The influence of virtual worlds on reality: Introducing a framework of explicit and implicit mechanisms
First Monday

The influence of virtual worlds on reality: Introducing a framework of explicit and implicit mechanisms by Sandy Schumann and Francois Luong

Social movements are, especially since the revolution in Egypt, often linked to the mobilizing “power” of the Internet. Very frequently, the Internet is viewed as a tool to coordinate and organize such actions. The aim of this article is to extend this perspective and introduce a framework of explicit and implicit mechanisms that can enforce a transfer of online actions off–line. We relate the proposed framework to the behavior model of persuasive design to identify necessary conditions for this transfer.


Online actions and off–line activities: Current research
Revisiting current findings: A framework of explicit and implicit mechanisms
A social psychological perspective: Online anonymity and identification
The bigger picture: Implementing the framework in the behavior model for persuasive design




February 2011 marks the starting point for millions of people throughout the Arab world raising their voices in a quest for democracy. After the Tunisian and Egyptian president stepped down, demonstrations continue in Libya, Yemen and Syria and it is unsure what the future of these nations will look like. What is certain however about the civil actions that you watched on YouTube and read about on blogs, Twitter and Facebook is that the Internet played a huge role in the development of these movements.

In Egypt, a Facebook group aiming at protesting against the death of Khaled Said was central to coordinating and organizing the demonstrations and had at the time almost 600,000 followers (Alexander, 2011). Botros (in Ruether, 2011) stated that the activities were initiated by young people who were aware of the advantages of new information technologies, which enabled them to be well connected and informed, allowing this revolution to transcend from virtual worlds to political realities (Ruether, 2011).

The aim of this article is to take a look at this relationship between online activities and off–line actions. Rather than extending the support that this link exists, we will systematize current findings and introduce a framework for how the Internet can enforce social movements through two, explicit and implicit, mechanisms.

We will further explore the latter mechanism by identifying a possible underlying process, namely the social identity de–individuation effect. In addition, we connect the framework with the behavior model for persuasive design (Fogg, 2009) that indicates how technology can successfully influence people’s actions ( This allows us to derive conditions under which the two (online) mechanisms can successfully influence off–line behavior.

Despite the fact that the following arguments are directed at understanding how civil activism and social movements can transcend from the Internet off–line, our implications are also applicable to other contexts, e.g., consumer behavior, illegal extremist’s activities (Rogan, 2006) or even exercising efforts of athletes (Ploderer, et al., 2008). In all of these cases online actions can be connected to off–line activities.

As online actions we summarize sharing and retrieving information, interactions and discussions with other users in anonymous or non–anonymous settings and the participation in Internet–based civil actions, such as online sit–ins and signing online petitions (Van Laer and Van Aelst, 2010). Respective off–line activities can include participation in demonstrations, blockades, sit–ins, or fundraising, voting behavior and attraction of new supporters; even purchasing certain products.



Online actions and off–line activities: Current research

Considering the role of the Internet for social movements, it can be viewed as a mean to distribute and gather information in a cheap and fast way in order to coordinate and organize actions off–line. Van Laer and Van Aelst (2010) point out that the “Internet has given civil society new tools to support their claims” [1] with Internet supported (i.e., facilitated by online tools) and Internet–based actions.

Current findings looking at the influence of the Internet on stronger community involvement (Price and Cappella, 2002) however showed that this influence might be exerted not only through providing information on events or training material (explicit mechanisms). The Internet is also a source of emotional support and identification with a cause, which, implicitly, can increase the likelihood to support a movement off–line. The following studies are examples of a growing body of research that reinforce this conclusion.

Fisher and Boekkooi (2010) showed how participants of a day of climate actions were mobilized through the Internet. They concluded that online communication mobilized especially individuals that were not well connected but were internally highly motivated to join. Through the Internet, disconnected individuals were informed about the events, could coordinate their travel and thereby join the movements.

