New Study Explores Personal And Group Identity Formation In Online Communities

According to a 2016 report by the International Telecommunication Union, 79.1 percent of Europeans and 66.6 percent of Americans use the internet. Among other things, the world wide web has changed the way we socialize. In this day and age, identity formation processes, both group and personal, take place online.

“From I to We: Group Formation and Linguistic Adaption in an Online Xenophobic Forum” is the title of a new Swedish study which explores identity formation processes in an open, far-right discussion forum. The study was published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

Researchers from Gothenburg University, Lund University, and Stockholm University used complex linguistic analysis to conduct the study. Emma A. Back, Hanna Back, Marie Gustafsson Senden, and Sverker Sikstrom wrote the following:

“Open discussion forums provide an excellent opportunity to investigate open interactions that may reveal how identity is formed and how individual users are influenced by other users.”

Humans are inherently social. Our fundamental desire to identify with a group is therefore perfectly natural, and stems from an individual’s desire to build a sense of self, researchers wrote. On the other hand, so called ingroup identification necessitates the existence of outgroups, which means once an individual starts identifying with one group, they will show signs of differentiation toward other groups. Furthermore, every group exerts influence on its members.

“In order to be part of an online community, the individual must socialize with other users. Through such socializing, individuals create self-representations. Hence, the processes of identity formation, may to a large extent take place on the Internet in various online forums.”

Our society is becoming increasingly polarized, the researchers wrote, and right-wing populism is gaining momentum across the globe. The core of populist parties’ rhetoric is often the anti-immigration sentiment. However, it has always been difficult for researchers to reach individuals who identify with right-wing populist parties. On the other hand, anti-immigrant attitudes, Swedish researchers wrote, are usually condemned in the “outside world.” The internet has provided these radical groups with platforms, where they can exchange ideas and develop ideologically.

Since these interactions take place online, and in written form, the researchers had to rely on linguistics. Previous research has shown, the researchers stressed, that language has the potential to provide a lot of relevant information about personal and group identity formation. Computational text analysis and Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC) were used to analyze 700,000 posts on the investigated sub-forum of a popular Swedish online community, written over the span of 11 years. Since the study is focused on change and identity formation, nearly 12,000 active users’ posts were analyzed.

Initial analysis showed high representation of words related to immigration, such as Somalis, Muslims, Africans, and immigration. It also showed a high representation of denigrating words, swear words, and descriptions such as parasites, illiteracy, apes, and packs. There was a significant positive correlation between the frequency of these words and the number of days since an individual’s first appearance on the forum. In other words, the more they posted and the more they interacted with other forum members, the more radical they became.

This change of linguistic behavior was also demonstrated in the use of pronouns. Over time, the use of “I” decreased, and the use of “we” increased, indicating a change from individual to group identification. Furthermore, the use of the pronoun “they” also increased, indicating intergroup differentiation, the researchers wrote. Apart from that, over time, the linguistic style of new users became increasingly similar to the linguistic style of other users.

The researchers concluded the following:

“There was a decrease in singular pronouns and a relative increase in collective pronouns. The increase in collective pronouns referred both to the ingroup (we) and to one or more outgroups (they). These results suggest a shift toward a collective identity among participants, and a stronger differentiation between the own group and the outgroup(s).”

This study, the researchers suggested, highlights the importance of analyzing online communities when examining the process of personal and group identity formation. The results of this study indicate that individuals form social groups online and start differentiating between their own and other groups. The linguistic adaptation to the group further indicates that processes of identity formation indeed do take place on the internet.