I hope you guys enjoy this (slightly different) post. I studied sociology and psychology at university for four years and research is something I adore doing. I wrote this a couple of months back and I thought I would share it here to incorporate some new and random things into my blog! All sources are referenced at the end.
The rise of the internet in the 21st century has made it uncommon to find an individual who does not exist on at least one social media platform. Indeed, in 2017, Facebook surpassed 2.07 billion active users (Facebook: number of monthly active users, 2018), while Twitter averaged at 330 million users monthly (Twitter: number of monthly active users, 2018). These platforms, alongside popular websites such as Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube are large and diverse melting pots, with users of all ethnicities, genders and ages. As a result of the increased popularity and accessibility of social networking websites, the social psychology sphere has been presented with new areas of examination, particularly when considering social influence and conformity in an online age.
Conformity can be defined as a change in behaviour, internal views or attitudes caused by social influence and group pressures (Hogg and Vaughan, 2014). Pressures to conform arise from social norms, which reflect the values or desired circumstances of a wider, social group (Smith, Mackie & Claypool, 2014). To fulfil the social norms of a group individuals can conform in one of two, primary ways: by compliance or internalisation. Compliance is where an individual conforms to a majority despite no internal change in belief, meaning the change is temporary and exists for the benefit of a social group (Hogg and Vaughan, 2014). As a result, when an individual is not being observed or surveyed by the group in question, their behaviours may revert to reflect themselves more accurately. However, internalisation is where an individual conforms to a social norm, but experiences an additional, internal change in their attitudes and actions, meaning the desired behaviour exists regardless of the presence of a majority (Hogg and Vaughan, 2014).
Social media gives people a mechanism to reinterpret their self-images, create and interact within new social circles, and to navigate their social capital (Yoo, Choi, Choi & Rho, 2014). This presents seemingly unlimited opportunities for individuals to grow and develop, while also facilitating the circulation of contrasting social norms and influences which would not be as accessible or influential in an offline world (Kende, Ujhelyi, Joinson & Greitemeyer, 2015). Where traditionally social influence and conformity are a result of physical and immediate social circles present in a person’s life, people now engage with views and movements which are happening across the world, with people they may not have met. This results in an expansion of the potential variables which may cause an individual to conform to certain ideologies or views.
While this area lacks research, evidence exists to suggest that the social media use and practices of individuals can be influenced by others. Egebrark and Ekström conducted a field experiment observing the patterns of use of 5, Swedish Facebook users and found that the probability of an individual ‘liking’ a Facebook post increased if 3 unknown users had also ‘liked’ the update (Egebrark and Ekström, 2011). The results also indicated that individuals were more likely to ‘like’ a Facebook post if at least one of their peers had also done so, suggesting that online conformity can be linked to numbers, or the relationships between individuals and other users (Egebrark and Ekström, 2011). Similarly, through analysis of the behaviours of 743 Facebook users it was also found that compliance, conformity and affiliation motivations considerably influenced ‘like’ clicking behaviours (Chin, Lu & Wu, 2015).
While an action as simple as ‘retweeting’ or ‘liking’ a Twitter or Facebook post may seem insignificant or harmless, social media conformity can have both individual and collective consequences. In recent years, social media has transformed political discourse, as well as people’s participation in social movements, raising subsequent concerns that conformity may affect these areas in a way it has not before (Gass and Seiter, 2015). While conformity traditionally arose from the influence of offline interactions with groups such as family members, classmates or colleagues, in an online world opinions and information circulate on a larger scale, arguably increasing the commonality of conformity. Indeed, a number of political outcomes in recent years are thought to be a result of social influence on social media, such as the activism surrounding the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States (Hern, 2017). It is argued that information (as well as misinformation) and easier access to contrasting public opinions online facilitate new forms of compliance, which can lead to the internalisation of new political or social beliefs, altering the way in which people act, causing them to yield to a greater, common view (Yoo et al., 2014).
Despite these concerns, there appears to be a gap in social psychology research where social media’s influence on conformity and social influence is under researched (Kende et al., 2015). A significant amount of research into the effects of social media focus on the impacts on consumerism, economics and politics. However, to fully understand the impacts of social media, traditional theories of conformity must be applied and modernised to fit a contemporary context. With this information, both the benefits and dangers of social media can be effectively established, which may encourage more mindful use of such platforms.
Chin, C., Lu, H., & Wu, C. (2015). Facebook users’ motivation for clicking the “Like” button. Social Behavior and Personality: An international journal, 43, 579-592.
Egebrark, J. & Ekström, M. (2011). Like What You Like or Like What Others Like? Conformity and Peer Effects on Facebook. (IFN Working Paper No. 886). Stockholm, Sweden: Research Institute of Industrial Economics.
Facebook: number of monthly active users worldwide 2008-2017. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/
Gass, R. H. & Seiter, J.S. (2015). Persuasion: Social Influence and Compliance Gaining. 5th ed. New York, NY: Routeledge.
Hern, A. (2017, May 22). How social media filter bubbles and algorithms influence the election. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/22/social-media-election-facebook-filter-bubbles
Hogg, M. & Vaughan, G. M. (2014). Social Psychology. 7th ed. Harlow, England: Pearson.
Kende, A., Ujhelyi, A., Joinson, A. & Greitemeyer, T. (2015). Putting the social (psychology) into social media. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 277-278. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.2097
Smith, E.R., Mackie, D.M. & Claypool, H.M. (2014). Social Psychology. 4th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis.
Twitter: number of monthly active users 2010-2017. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/282087/number-of-monthly-active-twitter-users/
Yoo, J., Choi, S., Choi, M. & Rho, J. (2014). Why people use Twitter: Social conformity and social value perspectives. Online Information Review, 38 (2), 265-283. DOI: 10.1108/OIR-11-2012–0210