The new communications technologies are developing at such a fast pace that it is difficult for research and theorizing to keep up. Although exploring the range of applications and instantiations of the latest forms of computer-mediated communication (CMC), texting, and video-based phone systems provides many useful insights, research and theorizing that lag behind the technological developments will run the risk of being phenomenon- and even technology-driven, making it difficult to anticipate new uses and consequences. In this chapter we therefore adopt a theory-focused approach to make some sense of the effects of the new technologies (as Kurt Lewin said, there is nothing so practical as a good theory), and a primarily experimental methodology to test this. We focus on a theoretical framework that we have developed over a number of years to gain insights into the effects of CMC in social and organizational settings: the SIDE model. We have found this model useful in helping to correct a tendency, in the literature on CMC in particular, to underestimate the role of social influences on and within these technologies, and an equal (and perhaps opposite) tendency to overestimate their capacity to counteract the impact of status and power.
In particular, we think this theoretical model has been useful in helping us to understand (and predict) some of the more counterintuitive findings of behavior found using computer-mediated communication. The idea that people actually conform when isolated from and anonymous to their group is a good example of such an effect explained by the SIDE model. Gender, which is a key focus in the present chapter, also forms an interesting case study in this respect. Much theorizing and research has proposed that women might become more assertive and less submissive when liberated by the anonymity of CMC. Our research suggests that this is not necessarily the case. The SIDE model helps to explicate when and why the technology helps disempowered groups to transcend inequalities of status and power, and when it leaves them more vulnerable to the power divide. Of course, people are not just passively exposed to the effects of technologies such as CMC – a key argument is that they provide strategic opportunities for people to “manage” their identities contra “less mediated” face-to-face communication. So, for example, when women are given the chance to conceal or deceive their gender identity, do they do this, and if so, with what effect? And are these strategies and effects similar for other groups and categories? After outlining our model and providing some evidence of empirical support, we concentrate on the “gender divide” as one important test case, in which the social and power dimensions of these communications technologies in particular can be examined in some detail. Finally, we consider some of the implications of these findings for gender, as well as relations between groups divided by power and status in general.