The Social Net

Scientists hope to download some insight into online interactions

Ten years ago, computer aficionados had the Internet pretty much to themselves. Today, their electronic playground has become a grand, weird, unpredictable social experiment. About half of U.S. households now have Internet access, although only 5 percent were connected in 1995. Europe and many other parts of the world also contain mushrooming numbers of Net users.





There’s a complementary growth industry in studies of how this wildly successful technology affects social life. Behavioral scientists are grappling with a seismic shift in communication that’s been more hospitable to armchair speculation than to empirical investigation.

Confusion about the social implications of new technology is hardly new. It existed in post-Civil War America, when booting up occurred mainly among cowboys. After inventing the telephone in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell described it as a broadcasting instrument that would perhaps provide “music on tap.” Early telecom executives regarded the telephone mainly as a business tool. Nearly 50 years after the phone’s invention, telephone companies finally realized that people wanted to use the product for talking with friends and family.

The Internet is poised to transform society far more profoundly than telephones, or even cell phones, have.

Two contrasting schools of cyberthought offer explanations for what’s happening. Optimists regard the World Wide Web and e-mail as realms for making and keeping friends, joining global communities, and exchanging ideas freely outside the bounds of oppressive government restrictions. Pessimists argue that online endeavors pull people away from real-world interactions, make them less concerned about their communities, and provide a forum for hate groups. They also charge that the Internet creates unprecedented opportunities for governments to monitor citizens’ private lives.

Both views simplify an unsettled situation. Much of the Internet’s allure lies in its flexibility. People adapt it to their own purposes, whether for good or ill. For instance, in the 48 hours after the terrorist attacks of last Sept. 11, more than 4 million people contacted family and friends by e-mail to check on their safety and used e-mail and the Internet to find out what had happened. Yet government investigations indicate that the Al Qaeda terror network used hard-to-trace e-mail missives to organize the attacks and has since expanded its Internet presence.

Amid this online ferment, there’s little that investigators know for certain. Robert Kraut, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, was among the first to peer into the Internet’s social side. “Scientists are on the cusp of being able to say something sensible about the effects of the Internet on social life,” he says. “It’s premature to make any sweeping statements about what’s going on.”

Clash of the surveys

Several surveys have probed the social repercussions of Internet use. They offer starkly different portraits of life online.

On the upbeat side, two national surveys of about 2,000 adults each, conducted in 2000 and 2001 by the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Communication Policy, found that regular Internet users reported spending as much time on most social activities as nonusers did. The online crowd cut back on television time, watching the tube 4.5 fewer hours per week than the no-Net group did.

National surveys in the same years, coordinated by the Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington, D.C., yielded even rosier findings. Project researchers concluded that the online world is a “vibrant social universe” in which people widen their contacts and strengthen ties to their local communities.

Data published last November in the American Behavioral Scientist supported the Pew findings. In national telephone surveys of as many as 2,500 people conducted annually from 1995 to 2000, Internet users reported more community and political involvement, as well as more social contacts, than nonusers did, reported sociologist James E. Katz of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and his colleagues.

A 1998 survey of about 39,000 visitors to the National Geographic Society Web site also noted a social boost from Internet use. In this population, which included many veteran Internet users, online interactions typically supplemented in-person and telephone contacts, says University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman.

However, two other national surveys, released in 2000, indicated that regular Internet use may often lead people to spend less time with friends and family.

Stanford University researchers directed one survey (SN: 2/26/00, p. 135: Survey raises issue of isolated Web users). The other was a joint project of National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University.

Internet users tend to be more sociable than nonusers to begin with because they’re better educated, wealthier, and younger, says Stanford’s Norman H. Nie. As people in this pair of surveys spent more time on the Internet, though, they reported increasingly less face-to-face contact with family and friends, according to Nie.

He finds this trend particularly troubling in light of evidence that community involvement in the United States had already fallen substantially by the time the Internet debuted. In Bowling Alone (2000, Touchstone), Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam makes the case for a nationwide civic retreat over the past 30 years.

