the norms. But that’s another conversation. The reason for the latter draws on Rogers’ theory that people in the centre of networks (i.e., have the most connections) will be less innovative because they must adhere to the social norms of the group if they wish to stay in this important position. If they adopt an innovation that’s outside the norms of the group, they’re in danger of losing friends because they’re too innovative. That’s why there’s a connection between network position and attitude to the innovation.

With reference to the second pathway, I argue that exposure isn’t enough to contribute directly to behaviour; the intention (and ability to adopt the innovation) must be there too (thus the dotted line). However, I also think there’s a stronger link between exposure and behaviour if you take into account the attitude a target has towards the friend who’s adopted: classic psychological studies emphasise the role of interpersonal trust, for example, on influence.

So I’m suggesting here that attitude is a cornerstone towards the adoption of a behaviour, that it feeds the threshold of an individual (i.e., his or her personal tipping point to adopt an innovation – in sturcturalist networks studies this is often only due to exposure), which feeds intention (keeping in line with the TPB) which ultimately contributes to behaviour.

What this theory is really only relevant to is an innovation in which the person is free to choose whether or not s/he adopts it: conformity and compliance aren’t considered here.

That’s the theory. What do you think?