Let’s get meaty. Here’s the introduction to the background chapter, in which I set out my stall.

The Internet is a communication medium that has revolutionised information sharing, knowledge ownership and interpersonal interactions (Lazer, 2007). Highly inter-connected social software networks like weblogs, forums and other collaborative online entities like virtual worlds have challenged traditional notions of information ownership, resulting in a reconsideration of online contributors’ involvement in news reporting and other forms of citizen participation. In the four decades since the original ARPAnet was established between four universities, the Internet has transformed from an exclusive technology with few gatekeepers into an open technology that can be used and contributed to by anyone. This brings to bear new questions about existing approaches to social influence that focus on interpersonal attributes like trust and credibility, and group processes like normative influence and social identity, as physically distributed networks of individuals who engage with one another in virtual communities – from different cultures and perspectives – consider which innovative attitudes and behaviours to adopt or to reject.

Social psychology has studied social influence since the discipline was established (Turner, 1991). Hogg &Vaughan (2002), Turner (1991) and others have argued that it is interchangeable with the discipline’s definition. While there have been many descriptions of the process, this thesis takes as its starting point Turner’s (1991) proposal: that social influence is the process by which people affect others’ thoughts, feelings and actions directly and indirectly.

This definition incorporated the processes implicated in the adoption of attitudes and behaviours based on both interpersonal and normative pressures on the individual that have been evaluated in theories like Elaboration-Likelihood Model of Persuasion (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986), which focussed on the attributes of the source of a message, Conflict-Elaboration Theory (Perez & Mugny, 1996), which outlined the negotiation of personal attitudes and social acceptability when an innovation is introduced, and Self Categorisation Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), which described the conformity associated with belonging to a social group. Turner (1991) emphasised the context of influence, proposing that the impact of others was based on the situation in which influence occurred. However, this definition did not stipulate a physical, proximate component to influence; rather, it allowed for influence that was indirect, or mediated.

The Internet’s primarily text-based communication may introduce contextual differences that affect social influence processes. McKenna and Bargh (2000) have proposed four ways in which cyberspace is different from face-to-face encounters that have been assessed by social psychologists for their effects on social influence: 1) anonymity introduces implications for non-normative behaviour, depersonalisation and attention to category salience (e.g., Spears & Lea, 1994; Guadagno & Cialdini, 2005; Blascovitch, 2002; Guadagno, Blascovitch, Bailenson & McCall, 2007; Bailenson & McCall, 2007); 2) absence of physical cues reduces the importance of status, expertise and liking on the effectiveness of influential messages (Guadagno & Cialdini, 2005); 3) the mediated format places greater emphasis on the content of opinion formation (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986); and 4) lack of physical proximity between online participants accentuates the importance of time and place of online co-presence in the development of influential interpersonal relationships (Correll, 1995; Kendall, 2002).

The ‘leanness’ of computer-mediated communication (CMC) has been criticised by social theorists (Kraut, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukopadhyay & Sherlis, 1998); however most of the criticism has surrounded the offline social effects of the early World Wide Web which, it has been argued, was a socially desolate environment that had a high cost to entry in terms of technological know-how and access (Kraut, Kiesler, Boneva, Cummins, Helgson & Crawford, 2002). Since this early research, there has been that has emerged that has suggested that online interaction is socially rich, encouraging public participation, interpersonal altruism and community involvement (Kraut, Kiesler, Boneva, Cummins, Helgson & Crawford, 2002; McKenna & Green, 2002; Utz, 2002; Wellman, 1999; Wellman, Boase & Chen, 2002; Wellman & Gulia, 1999; Rajani & Chandio, 2006).

Some recent research has continued to identify shortcomings of the medium, particularly focussing on the instability of online relationships in social networking services (Reader, Greenfield), but these analyses have focussed on the number of friendships people are able to maintain, and the meanings of interpersonal closeness ascribed to them compared with offline relationships. These analyses have not assessed, for example, the implications of the number of connections for the speed of widespread social change, or how participants in these online communities differentiate between virtual contacts in terms of relationship closeness. Further, the majority of online influence theory has arguably sought to apply offline approaches to influence, usually within the context of short-term experimental groups.

This body of research arguably has not taken into account the social structures of online groups that have been described by economists, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists in terms of their emergent social phenomena. For example, synchronous and asynchronous communities, from text-based bulletin boards to multi-media virtual worlds, have been observed to display emergent systems of government (Shirky, 2003; Johnson, 2003; Schuler, 1997), social hierarchies (Correll, 1995; Jacobsson & Taylor, 2003) and online-only norms (Guadagno & Cialdini, 2005; Chester & Bretherton, 2007) that these researchers have argued reflect and inform processes relevant to their offline counterparts.

This thesis proposes that online contexts present differences to offline contexts that challenge social influence processes, but that many of the processes described by social psychologists are more similar than the outcomes of previous research has suggested. It is argued that the online environment does have the capacity for influence based on interpersonal and normative attributions and group pressures, but that to measure these in computer-mediated communication requires that tools and practices be adapted. For example, offline influence theories which emphasise identity, relationships and norms should take into consideration how these phenomena are experienced by online participants in the virtual contexts rather than comparing them between the online and offline spaces.

One approach that may take this into consideration is to identify influence in online communities using Social Network Analysis.

Social Network Analysis describes social influence phenomena as it occurs across a whole social system, seeking to predict how attitudes and behaviours move through a population based on its interpersonal structure and how integrated an individual’s position within it. Drawing on social network theory, this thesis argues that rather than influence uniformly being experienced by individuals in a context, influence differentially affects them depending on interpersonal and normative features, whether they are well or poorly connected in a social group, and whether the group is strongly interconnected or diffuse.

There have been some psychological theories that have attempted to integrate features of SNA by looking, for example, at the number of sources who hold an attitude or perform a behaviour (e.g., Latane, 1981; Festinger, Schachter & Back, 1950). Conversely, some Social Network Analysts have extended beyond the structural focus of their field by considering the content of subjective interpersonal connections (e.g., Coleman, Katz & Menzel, 1957; Rogers & Kincaid, 1981; McCarty, 2003; Kirke, 1996). These studies have emphasised a strong, supportive link between the two approaches. Particularly in the context of the challenges presented by online community, it is argued that attitude and behaviour adoption can be best described from both perspectives. This thesis explored their relationship and described how they varied in importance in predicting social influence.

If you’ve enjoyed this and want to catch them all, check out the Introductions to Study 1, Study 2, Study 3 and the Discussion chapter.