Perhaps the most exhaustive attempt to see whether people tend to end up computing alone occurred in England. University of Essex sociologist Jonathan Gershuny directed a study of 1,000 randomly chosen households in which adults kept a diary of their own and their kids’ daily activities over the same 1-week period in 1999, 2000, and 2001.

Internet users, who made up nearly half the sample by 2001, generally engaged in as much social activity as nonusers, Gershuny says. Moreover, those who first went online after entering the study showed big boosts in the amount of time allotted to sociable leisure activities, such as going to movies and eating at restaurants.

The results don’t establish that Internet use makes people more social than they were to begin with. Gershuny suspects, however, that online access to friends, theaters, group discussions in so-called chat rooms, and so on makes it easier to arrange social get-togethers of all sorts.

“In short, the Internet makes going out more efficient,” he says. “And so, we might be tempted to do more of it.”

The rich get richer

Disturbing signs that the Internet fosters loneliness and depression first emerged in a study of more than 200 individuals in 93 Pittsburgh households given online access in 1995 and 1996 (SN: 9/12/98, p. 168). Up to 3 years later, however, the heaviest Internet users in these households reported being happiest and having the most social contacts, concludes Kraut’s team in the spring Journal of Social Issues.

From 1995 to 1998, the Internet’s rapid spread may have made the online world “a more hospitable place,” the researchers propose. Moreover, given long-term Internet access, adults and teens who had extraverted personalities showed most of the gains in social life, community involvement, and personal well-being. Introverts gravitated away from social contacts and felt more alone after 2 to 3 years online.

“You’re more likely to use the Internet to expand your social world if you’re already a social person, but not if you’re introverted,” Kraut asserts. His team calls this personality-based process the “rich get richer” model of Internet use.

In a related finding in the same households, the scientists find that women use e-mail far more than men do to maintain family relationships and to keep in touch with friends who live far away. Previous research had shown that women generally take more interest than men do in cultivating relationships in person and on the telephone.

The intensity of instant messaging–in which correspondents immediately see and respond to each other’s e-mails–may particularly appeal to women, Kraut theorizes. He plans to examine this possibility in further research.

Still, gregarious folk may not be the only ones reaping online social capital, argues psychologist Katelyn Y.A. McKenna of New York University. Internet communication encourages individuals to disclose personal traits that are difficult to reveal in person, especially to a new acquaintance, McKenna and her colleagues report in the spring Journal of Social Issues. Friendships form especially quickly among the people who offer such personal revelations online, even if they’re anxious and depressed, the researchers contend.

McKenna’s group first randomly surveyed 568 men and women who posted messages on any of 20 Internet newsgroups, sites where people discuss politics or some other common interest. A majority had formed online friendships that had progressed to telephone conversations and personal meetings. Members of both sexes who said they could disclose their self-described “true” selves on the Internet better than in other social situations formed the bulk of these friendships, which typically had lasted for at least 2 years.

For instance, a relatively reserved man who is best able to reveal his “sensitive side” with people he meets online stands a good chance of making friends in a newsgroup, McKenna says.

In initial encounters among college students, the Internet’s anonymity and absence of cues about physical appearance promoted self-disclosure and a tendency for partners to think more highly of one another than they did after meeting in person, she adds.

Groups and loops

It’s no secret that communication sometimes turns nasty online. The act of electronically denigrating a person even has its own name–flaming.

Internet-based negotiations of various kinds provide fertile ground for communication breakdowns, according to Leigh Thompson and Janice Nadler, both psychologists at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Over the past 5 years, the researchers have studied pairs of business students–neither of whom knew the other–randomly assigned to be either a buyer or a seller in an experimental negotiation. This task, working out details of the purchase of a company’s cars, was conducted over about a week via either e-mail or personal meetings.

