Online sociability and community

Digital societies are often described as atomized environments in which meaningful interaction is limited and strong interpersonal ties are difficult to forge and sustain; yet, new forms of online community have emerged that redefine norms of social intercourse and offer novel types of sociability. New publics are being aggregated and new ties of belonging are developing. Specifically, the internet age has witnessed the spectacular resurgence of a very ancient phenomenon, the growth of communities of followers clustered around charismatic personalities. Such groups are in turn capable of very significant collective agency, whether in terms of internal solidarity or of purposive action towards the outside world. Such a flowering has dovetailed with the mass expansion of belief entrepreneurship, that is to say, thought leadership pursued as a full-time occupation, in which commitment to the cause (whichever it may be) and commercial motives are inextricably linked. At the same time, traditional forms of stigma and discrimination have migrated to online communities, and often function as barriers to sociability, segregating like-minded groups both domestically and internationally: in short, the promise of an identity-blind internet has not been fulfilled.

Such an environment presents several compelling avenues of exploration for an enquiry on trust and trustworthiness. The first element of interest arises at the intersection of online and offline worlds: given the link between atomization, alienation, and mistrust, how are these perceptions affected by the switch to online community? Do they transfer seamlessly from the offline to the online persona or are they somewhat or entirely separate? And do the specific forms of communication adopted online influence them? The second element of interest concerns personal and collective identity fashioning online: to what extent do individuals conceive of their online presence as a mere mirroring or extension of their self IRL? Does this attitude in turn influence whether they seek echo-chamber communities whose trustworthiness is predicated on ideological homogeneity? And what platform or gatekeeper decisions tend to enforce or counteract exclusion patterns? Ultimately, the key issue at the core of online sociability is understood to be authenticity: a regulative ideal for both individuals and groups, which however appears to recede any time interaction patterns become institutionalized and co-opted for profit or ideological motives. Negotiating these constantly evolving perceptions is a dynamic equilibrium in which all participants in online communities are ceaselessly involved.

There is a large amount of social-science research targeting online sociability: the project will leverage both quantitative varieties (based on data measuring online engagement and communities) and qualitative ones (for instance, ethnographic case studies of online-offline transition areas). A further source of information will be data compiled on patterns of discrimination through a digital prism. Such evidence will be supplemented by interviews with influencers, online rights activists, and social media experts.

Basic references:

  • Marwick, A.E., 2013. Status update: celebrity, publicity, and branding in the social media age. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.
  • Han, B.-C., 2015. The transparency society. Stanford Briefs, Stanford, California.
  • Phillips, W., 2015. This is why we can’t have nice things: mapping the relationship between online trolling and mainstream culture. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Research on politics