Looking at a neo–Nazi forum, Wojcieszak (2009) assessed whether being active in homogenous online groups would lead to actions such as volunteering (movement support) or rallying (movement promotion) off–line. Higher participation in the online group, measured by the number of comments in the forum, was the strongest predictor for off–line movement support and promotion. An increase of identification with the movement through the positive feedback from fellow users could explain these results.

Further, Brunsting and Postmes (2002) showed that the intention to participate in a collective action online or off–line was influenced by the expected effect of and previous participation in other off–line actions, participation in past Internet–based actions (Van Laer and Van Aelst, 2010) and identification with the movement. The Internet was “a viable platform for collective action” [2].

On a different note, Rogan (2006) investigated how terrorist groups use the Internet to strengthen their movements. She concluded that the main purposes of the Web sites were communicative and informational, including recruitment calls, spread of propaganda and training material to increase the number of supporters and coordinate off–line actions, for example, also financial support actions.

Touboul (2005) extended this argument with her analysis of francophone jihadist forums and stated that community building, a sense of belonging to a larger community, was another key goal of the Web sites. Through that, emotional, material and religious support could be provided and users were ultimately stronger engaged in the cause, which could also transfer off–line.

A different context was studied by Ploderer, et al. (2008). They looked at the influence of participation in an online discussion forum of a body builder Web site on exercising behavior. The authors identified three main purposes of the Web site.

Firstly, it was used as a tool, to receive information about nutrition and exercises and to keep track of personal progress. Secondly, motivation to continue exercising was gained through self–presentation on the Web site and by receiving appraisal from others. Thirdly, off–line activities were enforced by the emotional and instrumental support that the online community, with which they identified, provided (Ploderer, et al., 2008).

Empirical studies also assessed the relationship between off–line voting behavior and online activities. Tolbert and McNeal (2003) showed that receiving more information about candidates and elections online increased voting behavior by 7.5 percent to 12 percent.

To complement these results, Williams and Gulati (2007) studied how “liking” a candidate on Facebook influenced voting behavior, with the result that candidates with more Facebook supporters had larger vote shares. “Liking” a candidate could be a measure of enthusiasm, but this relationship could also be opposite — with enthusiasm about a candidate increasing as the supporting community on Facebook grows, there is a sense of belonging to a larger cause.



Revisiting current findings: A framework of explicit and implicit mechanisms

This selection of empirical studies allows two conclusions about the relationship between online actions and off–line activities. First of all, not surprisingly, online actions can very well be a precursor of off–line activities — but certainly do not have to be. We will address this latter point when introducing the behavior model for persuasive design.

The second conclusion is that the transfer of online actions to off–line activities can be achieved through two mechanisms. On the one hand, explicit mechanisms, such as mailing lists, event alerts, news feeds, blogs and Web sites, serve as means to spread and consume information and allow for interactions with others to coordinate and organize off–line events.

On the other hand, the use of and participation in these more explicit tools as well as in Internet–based actions can enforce the identification with a community and cause — an implicit mechanism — which can increase the likelihood of engaging in off–line activities. While the explicit mechanisms are directly visible tools that can bring the operations of large–scale off–line events forward, an increase of identification and its effect on off–line behavior operates more “behind the scenes”.

How? Before answering this, we would like to define the concept of identification. It can be understood as a perception of belonging to a social or cultural group (American Psychological Association, 2005), which can extend to causes or movements. Mummendey, et al. (1999), as well as Burnsting and Postmes (2002), concluded that the participation in social movements is based on the identification with it — feeling as if you belong to it.

A reason for that is that, when you feel a sense of belonging to something, this aspect becomes part of your self–concept and hence important for you. Thereby behavior that supports the cause, that you feel you belong to, becomes more important and ultimately more likely too.

A long tradition of social psychological research supports this prediction and showed that conformity with the goals and norms of a group or cause does depend on the acceptance of the membership and identification with the cause (Mackie, 1986; Hogg and Hains, 1998). Also, Pallack, et al. (1972) showed that individuals that were more identified with a group were more responsive to arguments, also extreme ones, and behaved more in line with the group norms.

