I cut my eye teeth in social psychology with experiments on "group polarization" â€” the tendency for face-to-face discussion to amplify group members' preexisting opinions. Never then did I imagine the potential dangers, or the creative possibilities, of polarization in virtual groups.
Electronic communication and social networking enable Tea Partiers, global warming deniers, and conspiracy theorists to isolate themselves and find support for their shared ideas and suspicions. As the Internet connects the like-minded and pools their ideas, White supremacists may become more racist, Obama-despisers more hostile, and militia members more terror prone (thus limiting our power to halt terrorism by conquering a place). In the echo chambers of virtual worlds, as in real worlds, separation + conversation = polarization.
But the Internet-as-social-amplifier can instead work for good, by connecting those coping with challenges. Peacemakers, cancer survivors, and bereaved parents find strength and solace from kindred spirits.
By amplifying shared concerns and ideas, Internet-enhanced communication can also foster social entrepreneurship. An example: As a person with hearing loss, I advocate a simple technology that doubles the functionality of hearing aids, transforming them, with the button push, into wireless loudspeakers. After experiencing this "hearing loop" technology in countless British venues, from cathedrals to post office windows and taxi back seats, I helped introduce it to West Michigan, where it can now be found in several hundred venues, including Grand Rapids' convention center and all gate areas of its airport. Then, via a Website, hearing listservs, and e-mail I networked with fellow hearing advocates and, by feeding each other, our resolve gained strength.
Thanks to the collective efficacy of our virtual community, hearing aid compatible assistive listening has spread to other communities and states. New York City is installing it in 488 subway information booths. Leaders in the American Academy of Audiology and the Hearing Loss Association of America are discussing how to promote this inexpensive, wireless assistive listening. Several state hearing loss associations are recommending it. The hearing industry is now including the needed magnetic receiver in most hearing aids and cochlear implants. And new companies have begun manufacturing and marketing hearing loop systems. Voila!, a grassroots, Internet-fueled transformation in how America provides listening assistance is underway.
The moral: By linking and magnifying the inclinations of kindred-spirited people, the Internet can be very, very bad, but also very, very good.