The Internet is Transforming Culture

I am just back from a fourth visit to China, where I enjoyed generous hospitality and have again spoken to colleagues and students in China’s fast growing social psychology field. My task was to speak at a Shanghai conference focusing on how the information age is transforming culture, in China as elsewhere.

And what transformational change there has been in but a thin slice of history! The world now has nearly 5 billion mobile phone users (including more than 90 percent of the Chinese population—triple the 30 percent in 2005). And nearly 45 percent of humans are now Internet users (including just over 50 percent in China, compared to fewer than 10 percent in 2005).

Of particular interest to social psychologists is the upsurge in social media. Although blocked in China (as is Google, YouTube, and the New York Times), Facebook now has 1.5 billion subscribers and in late August experienced 1 billion users in a single day—a milestone towards its mission: “to make the world more open and connected.”

My mission in China was to review the benefits, costs, and research opportunities of today’s networked world. The net is shrinking the global village; connecting us with distant family, friends, and colleagues; enabling time-saving e-commerce and telecommuting; and giving us easy access to incredible amounts of information. Of particular interest to psychologists, the Internet is also becoming a vehicle for self-improvement, skills training, and even finding romantic partners. I admit to being surprised (see the data below) by how many people today find their allied spirits and eventual partners, enabled by the Internet (including my co-author, Nathan DeWall and his wife, Alice Rudolph DeWall). On the Internet, looks and location matter less to initial relationship formation, and self-disclosure and kindred attitudes and beliefs matter more.

From Myers & DeWall, Psychology, 11th Edition, presenting national survey data from Rosenfeld & Thomas, 2012

From Myers & DeWall, Psychology, 11th Edition, presenting national survey data from Rosenfeld & Thomas, 2012

But these many benefits come with some costs. Anonymity can enable bullying and sexual exploitation. The Internet time-suck drains time from the face-to-face interactions for which we humans are designed. At its extremes, Internet addiction (including to gambling and pornography) may undermine relationships and productivity. Of greatest interest to me, however, is the Internet as echo chamber—its facilitating the self-segregation of like minds and the resulting group polarization. The Internet indeed has great potential to connect us, but also to deepen social divisions and to promote extremist views and acts.

But what a boon the Internet is to us researchers, which I enjoyed illustrating from colleagues’ harvesting of “big data” from the archives of the U.S. Social Security system, the sporting world, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and national and world surveys.

All this (plus the easier availability of diverse research participants thanks to www.ProlificAcademic.co.uk and www.mturk.com) is wonderful. But as Richard Nisbett reminds us in his new book, Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking, “A very large N (number of data) may simply make us more confident about a possibly wrong result.” As he cogently illustrates, when it comes to discerning causation, big data archives, even with control variables and mediational analyses, are no substitute for the most powerful instrument in our psychological toolkit: the simple experiment.