Social Influence in Second Life: Social Network and Social Psychological Processes in the Diffusion of Belief and Behaviour on the Web


The Internet has challenged social psychological theories of influence that have focussed on interpersonal perceptions of trustworthiness, expertise and similarity, and normative attributions of social identity. As knowledge is increasingly decentralised and user-generated, new questions arise about how online participants identify which information to adopt or reject.

This thesis examines which social psychological and social network analytic features predict attitude and behaviour change using information gathered about 47,643 related avatars in the virtual community Second Life. Using data collected over three studies from online surveys and data accessed from the application’s computer servers, it describes why the structure of a social system, an individual’s position in a social group, and the structural content of an online relationship have been effective at predicting when influence occurs.

The first study assessed the relationship between network strength and attributions of trust, credibility, social comparison and prototypicality. Results suggested that network theories that describe influence on the basis of network strength do so because it implicates interpersonal and normative features of influence, evident in this community by the amount of offline information account holders disclose to online contacts. The second study examined the features that predicted attitudes to sexual activity in the virtual world. In the online space, perceptions of norms were the strongest predictors of personal attitudes, and network features identified how accurate and inaccurate they were. The third study followed the diffusion of the new voice service through Second Life over a nine-month period. Network features emerged as most important immediately before and after an innovation achieved critical mass, but the psychological features assured that diffusion persisted during periods of slow uptake.

The results extended the theoretical understanding of the interplay between psychological and network processes in the adoption of attitudes and behaviour online.

Dr. Julie Barnett and Dr. Evanthia Lyons, Supervisors