Considering the Interactions
The Effects of the Internet
on Self and Society
Katelyn Y. A. McKenna
People have been interacting with others by means of computer-mediated communication for more than 20 years, and yet the effects of such interaction for the individual, for work and social relationships, and for society are not entirely clear. Research on the social consequences of the Internet is still in its relative infancy and what we know—and what we think we know—about the effects of online interaction is undergoing a constant state of revision and qualification. Indeed, the assessment of the effects of this communication technology has sometimes seemed to change as quickly as the technology itself has advanced. A brief examination of the burgeoning research on computer-mediated interaction makes one conclusion quite clear, however: researchers have advanced well beyond the initial stage of overly simplistic “main effect” accounts. Just as there is no longer an “average” Internet user (e.g., Howard, Rainie, & Jones, 2001), simple main effects of Internet use appear to be few and far between.
Research in recent years has taken a more discriminating approach. From a wide variety of disciplines and theoretical perspectives, and using the full spectrum of available methodological tools, research has focused on the differential effects that can occur depending on the population under study, individual differences, and varying situational contexts.
In this chapter, we discuss the major findings to date of our program of research examining online group processes, the expression of self, and relationship formation and maintenance over the Internet. In doing so, we attempt to place our findings within the context of other research in these areas. The chapter is organized around two main sections, focusing first on the interactions between individual differences and online communication (the person × Internet interaction), and then on group-level interactions (the group × Internet interaction).
A secondary aim of this chapter is to synthesize the relevant existing research into a coherent framework for understanding what conditions and confluence of factors are most likely to produce particular outcomes. For instance, anonymity has been shown to produce antinormative behavior online (e.g., Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984); it has also been shown to produce even stronger normative effects online than in face-to-face situations (e.g., Spears, Postmes, Lea & Wolbert, 2002). Yet other studies have shown that being identifiable rather than anonymous increases participants' groupnormative behavior (e.g., Douglas & McGarty,