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How to win a World Election: Emergent Leadership in an International Online Community

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Springer London, Dordrecht Amsterdam


In light of the recent U.S. presidential election, our attention is once again focused on the characteristics that determine perceptions of leadership and the factors that determine elections. It appears that style, appearance and language are at least as important as the issues and beliefs of the candidates. With television, for instance, discourse may largely be conducted through visual imagery (Postman 1985), in which physical appearance and nonverbal behaviors magnify the political platform of the respective parties. In fact, for presidential candidates, happy/reassuring facial displays during television interviews elicit more change in the electorate’s attitudes than party identification, position on campaign issues or assessment of leadership capability (Sullivan and Masters 1988). Similarly, an experimental study of women’s images shows that the manipulation of attractiveness in photographs on campaign flyers affect election results (Rosenberg, Kahn et al. 1991). In the early days of the Internet, much was made of the fact that superficial characteristics such as height and weight would not – could not – play a role in interpersonal relationships. As our experiences with the online world have increased, it has become clear that some of these characteristics are not in fact skin-deep. Communication online is as gendered as it is in the real-world. And 150 power is reproduced faithfully, even when physical strength is irrelevant. Little research, however, has returned to an examination of the correlation between individual traits and leadership, in contexts where sight and sound do not play a role. What happens, then, when elections take place online, in an environment where we can no longer see the physical appearance or nonverbal behavior of the candidates? Does language become the predominant factor in perceiving leadership? If discourse is all that is left to judge the potential leaders of a virtual group, what linguistic characteristics serve as criteria for electing a leader? In order to address these questions, we examine data from the JUNIOR SUMMIT, an online community composed of 3000 children from 139 different countries who had to choose 100 delegates to attend a highly coveted week-long symposium in the U.S. Without ever seeing each other face-to-face, and in a community almost entirely free of adult intervention, these children traded messages in an online forum about how technology could improve life for young people around the world. They then elected leaders to represent their community in a real-world meeting with political and industry leaders from around the world (Cassell 2002). From the children’s messages to one another in the months leading up to the election, we are able to examine the linguistic cues and language use that predict who emerged as a leader in the group and how leaders were perceived by the group.


Cassell, Justine; Huffaker, David; Tversky, Dona; Ferriman, Kim (2005): How to win a World Election: Emergent Leadership in an International Online Community. Communities and Technologies: Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Communities and Technologies 2005. DOI: 10.1007/1-4020-3591-8_9. Springer London, Dordrecht Amsterdam. ISBN: 978-1-4020-3591-3. pp. 149-169. Full Papers. Milano, Italy