Are We Connecting Online? Paul DiMaggio Presents a Theory-Driven Approach to Understanding Sustained Interaction in Online Forums

How do longstanding theories of social interaction hold up when communication shifts from in-person to online interaction? And how can novel research methods, applied by collaborative teams of social scientists and computer scientists to new forms of online data, help us re-imagine the mechanisms driving social life?

On October 15, eminent sociologist Paul DiMaggio (New York University) took up these questions at the Old Chapel at UMass, as he described a new research collaboration he is leading that investigates how social mechanisms work when interaction moves online. Professor DiMaggio described his team’s effort to apply the work of other social theorists to two online dialogues that sought to renew collective identity, build emotional and professional commitment, and foster learning and innovation in corporate culture at IBM.

Randall Collins’ Interaction Ritual Chains theory posits successful interactions as those where participants respond to one another’s contributions, and in doing so build a shared focus of attention, stronger collective identity, emotional energy and aligned goals and actions moving forward. Collins himself postulated that IRC theory would not apply to online forms of interaction, which lacked the visceral mechanisms of feedback and alignment operating in face-to-face interactions. However, new insights in cognitive science suggest the potential of online interactions to produce effects much like those of face-to-face interaction.

To test the theory’s relevance to online interaction, DiMaggio and colleagues analyze the thousands of posts and discussion threads that comprise two “jams” (time-bound online forums) that IBM hosted to build corporate cohesion among employees. Using Bakhtin’s theories of language and communication to adapt IRC theory to the structural differences between online and in-person interaction, DiMaggio’s team developed and tested a set of IRC-driven predictions on factors that would lead to successful online interaction. The team used computational text-analysis methods, including tools developed at UMass Amherst, to mine thousands of posts and discussion threads for the effects of three independent variables predicted to increase success: focus (clear connection to established topic clusters), excitation (the time elapsed between posts), and identity (the post’s appeal to a shared/collective identity over an individual/divergent identity). They found strong evidence for the effects of focus and excitation on successful online interaction, but no evidence that appeals to a shared identity made a difference in sustaining interactions.

Professor DiMaggio argued that IRC theory has something to offer in understanding a world it was not designed to explain. Professor DiMaggio ventured that Collins’ own sense of the scope conditions under which IRC theory would apply was too limited, and that the theory can shape a robust analysis of online interaction. He detailed an agenda of further investigation that will use larger data sets that include more information about the speakers’ professional roles, and explore the factors that shape whose ideas are taken up in online forums.

Paul DiMaggio’s lecture was cosponsored by the Institute for Social Science Research, the Department of Sociology, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the College of Information and Computer Sciences, and the Center for Smart and Connected Society at UMass Amherst. It is the third in a series of seminars entitled “The Future Series: Technological Shifts and Social Change.” These talks offer a yearlong exploration of what we can learn when technology innovators and social scientists look together at the impact of technological innovation in the social world. The Future Series asks “how do these cascading innovations in an ever-globalized world relate to social change?  And what do the tools we invent say about us as a society?” Upcoming Future Series seminars can be found here.

You can view Professor DiMaggio's talk slides here.