Although the study does not cite online connections specifically, but rather social connections in general, it does provide a cross section for human behavior that manifests online. In many cases, the behaviors tracked in relation to the study mirror the behaviors of people who eventually grow massive social connections online, as individuals or in tight-knit groups.
Specifically, the study suggests that socially connected people have an increased tendency to view others as less than human — and even treat them as such. In fact, the study links bullying in school, gang violence, and war detainees being tortured as the negative consequences of strong social connections.
How social connections can eventually lead to disconnection.
Although researchers point out that there are many studies that share the positive aspects of social connections (increased self-esteem, happiness, and even improved physical health), they go on to point out that connectivity satiates the motivation to connect with others and create the perceived distance between "us and them."
In extreme cases, the social connections do not necessarily lead to animosity, but eventually convince participants to believe that they are superior and people outside their circles are inferior. This includes believing that outsiders have diminished mental capacities, sometimes going as far as thinking them to be objects or animals or less than fully developed people.
Does online social connectivity eventually lead to dehumanization?
Unrelated to the study, some people think so. Nathania Johnson touched on it two years ago in telling the story how of George Smith Jr. dealt with a blogger who inappropriately attempted to blackmail Crocs. He warned her away, saying he was better connected.
"He called her a nobody (in his blog, not to her face) because he claims to be so connected that he knows who the big bloggers in his space are. (He later 'clarified that she was only a nobody as a blogger ..." — Nathania Johnson, When Bloggers Attack
Ike Pigott created a near-perfect analogy in his post The Internet Is A Kennel, which retold how social connections can elevate someone to become a "chosen one" with propped up minions who will defend their idols to the death, often without even understanding the disagreement or conflict.
"I was pilloried by several people for daring to question the value of the Almighty Robert Scoble. I was asked why I think I am better than he is, and I was questioned about why anyone would bother following me." — Ike Pigott, The Internet Is A Kennel
Geoff Livingston once wrote that he found the A-List to be a condition of society's general values. And that while he understands that may be inevitable, it is not for him. He tends to avoid the ladder toward "elite hood," even at his own "ranking" detriment.
"Some A Listers follow formulas, sharing and content mechanisms to achieve their best practices. The Karaoke Show is on all of them. And they are rewarded for it with popularity and, in some cases, financially." — Geoff Livingston, When Social Media Rewards The Mindless And The Elite
Professionals are not the only ones who are sharpening sticks online. For all the altercations that have occurred on the Web between two or more people attempting to "out follower" each other in power, kids are learning from the behavior of adults. Nearly three in four teenagers say they have been bullied online, usually under the same conditions that professionals allow to play out.
But bullying isn't the only anecdotal evidence of a dehumanizing effect caused by social connections online. With more and more regularity, people who consider themselves A List material are dropping "followers," cutting "friends," and ignoring commenters who do not meet a certain rank, score, or inclusion on a list. In fact, some scoring systems reward them for dismissing the "under class."
The Study: Social Connection Enables Dehumanization.
Beyond the most extreme cases of violence and inhumane treatment, the research suggests that more varied and subtle consequences are commonplace. It may include harassment in the workplace to overly aggressive fans at a sporting events.
"Any factor that creates disconnection from others, such as power, socioeconomic status or anonymity, may therefore enable dehumanization by disengaging people from the minds of others," the researchers concluded. "The present research suggests that social connection is one such factor that can increase disengagement with the minds of those more distant others, leading to a failure to see people as they really are."
Of course, this is not to suggest everyone is susceptible to allowing their elite status to make them feel superior over their minions and masses of followers. Many A Listers do not adopt anti-social behaviors such as those mentioned above (dehumanization or disengagement) as they begin to believe in their own celebrity. And, there are some very smart people like Arik Hanson who caution professionals away from systems that aggravate the problem by dividing and ranking people.
The study included four experiments. Researchers found that participants who were thinking about a person close to him or her were more likely to dehumanize other people. In extreme cases, they justified treating others like animals. The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.