Group Dynamics in Cyberspace

A "group" is defined as a cohesive group with strong feelings of belonging, loyalty, and commitment.

Psychologists have been skeptical about the ability to create cohesive groups online - reasoning that the lack of the usual social cues and the transitory nature of online interactions would make the formation of a "group" difficult, if not impossible.

However, there has been evidence that a strong sense of "groupness" does periodically emerge on the internet. Communities of interest arise in certain topic areas, and virtual communities without any specific topical purpose (such as "the well" and "echo") have emerged and sustained.


Given the reach of the Internet, individuals of similar opinions can find one another far more readily than in meatspace. A person who has truly bizarre opinions isn't as likely to find others of his leaning in his immediate vicinity - but on the Internet, like-minded people seem to abound, and they gravitate toward the same sites.


The author cites anecdotal and experimental evidence of a proclivity for conformity: generally when an individual joins a group, he conforms to the standards of that group - even when there is no particular reward for compliance or punishment for defiance.

To some degree, this can be seen in the "mirroring" effect in online communities: the way in which a group of people who communicate regularly begin to communicate alike: similar tone, similar terms, even similar message and sentence structure.

Also, every forum is "owned" and managed by someone, and the rules or conditions of being permitted to participate are often explicit. There's a welcome message, a FAQ, rules, or other method for communicating to new members (and reminding the old) what behavior will be tolerated - under penalty of being ejected from the forum.

In any forum, there are also members who will shepherd others, sometimes no so gently, toward an acceptable standard of behavior. One survey of USENET postings found that fully 15% of them contained some sort of reproach for someone who had behaved in an unacceptable manner.

Anecdotal evidence is also cited to suggest that many groups are "eager" to be moderated - to have someone monitor and control the interaction to keep it focused on topic. The sense is that members of a group are willing to sacrifice some of their personal freedom to achieve a collective goal, on the conditions that others do the same.

There is a practical element to conformity: a group forms for a specific purpose, and to be functional, any behavior that undermines or interferes with that purpose must be discouraged. Moderation serves to ensure that all parties ply by the rules, to maintain the function of the group forum.


When one individual within a group disagrees with its rules, it's a relatively straightforward resolution: if he is unable to accept the rules of the group, he either leaves on his own, or is ejected. The presence or absence of this individual is seldom consequential to the group.

However, when a significant number of members of a group disagree, a schism forms, and if they are unable to come to a consensus, the existence of the group is jeopardized. If a compromise cannot be found, and if the matter is dire enough, the group will shift to one side or the other, and the "losing" members will either give up their fight or leave the group - and in the latter case, if these members are critical factors in achieving the common goals of the group, the group itself will fail and inevitably dissolve.

Compared to real-life groups, polarization happens more frequently on the Internet. With the human factor removed, and the discomfort of face-to-face confrontation abated by distance and time, the arguments tend to be much more vicious and personal, and ameliorating differences far more difficult.


The virtual work group is a concept that evolved from virtual communities. The difference is that such a work group is constructed purposefully, for a specific objective. The open-source software community is replete with many such work-groups, and industry groups (as well as individual companies) are keen on leveraging this capability.

However, the lack of the human element - the ability to develop trust quickly, to send and receive nonverbal cues to mitigate conflict, the fear of retribution for going against the grain - makes them far less productive than informal groups with voluntary participation and a lack of a commercial objective.

However, "electronic brainstorming" was found to be far more productive than real-world brainstorming: in that each member of the group is able to communicate his perspective fully, without being interrupted or influenced by the suggestions of others.