E-mail negotiations often dissolved in disagreement and acrimony, whereas in-person negotiations more frequently yielded mutual accords, the researchers note. E-mail negotiators routinely got frustrated with what they perceived as inappropriate delays in responses to their questions and proposals. They then became unwilling to take turns in sending and receiving messages, a breach of etiquette that doomed the negotiations. In these anonymous encounters, negotiators tended to issue ultimatums, favor intimidation over cooperation, and attribute sinister motives to their partners, the Northwestern scientists say.

In their studies, the most successful e-mail negotiators first engaged in pleasant small talk before hammering out agreements.

In contrast, people who already know one another often work quite well online, contends psychologist Russell Spears of the University of Amsterdam. Spears and his coworkers have studied Internet chat rooms organized by college students to discuss course material and to work on projects. These groups rapidly developed distinctive rules of communication etiquette. Each group’s members increasingly conformed to these guidelines over time.

Moreover, many messages that at first looked to the researchers like instances of flaming turned out to be humorous put-downs that reflected warm feelings within a tight-knit group, Spears says.

It may also be possible to inject a warmer social atmosphere directly into the Internet’s architecture. Scientists at IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., have designed a pair of software systems that use simple visual cues to convey social information to participants in online corporate work groups.

“These systems support conversations and promote a sense of group trust,” says psychologist Wendy Kellogg, who directs the project.

The first system, called Babble, displays a window in which dots within a circle denote who is in a current group conversation. The proximity of dots to the circle’s center indicates how recently each person has entered the discussion. In an adjoining window, users create and prioritize a list of discussion topics.

Babble also provides a text of current and past discussions on each topic. Users immediately know whether remarks have been separated by seconds, minutes, days, or months.

Over the past 4 years, about two dozen groups within IBM have used Babble, often to organize collaborative efforts that lasted a month or more. Most groups liked the intimate atmosphere fostered by the system and employed it successfully, Kellogg says.

A second system, called Loops, is now being tested at IBM. Loops runs on the World Wide Web and expands on Babble’s format. For instance, Kellogg says it provides cues to the physical location of conversation members and includes an area for inserting informational “Post-its,” such as Web sites to share with others. Systems such as Loops may prove to be a boon for the growing number of business teams with members dispersed around the globe, she adds.

The dark side

Authoritarian governments regard the Internet as a two-sided technology that offers tempting economic opportunities while raising daunting political dangers. For instance, Chinese officials have aggressively pushed for expansion of information technologies in business. At the same time, they have exerted strict controls over prodemocracy groups’ e-mail communications and blocked access of all Chinese Internet users to Web sites deemed politically unacceptable.

Chinese dissident groups have increasingly found ways to evade government Internet restrictions, such as linking their computers to foreign Internet hubs, which can then reconnect users to banned Web sites, says University of Toronto political scientist Ronald J. Deibert. China’s dispersed masses pose a tough challenge to Internet regulators, he proposes.

The Internet troubles democratic governments because it provides an unprecedented forum for hate groups and terrorists. In the February American Behavioral Scientist, John J. Stanton of the National Defense Industrial Association in Arlington, Va., surveyed the growing number of sophisticated Web sites run by such groups to organize activities and recruit new members. Their causes range from enforcing separation of racial groups to destroying the property of companies deemed to be exploiting the environment.

Some researchers hope to use the Internet to explore the largely hidden world of such groups. For instance, psychologist Jack Glaser of the University of California, Berkeley and his colleagues posed as curious, naive visitors to ask 38 participants in several white supremacist chat rooms about their ideas on biracial marriage and other racial issues.

Glaser considers this technique ethical because participants were contacted in a public forum, weren’t coerced, addressed common topics of conversation in their chat rooms, and were not personally identified by the researchers. Surreptitious interviewing might also yield new insights into such denizens of the Internet as child pornographers and illegal weapons traders, Glaser says.

However, deceiving people on the Internet in the name of science “is ethically on the edge,” remarks New York University psychologist John A. Bargh. No ethical guidelines for conducting online research currently exist, he notes.

It’s just one more unsettled issue in the hazy realm of the social Net.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.