Virtual Society?

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Effects of visual anonymity in computer-mediated group interactions

Principal Researcher

Dr Martin Lea
Department of Psychology
University of Manchester
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL
+44 (0)161 275 2582
lea@psy.man.ac.uk

Co-Workers

Professor Russell Spears
University of Amsterdam
sp_spears@macmail.psy.uva.nl

Dr Sue Watt University of Manchester

Research Period
1 January 1998 to
30 June 1999
Background/Context
Aims and Objectives
Project Design
Implications

Background/Context

Analyses of new communication technologies offer either optimistic or pessimistic forecasts of the effects of the Internet on the future shape and conduct of social life. Optimistically, compared to face-to-face, computer-mediated communication is more egalitarian, democratising, and liberating, provides a degree of personal anonymity, and liberates one from a fixed identity. Pessimistically it provides an asocial medium which decreases social cohesion and social influence, causing disregard for norms and standards and resulting in deregulated, antisocial behaviour.

Despite the extreme differences in predictions, both perspectives share a common assumption, namely that the relative lack of interpersonal cues in this medium means that the individual is less bound by social norms and constraints. This project develops a line of research that suggests the opposite: that under certain circumstances the computer medium offers increased possibilities for social influence and normative behaviour, beyond face-to-face interaction.

Aims and Objectives

The aims and objectives are to:

  • investigate from a social identity perspective the effects of visual anonymity and video-mediated communication on intragroup perceptions and behaviour in computer-mediated communication (including ingroup favouritism, conformity, and attraction to group members)

  • investigate the social psychological processes that are hypothesized to mediate the effects of visual anonymity on groups (such as social identification and stereotyping)

  • investigate the effects of visual anonymity and video-mediated communication in intergroup interactions, focusing particularly on its effects on stereotypical perceptions and behaviour towards outgroups

  • explore relevant factors associated with video-mediated communication (such as image quality and image composition) that might alter its effects on intragroup and intergroup behaviour.

Project Design

The project comprises two studies of the social psychological processes by which visual anonymity alters group behaviour. The first is a lab-based study of computer-mediated interaction within groups whose members are physically isolated. We compare perceptions and behaviour towards in-group members under visually anonymous and video-mediated conditions. This study is used to test and develop a social identity model of de-individuation effects. The second study widens the focus to an international/inter-group situation. Here two groups of different nationalities (British and Dutch) interact under anonymous and identifiable conditions and the effects of anonymity on perceptions and behaviour towards out-group members are studied, particularly how anonymity affects in-group favouritism and out-group stereotyping. Another area for exploration in these studies is how technical attributes of video conferencing affect the communication of individuating information about people relative to cues about social category membership.

Implications

The project explores important questions about social behaviour in the computer medium as the Internet emerges as the ubiquitous global communication medium of the virtual society. Does a lack of individuating, personal information in the medium promote impersonal interactions, loss of social cohesion and reduced conformity to social norms; and under what conditions does it promote group identification, cohesion, and normative behaviour? Does the relative anonymity of the medium accentuate or reduce stereotyping and with what effects on intergroup relations? How will the advent of desktop video conferencing affect intra-group and intergroup interactions? Will it 'repair' Internet communications by offering a greater degree of equivalence with face-to-face interaction? Or will it merely undermine the advantages of the medium that accrue precisely because of the reduced interpersonal dimension and degree of personal anonymity that it offers?

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Contents current at 15th October 1998