Identification with a movement seems to be just as vital for carrying online actions off–line as having the necessary infrastructure and logistical means. The good news is that the Internet can serve both mechanisms at the same time: Participating in online forums and reading blogs or news feeds on the respective cause are a way to inform potential supporters about the practicalities of a movement and they might also be a way to increase identification with the action.



A social psychological perspective: Online anonymity and identification

How can identification with a movement be increased online? In fact, a social psychological model developed in the late 1990s during the uprise of online communication can provide insights to that question: the social identity de–individuation effects model (SIDE) (Postmes, et al., 1998).

Acknowledging, that online groups can have a strong identity with very potent norms (Burnsting and Postems, 2002), two ideas are central to SIDE. First of all, the model pronounces the influence of one central context criteria of online communication: reduced identifiability; hence the reference to de–individuation effects. These conditions are, for example, prevalent when lurking, retrieving information and reading discussions without participating, and when operating online with nicknames and avatars.

Current work on the transfer of online actions to off–line activities does not take this context element into account. However, studies that were conducted in the tradition of the SIDE framework (e.g., Douglas and McGarty, 2001; Reicher and Levine, 1994) showed that in situations of reduced identifiability, behavior can be even more normative and in line with group’s goals. Hence, the characteristics of the online context seem to be a key aspect to consider, when assessing how online actions can transcend off–line.

At this point, we need to introduce the second key concept of SIDE: social identity. It can be defined as that part of the answer to the question “Who am I?” that is drawn from the groups that you are a member of, e.g., your gender, ethnicity, profession, etc. (Postmes and Brunsting, 2002). Group membership can extend beyond these classical examples to opinion groups — a collection of people that share the same attitude on a topic and support a cause or not, e.g., supporters of the freedom of speech, a certain political party, etc.

Depending on the situation and the context cues (i.e., the information provided), different social identities, that are all part of the definition of who you are, can be salient. They can be activated even when the other group members are not physically present (Brunsting and Postmes, 2002) — when you are alone at home and surf the Internet, receiving and sharing information about certain causes and movements.

Bringing the two key concepts together, SIDE’s central postulation is that under conditions of reduced identifiability, attention on what makes everyone individually special and distinguishes all users online (personal identity) is pushed into the background. Instead, the social identity, i.e., membership in a certain group/cause, relevant to this situation, becomes salient.

What does that mean? Let’s take for example an online discussion group that allows users to leave comments on the topic of the importance of the freedom of speech, by using just a nickname. If identifiability is reduced like that, not the personal characteristics of each discussion partner, but the social identity that the discussion group relates to, is at the center of the user’s attention.

In this example the social identity could be “being a supporter of the right of freedom of speech”. It can be activated through triggers such as the name of the group. Important for the argumentation here is that SIDE states that the respective social identities do not only become more salient under reduced identifibility, identification with the group and its norms is also heightened (Postmes, et al., 1998).

To sum up, the model indicates that online actions can increase the feeling of belonging to a movement and identification with its norms based on the heightened salience of a social identity, group membership, through receiving information under conditions of reduced identifiablity.



The bigger picture: Implementing the framework in the behavior model for persuasive design

So far, we introduced the two mechanisms of the framework, namely the explicit (i.e., information exchange) and implicit one (i.e., increased identification with the cause) separately. However, the two work, of course, hand in hand. As just explained, identification with a movement can be heightened by increasing the salience of a certain social identity. The stimulus, which influences what group membership is activated, is the context information, coming from the explicit tool that is used, i.e., a blog or Twitter message.

Despite the explicit tools aiming at informational purposes, they achieve their goals also by heightening your sense of belonging to a cause. Figure 1 shows the proposed framework in more detail.


Figure 1: A framework of explicit and implicit mechanisms


The interconnectedness of the two mechanisms is even more obvious when we place the framework in the larger theoretical context of the behavior model of persuasive design (Fogg, 2009). This allows us to derive conditions under which online actions are more likely to lead to off–line activities.

