The way people form impressions of other people in computer-mediated communication and how those impressions impact social influence is the focus of research being conducted by Assistant Professor of Communication Brandon Van Der Heide.
“A lot of my work looks at the ways we seek out influential messages in online review communities,” Van Der Heide said. “I look at ways people form impressions of a person whom they don’t know who’s telling them things about ways to live their life, spend their money, etc.
“I’ve always found it interesting that we trust these people who can say anything about anything to anyone, in fact everyone, and we trust them even though we’ve never met them and don’t know anything about them.”
A number of Van Der Heide’s recent studies explore how users of online communities form credibility impressions of reviewers in these environments. Some factors that impact these impressions include the consistency of a person’s reviews with other reviews, the number of friends one has in the network, and whether a reviewer posts positive or negative messages.
“What we’ve been finding is that credibility impressions matter in some cases and in other cases they are not that useful,” Van Der Heide said. “When a person says they don’t like a product, we rate their credibility lower. At the same time, even though I say you’re not very credible, I also say I don’t like the product. So people do these counterintuitive things. Now with positive messages, people say this person is very credible and I believe them. So credibility matters for those positive messages, but for negative messages it seems not to.”
One thing that is certain is that interpersonal communication, because of the Internet, has become a much bigger part of societal-level decisions. Van Der Heide’s research in this area can be used by developers of these online communities in a number of ways.
“There are endless opportunities for implementation, for instance, online review communities have been shown to steer economic consequences. Work like mine can be used to understand the way people go about making economic choices,” Van Der Heide said.
Another implication of this work is in the area of health care.
“When people get sick, a lot of times their first step is to go to Google where they get health information from other people they don’t know,” Van Der Heide said. “So how do we create systems from a designer’s perspective that feeds helpful information to users, that helps users form the right kinds of impressions, the kinds of impressions that they should be forming of other users.”
Van Der Heide has been interested in computers ever since attending computer camp in the sixth and seventh grade where he learned how to program a computer.
“I wasn’t very good at programming, and I’m still not, but what always fascinated me was the way people use computers and the different lives we could lead in virtual environments and also the way virtual environments augment our lives,” said Van Der Heide, who received both his master’s and Ph.D. in Communication from Michigan State.
As a doctoral student, Van Der Heide was part of a research team, led by Joseph Walther, a former Department of Communication Professor, that did early Facebook experimental work.
“Ever since then, I’ve been doing this type of work and looking into the ways we can test different theories using social networks,” Van Der Heide said. “I’m looking at the ways that feature the affordances of technology that actually might challenge some of the theories we have about interpersonal communication and allow us to revise and learn new things about the way humans communicate through technology.”