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Online communities as virtual cognitive niches

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In this paper we aim at discussing cognitive and epistemic features of online communities, by the use of cognitive niche constructions theories, presenting them as virtual cognitive niches. Virtual cognitive niches can be considered as digitally-encoded collaborative distributions of diverse types of information into an environment performed by agents to aid thinking and reasoning about some target domain. Discussing this definition, we will also consider how online communities, as networks displaying a social bias, can both foster civic awareness and promote problematic group-led behaviors in the virtually aggregated crowds. To support this affirmation, we will take into account the use of online communication networks during crises and we will argue that it can lead to ethically dubious consequences.

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  1. Along this paper, our use of the word virtual, for instance in “virtual reality” or “virtual cognitive niche” includes, but is not limited to, those understandings stressing the 3D, highly graphical and immersive understanding of the word. Rather, it can be understood as a more effective synonym of the prefix cyber. It is a concept that opposes the naïvely real, material world we live in with our flesh-and-blood bodies.

  2. A brief terminological clarification should be introduced at this time. We are going to use the term “online communities” in order to employ a general definition that embraces different types of Internet-based frameworks, as social networking websites, newsgroups, forums, blogs, and miniblogs. We use this term to define a target broad enough to support different references as social media, digital frameworks, and social networks, without being general enough to hold the equivalence with traditional media, as newspapers and television programs.

  3. Cf. (Bertolotti and Magnani 2016) for a full analysis of the interaction between different perspectives regarding the definition of cognitive niches and cognitive niche construction. Pocheville (2015) offers an interesting history of the concept of niche in biology: the changes of the concept over time influenced the different notions of cognitive niche, especially the debate between the constructivist and the non constructivist scholars.

  4. Whether cognitive niches are a human prerogative is a debated topic. Clark (2003) himself, in his definition, refers to “animals” but his examples concern only human beings. Bertolotti and Magnani (2016) argue for the possibility of overlap between low-level cognitive niches and advanced ecological ones. What is beyond argument, though, is the fact that human beings master cognitive niche construction (Magnani 2009).

  5. Bertolotti and Magnani (2016) reduce the shift from ecological niche construction to its cognitive counterpart to the natural shift from biologically connoted enablementLongo et al. (2012) to cognitive affordance.

  6. For instance, if the user has been honest in declaring her birthdate, she will be prone to think that also other users have been honest with the same respect (Acquisti and Gross 2006).

  7. This shift of behavior in the virtual domain is also confirmed by the already mentioned example of ad-hoc online communities, as websites of support of mental health patients, where the sites become “identity laboratory” where marginalized people can find different meanings for their diagnosed condition (Giles and Newbold 2011; Wallace 1999) and even causing forms of “cyberchondria” (White and Horvitz 2008).

  8. Bertolotti (2011) and Bertolotti and Magnani (2013a) argued that a characteristic trait of social networking websites is the co-opting of evolved heuristics underdetermining social cognition. For instance, these websites may delude the user into believing that one’s reputation can be deterministically affected by one’s virtual appearance through what he or she posts online. Infamous cyberbullying accidents make clear how such a belief can stumble upon major shortcomings and self-defeating behaviors.

  9. That is one of the most important assets describing cognitive economy, that is, the need to reach a sort of trade-off between the accuracy of a decision and the limited time one is bounded to (Gigerenzer and Todd 1999).

  10. This is one of the main issues in contemporary social epistemology, namely how to assess valuable and trustworthy testimony (Gelfert 2014; Coady 2012).

  11. In a forthcoming article we intend to discuss whether the implication of the two domains in online communities, the docility-based relation with truth and the tendency to fall into ecological fallacies, can lead to problematic phenomenon of misunderstanding real-world events and data in the context of online network.


  13. Rizza and her colleagues Rizza et al. 2014 provide a thorough analysis of the phenomenon.


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We are grateful to Matteo Colombo, Thomas Boyer-Kassem and James Grayot, for constructive criticisms and valuable comments on the earlier draft, and to audiences at Tilburg Research Center for Logic, Ethics, and Philosophy of Science for further feedbacks. We also want to express our gratitude towards the two anonymous referees, for their crucial remarks and knowledgeable suggestions.

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Correspondence to Selene Arfini.

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Arfini, S., Bertolotti, T. & Magnani, L. Online communities as virtual cognitive niches. Synthese 196, 377–397 (2019).

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