Notes on Digital Groups

09 August 2020

How do digital technologies reshape the foundations of social groups? As part of my interest in group ontology, I’ve recently read up on the history of public companies and family forms. What I’ve found in the literature suggests that changes in group forms, such as the invention of public companies and the development of the nuclear family, are a major part of social innovation. It also seems to me that the transformation of digital communication technology, and particularly the combination of a platform-based internet with the ubiquity of smartphones, is reshaping the foundations of small social groups. WhatsApp and Facebook groups deeply change small group formation.

As a first pass at the broad question of how digital technologies reshape the foundations of small groups, I want to suggest two trends:

  1. The increasing dispersion of small groups, and relatedly
  2. the increasing reliance on external resources for communication between members of small groups.

I’ll gesture at these two trends in turn.

Small groups, such as discussed in the work of the sociologist Gary A. Fine (2008, 2012), used to be local groups. Groups of friends, students working on a project together, and fan clubs used to meet either informally or on a regular basis in a specific location. Communication happened in rapid bursts during these meetings. By contrast, a WhatsApp group does not require a specific meeting location and communication might happen over a long stretch of time. You might post a question in your WhatsApp group and receive a response hours later, perhaps while engaged in another activity. This spatially and temporally dispersed form of interaction changes the dynamics of groups processes. It also reduces the need for finding a place and time to meet. You can post to the digital platform group whenever and wherever you want.

While digital groups reduce the dependence on a shared location and meeting time, they create a dependence on the external resources provided by the platform maintainers, such as Facebook. This dependence has many consequences, some of them such as privacy concerns have received considerable public attention. Other changes have been hardly subject to scrutiny. For example, the software of platforms such as Facebook or WhatApp does not only create opportunities for communication, but also structures it. I want to look a little closer at how this structuring happens.

When a group is based on a digital platform, the software often enforces formal roles and rules that groups otherwise might not posses, such as the role of moderator. A moderator has certain powers in virtue of the platform’s design. As this example illustrates, the external resource provided by the platform creates differences between the group members that are not under their full control. An offline fan club might have defined its own rules and roles in the past, but as a digital platform group it is at least partially subject to the rules and roles enforced by the platform. Negotiating the communication structure enforced by the platform becomes a group process.

The roles and rules encoded in software and how they structure group communication is just one example of the differences between offline small groups and those based on digital platforms. In describing offline groups, I have used the past tense which of course exaggerates the change that has so far occurred. Offline small groups continue to exist and they gather in physical locations at agreed-upon times. Groups of friends still meet in person for a chat – at least if they are not subject to a pandemic-caused lockdown. But I hope that choice of tense sharpens the contrast between digital small groups and their offline equivalents. Not all effects can be seen immediately.

Changes in group formation can take place on a historical time-scale. The creation of public companies as we know them took centuries. But when the new formation has become established it reshapes society deeply. Public companies did, and digital small groups, I suggest, have the same potential.

References

Fine, G. A. (2010). The Sociology of the Local: Action and its Publics. Sociological Theory, 28(4), 355–376. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9558.2010.01380.x

Fine, G. A. (2012). Group Culture and the Interaction Order: Local Sociology on the Meso-Level. Annual Review of Sociology, 38(1), 159–179. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-071811-145518