I would like to thank Chris Lamprecht for consulting on the history of online culture. A very big thank you to John Knox, Michelle Cheng, Armando Rayo, Jillian A. Lee-Wiggins, Ricardo Guerrero, and Chris Apollo Lynn for their valuable comments and insight on this article. Also, big thanks to Natanya Anderson, Oscar Davila, Tolly Moseley, and David Neff for their support.
Part 1 - Abstract and History of Online Culture
Abstract and Background
The integration of online lives and offline lives is a relatively new mainstream concept. With a growing number of the population now joining social networking sites, online and offline culture have been mish-mashed haphazardly with rough guidelines on etiquette and behavior. Because the social constructs of online lives are different than those offline, I felt that an article covering the social aspects of online behavior and offline behavior and the creation of online culture was much needed. It seems that many people behave online as if they were anonymous even though they are not. This article will discuss some of the psychological aspects of why people engage in socially unacceptable behavior and how the culture of that behavior is created. I'll lead into a section on the societal impacts of social media, some quantitative data on social media, and then onto a discussion of etiquette.
A little background about me: I'm trained as a social psychologist, and my research area is behavioral neuroendocrinology in social relationships. In short, I study how hormones might affect behavior, and how behavior might affect hormone release. Relationships, largely romantic ones, are the context in which I study hormones and social behavior. You might notice relationships as an overarching theme in this article. This article is not meant to focus on how to use social media (though the topic is lightly discussed); rather this article aims to explain the constructs of behavior when combining offline and online culture. In other words, the purpose is to discuss human behavior online and offline.
Brief History of online cultures and early online microcultures.
The Evolution of Culture is a long and drawn out process. Theorists have debated exactly what culture is, how it arises, how it evolves, and how it is transmitted. Not by Genes Alone, How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Richerson and Boyd, is a great book for some insight on these topics since there won't be debating here. Culture can have several meanings, including (from Wikipedia) 1) High culture - sophisticated taste in fine arts or humanities. 2) an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning or 3) the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group. For purposes of this article, I'll be focusing only on the third definition of the word culture.
Before Myspace, Facebook, or other social networking sites became popular, online culture was relatively undefined and used by a rather narrow group of people. In other words, it was not mainstream or widely used. One of the first methods of online real-time communication was "Internet Relay Chat", or IRC, which people often accessed from university-provided UNIX accounts. UNIX accounts also provided a "finger" command, which showed you basic information about another user -- an online "profile" of sorts. It had information such as name, email address, and a ".plan" file which the user could fill with any information they chose. The information was neither required nor validated. These online personas could be entirely anonymous, and easily kept that way. While people did meet each other in person after contact via IRC, meeting people in person after only online communication was much less common than it is today. The taboo of meeting someone online was that it was "weird" or that people only met online because they had personality issues or something of that nature (completely untrue, might I add). The demographic of people using IRC was a very narrow group of people who were interested in using computers as a communication device and had the skills to use the IRC program. It is difficult to say how many people were communicating via the Internet in that fashion, and many have abandoned that mode in favor of more popular modes such as ICQ, AIM, or Googletalk. Chat programs are now extremely popular for everything from providing online customer support to chatting between friends on social networking sites.
Another popular form of online communication is Internet forums. Before the World Wide Web, the earliest forums on the Internet were Usenet newsgroups. As the World Wide Web became more mainstream, Web-based message forums became a popular medium for online communities. Internet message forums are typically focused on a certain hobby or recreational activity. Through my own hobbies, I joined many of these online communities. Most of the organizations I joined over the years were nationwide with members scattered across the country. The mode of communication and conduct of business was mostly online via Yahoo groups (which can be public or private depending on the group's needs) or listservs (email mailing lists) and moderated forums. These groups were comprised of people who were highly invested into the particular hobby or activity, but who were not necessarily computer savvy. While one could choose to be anonymous within these groups, it was mostly impossible to do so, as people would eventually meet you at shows, trials, clinics, or other events surrounding the hobby. Joining these national clubs which existed mostly on the Internet was my first encounter with an online culture where members were expected to meet in person.
Whereas, the central focus of Internet forums is the content of the messages themselves; more modern social networking Web sites such as Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter have shifted much of the emphasis to the user's profile and identity. Most of these social networking sites discourage anonymous profiles. Indeed, most people create profiles on these sites using their true identities. Similarly, fraudulent Wikipedia personasemployers to check up on a potential employee's Facebook or Myspace profile. Also, bachelors and bachelorettes should consider cleaning up their social media personas as it is now routine to check up on potential dates prior to agreeing to a date. One social psychology study even shows that people are assessing personality from just a single photo.
In summary, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and message forums were one of the early modes of online communications with anonymous users. There was no expectation that the users would ever meet in person. Later, some groups and organizations used the Internet as their primary mode of communication, and meeting users in person was a by-product of attending club events. Nowadays, the norm of modern social media tools and websites is that profiles disclose a person's true identity, and meeting up with other users in person is no longer considered taboo or "weird". Websites like Meetup.com or Twtvite.com are examples of websites created to facilitate offline meetings of online communities.