Fogg’s (2009) model “asserts that for a target behavior to happen [online or off–line], a person must have sufficient motivation, […] ability, and an effective trigger” [3] must be present. The author further postulates that motivation and ability are in a way trade–offs that can be compensated for by one another. If ability is low but motivation high, an effective trigger can still exert the target behavior as long as the combination of motivation and ability is above a certain behavior activation threshold.

Only if both are zero, the target behavior is unlikely to occur. Hence, online applications must consider at least one of these two factors and then provide a trigger that is noticed, related with the target behavior and appears at the right moment (when motivation, ability or both are high) for off–line behavior to take place. The aspects that Fogg (2009) takes into account appear to differ at first sight strongly from the processes that we postulate.

He defines pleasure/pain, hope/fear and social acceptance/rejection as central to increased motivation. Ability is heightened if the behavior can be done fast, costs little money, needs no physical effort or hard thinking, is not social deviant and a routine behavior. Last but not least, triggers are behavior activating cues that are classified as such that increase motivation and trigger behavior (sparks), such that increase ability and trigger behavior (facilitators) and such that trigger when motivation and ability are already high (signals).

We believe that the explicit and implicit mechanisms that we proposed can well be included in Fogg’s (2009) model, even though he relates it mainly to consequences for online behavior. For this, we will extend the model’s postulations to behavior in an off–line context. Just like online behavior, off–line behavior is more likely when motivation and ability to do so are high and when a cue triggers the behavior.

High ability refers in Fogg’s (2009) model to the fact how a Web site can be used. For high ability to exert off–line behavior this paradigm must be extended to the point that the Web site must not only be designed, so that itself can be used easily but also that it allows off–line behavior to be performed fast, costing little money, needing no hard thinking, etc. Keeping this in mind, the explicit and implicit mechanisms and Fogg’s (2009) framework can be connected.

The explicit mechanisms, which serve primarily informative purposes, can increase the ability to exert off–line behavior. That is possible by providing on the Web site for example all the information that one needs to participate in the respective off–line event easily and fast (e.g., directions, car pool possibilities, phone numbers, etc.) or by introducing special offers to decrease the costs of participation (e.g., announcing deals with public transport companies, etc.).

Further, explicit tools can increase an ability to show off–line behavior by assuring that the behavior is not socially deviant but supported by many others; for example by including a “Like” or “Support” icon that shows how many people will participate. Adding Internet–based actions such as online petitions on the Web site can also increase the ability to act off–line by establishing the feeling of a routine behavior.

Implicit mechanisms, increased identification, serve to heighten the motivation to show off–line behavior. As you saw earlier, identification with a cause is a key predictor of future behavior. The likelihood to show a certain behavior is higher when you identify with the cause associated with the behavior. Identification can thereby be understood just like the other processes that Fogg (2009) proposed in his model: behavior eliciting and motivating.

As SIDE postulates, identification is especially increased in contexts of reduced identifiability, which gives Web site designers an additional implication of how to develop an online application that can carry online actions off–line. Allowing users to use only nicknames enforces reduced identifiability and hence ultimately the salience of the respective membership, identification with it and its norms. Thereby, motivation to show a behavior can be increased.

The third component in Fogg’s (2009) model is the behavior trigger. We relate this once more to the explicit mechanisms. As already stated, context variables play a big role in enforcing behavior. These context variables are the different information that you can receive online. Examples for such trigger information are invitations to take part in a demonstration, discussion topics that appear new in a forum, tickets to events that are offered for sale, etc.

It is important that these triggers are “sent” just in time when the ability and/or motivation to perform the behavior are high. That means also that invitations to take part in an event should only be sent once all the information to have the ability to do so and to build up identification with the cause is available.

Coming back to the original model of Fogg (2009), we see that online behavior can be carried off–line through three different ways. As motivation and ability can be compensated for by one another, even when identification with a cause is low, the target behavior can still be shown, if explicit information increases the user’s ability to show the off–line behavior and triggers it at the same time.

