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Excerpt: The Social Net

Introduction In cyberspace we see examples of the best and the worst aspects of human behaviour. The Internet environment is unique – it affects our attitudes, inhibitions, feelings of responsibility, emotions, impressions of others, and relationships. The Internet enables people to express elements of their personality that they cannot usually reveal in face-to-face interactions. The understanding of these processes extends far beyond psychology. Anyone doing business on the Internet needs to fully understand how people behave online.

Introduction

In cyberspace we see examples of the best and the worst aspects of human behaviour. The Internet environment is unique – it affects our attitudes, inhibitions, feelings of responsibility, emotions, impressions of others, and relationships. The Internet enables people to express elements of their personality that they cannot usually reveal in face-to-face interactions. The understanding of these processes extends far beyond psychology. Anyone doing business on the Internet needs to fully understand how people behave online.

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The Social Net examines the social psychology of the Internet. With chapters from leading internationally renowned experts, it tackles both the positive and negative aspects of our Internet behaviour. With chapters on persuasion and compliance, personality, prejudice, on-line relationships, and human inhibitions, it presents a fascinating expose of online behaviour. The book will be valuable for psychologists and anyone who wants to better understand how they can exploit the full potential of the Internet.

Online versus traditional interaction

Anonymity versus nonymity

One of the major differences between online and face-to-face interaction is the ability to engage in anonymous interaction with others should one so choose. Through popular service providers such as America On-Line and Hotmail, people can elect to communicate with others anonymously (i.e. with their true identity hidden). It is certainly rare for us to develop feelings of closeness and intimacy with those we meet in face-to-face environments while retaining our anonymity. On the Internet, however, close relationships can and do emerge between participants who, at least at the time such feelings begin to develop, are wholly anonymous to one another (e.g. McKenna et al., 2002; Parks & Floyd, 1995;Walther, 1996).

Intimately linked with anonymity is the issue of identifiability. In our face-to- face lives we frequently, and often repeatedly, interact with others (e.g. the waiter in a favorite cafe, the woman who daily walks her dog in a similarly frequented area) to whom we do not reveal our names, occupations, place of residence, and so forth. Yet, these anonymous face-to-face contacts may well be able to easily recognize us in a different setting or pick us out in a police line-up. We do sometimes engage in what Zick Rubin (1975) termed the ‘strangers on a train’ phenomenon (sharing quite intimate details with an anonymous seat-mate about ourselves and our lives of which not even our closest friends and relations are aware). However, for the very reason that we are identifiable, such in-person disclosures are generally made only to those we expect to never see again.

In contrast, even when people interact nonymously on the Internet (i.e. using their true names; providing information about their profession, their home town, and so forth), they often still feel relatively anonymous or non-identifiable Under such conditions, they often engage in the ‘strangers on the Internet’ phenomenon, in which they disclose quite intimate information to others whom they have a reasonable expectation of encountering online again. Such disclosures can thus lay the foundation for a continuing and close relationship.

As mentioned previously, when participants interact under anonymous and non-identifiable conditions online, even greater conformity to group norms can emerge than occurs in interactions that take place face to face (e.g. Spears et al., 2002). Further, the ability to interact anonymously allows people to join groups and explore aspects of self on the Internet that, because of embarrassment or fears of rejection, they might otherwise not have dared to explore within their physical communities…

‘Virtual team’ dynamics

One of the more intriguing aspects of leadership in the Internet world is the management of teams composed of individuals separated by the dimensions of time and space. The terms used to describe these teams are varied and include: distributed, dispersed, co-located, and virtual. In this chapter, we use the term ‘virtual team’, as it conveys the unified presence of the team in a technological dimension that spans the constraints of physical location. Anyone who has led or participated in a group project is familiar with the complexities of scheduling meetings to match several individual calendars, co-ordinating tasks among team members, and keeping everyone informed and focused (and that’s when you have them all in the same room!) A team dispersed in different geographic locations and time zones poses the same challenges, but given the available technology, the nuts and bolts of team work described above may not be more difficult. The creation of a sense of team cohesion among members who might never meet face to face by a leader they might never meet face to face is the real issue. Cultural differences, organizational norms, and varying levels of technical access and expertise among team members are all potential stumbling blocks.

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Leaders that exhibit cultural awareness, set clear goals, provide feedback on a continuous basis, and are flexible and empathic toward team members can contribute to the success of virtual teams (Kayworth & Leidner, 2000). Weisband (2002) found teams with leaders who initiated task structure and sought awareness of team members’ progress and general team status early in the project were more successful. Indeed, team members who take on the roles of initiator, scheduler, and integrator may find themselves regarded as the team leader. In a recent study of emergent leaders in virtual teams, researchers found that emergent leaders sent more and longer e-mail messages than did their team members. The number of task-oriented messages, particularly those that were related to logistics co-ordination, sent by emergent leaders, was higher than that of non-leaders (Yoo & Alavi, 2004). This suggests a large part of e-leadership may be ‘leading by example’ through utilizing the Internet communication channels to facilitate virtual team activities.

Recent studies in remote leadership (defined as technology-based interaction between geographically and physically isolated leaders and followers) suggest that team members can distinguish between leadership styles in e-mail messages. Kelloway et al. (2003) reported that team members (students) who read e-mail messages from a transformational leader had significantly higher scores on motivation, supervision satisfaction, and individual performance than those who read messages from a laissez-faire, management by exception, or contingent reward leader; moreover, group performance was better when group members read transformational leader e-mail messages. This suggests that the charismatic influence, individual consideration, and intellectual stimulation provided by transformational leaders in traditional face-to-face settings can be successfully transmitted through the Internet. Research expanding these findings to include field studies in organizations is the next logical step in exploring transformational leadership via electronic channels…