Interaction via computers undermines social order

This essay will discuss the notion that interaction via computers undermines social order. This is a highly relevant topic in modern society as computer mediated communication (CMC) via the internet, e-mail, and instant messaging becomes increasingly widespread as a cheap and effective means of interaction. There is a variety of research which investigates the consequences of CMC on the institutions and structures that form social order. The effects CMC has on social norms, roles, and status for individuals and groups will be examined. The final objective is to be able to establish whether or not the empirical evidence supports CMC and its influence on social order.

In schools Information Computer Technology is now a subject in the national curriculum, and students are actively encouraged to produce work using word processors. At home friends and families use CMC to maintain contact with one another, and in the business world organisations can consult over the same document without the need for post or telephones (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984). Slack (2001) examined the particular role of CMC in the health service, finding that it reduced the number of human errors when ordering tests or medication and is a valid tool for treatment (Rothbaum et al, 1995, as cited in Slack, 2001). Patients also benefit as they are able to access more information online than during a short consultation with their doctor, and can join a network of support by using personal experience to help others, regardless of their location.

A key feature of face to face interaction is non verbal behaviour; physical distance indicates levels of familiarity (Aiello & Cooper, 1972, as cited in Taylor, Peplau, & Sears, 2003), faces are used to judge personality traits (Hassin & Trope, 2000, as cited in Taylor et al, 2003), and eye contact is heavily involved when negotiating bargains (Carnevale et al, 1981, as cited in Kiesler et al, 1984). These cues are not present with CMC which makes it harder to regulate feedback, resulting in coordination problems (Kraut & Swezey, 1982, as cited in Kiesler et al, 1984).

Studies have subsequently found CMC to be less physically arousing (Kiesler & Sproull, 1992, as cited in Spears, Postmes, Lea, & Wolbert, 2002), cold and rational (Walther, 1997, as cited in Spears et al, 2002) when compared with face to face interaction. In contrast, Mckenna (2000, as cited in Spears et al, 2003) proposed that CMC tends to result in more positive impression formation. During impression formation attention is directed to the most salient cues (Nelson & Klutas, 200, as cited in Taylor et al, 2003), without which it is possible that preconceptions develop more slowly leaving additional time for judgements to be made devoid of bias.

Anonymity develops in the absence of social cues because roles are less defined. This is of benefit to disadvantaged groups who become free from the constraints set by their “bodies, identities, communities, and geographies” (Holloway & Valentine, 2003, p.21). Anonymity has been linked to higher levels of self disclosure and intimacy due to the fact that users are not as self conscious, as demonstrated in a study by Larkin (1982, as cited in Kiesler, 1984) where students were more prepared to contact teaching staff using e-mail than face to face. Spears et al (2002) claim that this deindividuation effect produces an increased salience making CMC users more socially responsive. In contrast, according to Diener (1980, as cited in Spears et al, 2002) behaviour becomes more socially deregulated with deindividuation as seen with Zimbardo’s (1970, as cited in Taylor et al, 2003) crowd effect, when anonymity leads to a lack of inhibitions and results in an increase of antisocial behaviour.

Sheil (1982, as cited in Kiesler, 1984) found that CMC users regularly overstep boundaries by mixing professional and personal language and disregarding the normal conventions of privacy. In comparison to face to face interaction CMC lacks a defined structure of etiquette, furthermore, users are less likely to relieve their tension on CMC (Hiltz & Turoff, 1978, as cited in Wallace, 1999) which could result in frustration. According to the Frustration Aggression hypothesis (Dollard et al, 1939, as cited in Taylor et al, 2003) frustration always produces aggression which would explain the increased levels of swearing, name calling, and hostility observed by Kiesler & Sproull (1992, as cited in Wallace, 1999). This CMC based aggression has been given the title of flaming. However, flaming incidents are rare (Walther, 1994, as cited in Wallace, 1999) and are more likely to occur in group forums than in personal e-mail (Thompsen et al, 1992, as cited in Wallace, 1999).

The speed and lack of cost involved with CMC means that groups can contact each other and coordinate with ease, using forums, mailing lists, and chat rooms. Kiesler et al (1984) found that friendly CMC between groups leads to more joint decisions and higher levels of intimacy. Postmes, Spears, & Lea (2000, as cited in Spears et al, 2002) conducted a network analysis of naturally formed computer groups and found strong evidence of conformity. Polarization to group norms are intensified when their identity is salient and isolated, as with CMC (Spears, Lea, & Lee, 1990, as cited in Spears et al, 2002). Group identity becomes stronger because users focus on what unites them (i.e. being online) rather than what divides them, which is known as in group favouritism (Tajfel, 1971, as cited in Taylor et al, 2003). Anonymity appears to strengthen the basis of social dimensions in group interaction.

More specific groups such as activists can coordinate rallies or protests more easily using CMC and therefore become more powerful. Through anonymity some psychologists (Schofield, 1999, as cited in Spears et al, 2002) argue that CMC equalises social order rather than undermining it. Similarly, Hoffman (1978, as cited in Kiesler et al, 1984) found that CMC deemphasises the status importance of those who dominant decision making, and computer programs which improve decision making quality such as Delphi (Kiesler et al, 1984) do so by removing social cues and status.

Power is not completely balanced as the internet and CMC are very much male dominated cultures (Millar (1998), Spears et al (2002)). A study conducted by Lea and Spears (1995, as cited in Spears et al, 2002) on internet harassment found that as a powerful group males exploit the identity manipulation which CMC provides. Gender swapping and role play are very common in CMC. Silberman (1995, as cited in Wallace, 1999) posed as a female in a chatroom and found he “was shaken by how quickly uninvited male adoration could take on a violent edge” (p.45). A widely publicised example of gender swapping is that of a male New York psychiatrist who began to log on as a handicapped female psychiatrist, ‘Joan’ (Wallace, 1999). ‘Joan’ attracted a number of aquaintances who shared intimate self disclosures with the fictional character.

Another way in which CMC presents a danger is highlighted by a study conducted by Young (1996, as cited in Wallace, 1999) on users who developed internet dependence, to escape problems or boredom in their “real” world. In conjunction Kraut et al (1998, as cited in Spears et al, 2002) found that regular users of the internet neglect the “strong ties” (p.92) of their everyday lives, the more time users spent on the internet reduced the size of their social circles and increased feelings of depression and loneliness. Holloway & Valentine (2003) raise the point that although CMC is widespread not everyone has a computer and asks if this creates a social exclusion because those without don’t have access to all the benefits CMC provides.

After considering the aforementioned evidence it seems that there are some disadvantages of CMC in relation to social order. The anonymity with which people can interact online is condusive to anti social behaviour (Kiesler & Sproull, 1992, as cited in Wallace, 1999) and deceit (Silberman, 1995, as cited in Wallace, 1999). Too much CMC can develop into an addiction (Young,1996, as cited in Wallace, 1999) which has similar effects as any other dependancy. Nevertheless, CMC provides a valuable tool for interaction around the globe and in some cases the rules which govern social order are heightened (Kiesler et al, 1984). Therefore, as long as users maintain a balance between CMC and the “real” lives only in extreme cases will social order be undermined.