If Web sites provide not sufficient information to increase the ability but enough to trigger the off–line behavior, a heightened motivation, i.e., identification with the cause through a context of reduced identifiability for example, can still lead to off–line behavior. The likelihood for online actions carrying off–line should be the highest when explicit information increases ability, if using the information in a context of reduced identifiability leads to higher identification with the cause, and if the explicit information provides a trigger.




The aim of this article was to identify underlying processes that can explain how online actions can transcend to reality, just as seen recently in the social movements in the Arab world, especially in Egypt. We identified two mechanisms that are interlinked, namely explicit — information to coordinate and organize off–line actions — and implicit ones — increased identification with the respective movement.

The latter might be especially enforced by the context of reduced identifiability, as postulated by the SIDE model. When implementing our framework to the established behavior model of persuasive design the strong interconnectedness of the two mechanisms is evident. Simply providing information about an event for example can very well already stimulate target behavior, by increasing ability to act and providing a trigger to execute the behavior.

However, if motivation is stronger through increased identification, the likelihood is even higher. In any case, pure increased motivation (e.g., after participating in an Internet–based action) without a trigger through explicit information will not result in any behavior (online or off–line). The practical examples that we provided to target each one of the behavior eliciting components give Web site designers initial ideas about how to increase the likelihood for online behavior transferring off–line.

Applying the insights to the initial example of the revolution in the Arab world, it becomes once more clear that the Internet can play a larger role in social movements than coordinating and organizing events or arranging online petitions. The thousands of blogs, Twitter and YouTube channels or Facebook groups that were created to back up the movement were a ground to increase the identification with the cause that supported the resignation of Mubarak and a democratic Egypt.

The relative anonymity of the context in which the information was presented (to provide safety for the people behind the videos and tweets), was able to heighten the salience of the group norm (“support the resignation of Mubarak and a democratic Egypt”) and sense of belonging. Thereby the motivation to act towards the goal of the movement also off–line was increased.

This process of strengthening the identification with the movement was certainly accompanied by a large amount of explicit information that was available online, informing about places and times of meetings, supporters in each city, etc. This information enabled people to participate in the demonstrations and served also as a trigger to actually perform the behavior, once the motivation to do so and ability was high.

We do of course acknowledge that the social changes as we have seen in the last months were by no means purely due to the Internet or the mechanisms we introduced. However, the role that the Internet plays within such movements goes way beyond the exchange of information. Despite the growing body of research in this field, empirical and experimental studies are necessary to extract the underlying processes in a more controlled setting. The framework that we provided can be a starting guideline for this work. End of article


About the authors

Sandy Schumann (Dipl.–Psych.) is a Ph.D. student and FRS–F.N.R.S. fellow at the Unit of Social Psychology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. Her research interests include computer–mediated communication processes, intergroup relations and group polarization.
E–mail: sschuman [at] ulb [dot] ac [dot] be

François Luong (B.A.) is currently completing his Master’s degree in Social and Intercultural Psychology at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He did a research internship at the Unit of Social Psychology in 2011.
E–mail: luongfrancois [at] gmail [dot] com



This work was funded by the Belgian FRS–F.N.R.S. Aspirant fellowship.



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2. Bursting and Postmes, 2002, p. 547.

3. Fogg, 2009, p. 1.

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6. Marshall, 2009a, para. 14.

7. Levin, et al., 2004, p. 56.

8. Levin, et al., 2004, p. 57.

9. Levin, et al., 2007, p. 121.

10. Fuguitt and Wilcox, 1999, p. 35.



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Editorial history

Received 21 March 2011; revised 27 April 2011; accepted 4 May 2011.

Copyright © 2011, First Monday.
Copyright © 2011, Sandy Schumann and François Luong.

The influence of virtual worlds on reality: Introducing a framework of explicit and implicit mechanisms
by Sandy Schumann and François Luong.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 6 - 6 June 2011

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