Our Social Media behavior smothers discussion

I was wondering about an amazing (well to me it is) “discussion” I saw on a blog post over at Mashable. Mark Rizzn Hopkins wrote a post about Early adopters and it didn’t take long before many people jumped on that to provide their opinion.

In the post, entitled “4 questions for every early adopter” Mark tries to describe a stereotype of an early adopter. I kinda liked his stance, I have written about this exact topic before. If you look at it from a wider perspective I feel that the whole Silicon Valley circus with blogs, pr machines, and early adopters running around jumping every cool service they get their hands on is quickly losing it’s sparkle. I wrote a post on that over at Steven Hodson’s blog, if you are interested. But that isn’t what I was looking at.

What I found amazing was the comments that were left behind on Mashable after Mark had published his post. I went through them, one by one, and found that the tone of voice was pretty aggressive in many of the comments. Mark was able to quickly get a pro and a con crowd together in one place. It’s seems that talking about early adopters isn’t without danger.

I found several food fights going on in public where people weren’t really discussing or debating anything. Instead people were passionately writing what they felt was the truth. And that got me to think a little. This social media thing and the value of it. The real power of social media lies in the ability to interact. But to be honest, I wonder if people are really interacting sometimes.

I believe that the weakness in this assumption is very subtle. Social media allows interaction but at the same time, this interaction is bound by a very different set of rules than real-life interactions.

In real-life we have gesture, senses, feelings, etiquette, social control and pressure, and they surround us all. It makes us act in a certain way. It ensures that, in general, we try to be civilised when together. Of course people fight, scream and call names, but it comes at a cost. If you get yourself into such a situation your blood pressure rises, you get agitated, frustrated, feel bad or whatever.

And that is where Social Media interaction becomes different. I feel that once we are on-line, our behavior changes considerably. While we may be shy in real life, it is a lot easier to become outspoken on-line. That isn’t just because you might have a different identity on-line, maybe even one that doesn’t trace back to you in real life. The same thing holds for people, including myself, that simply extend their real life identity on to the web.

It’s the way we get together on-line. Using a keyboard and a computer screen somehow doesn’t make the experience “real” and personal. You may have a public online profile, but it is detached from real life.  Social media can let us interact anywhere we want, but on-line interaction very different from real-life interactions.

It is for that reason people that may be shy in real-life can become outspoken on the web. It also makes us all experts on any matter, even if we don’t know a thing about it. That is why a “discussion” over at that Mashable article isn’t really a “discussion”. People find it easy to be an expert, be offensive or rude. It’s this attitude that makes it hard to have a great discussion, or to explore something with a crowd. Instead of asking questions, we are all eager to provide answers.

I realized (again) that this happens all the time. You can read blogs, comments, discussions on Friendfeed, or any other platform only to find that in many cases the opinions ventilated make the air so thick that it is impossible to learn anything from it. We claim the truth, act like subject experts on any matter, and sometimes even call each other names. Once we get online we feel less vulnerable and start acting like fools.

The one case where this doesn’t happen very often? It’s when you are online getting together with real friends. Then similar stimuli take control of the situation and you start acting like your usual self again. It’s a trap we all fall into one time or another.

All of this above applies to me too of course. I write about Social media technology and their effect on human behavior. I do this because I’m passionate about it. Can I really consider myself an expert on these matters? I don’t know really. So it is best to take everything you read here with a grain of salt.

Remember, just because it is written down doesn’t make it true!


About vanelsas

See my about page, https://vanelsas.wordpress.com/about/ ;-)
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12 Responses to Our Social Media behavior smothers discussion

  1. Interesting post. There is definitely some truth to what you say.

    I also think that a large share of the blame goes to the way people write on their blogs. As the blogosphere become more competitive, people are taking more extreme viewpoints to attract attention.

    What I often notice that the middle ground disappears from most discussions. It’s either black or white, and never grey.

    This forces people into two camps and leads to them becoming more defensive and less open to debate.

  2. amzolt says:

    Good post!

    Mark is a great guy and I like his style. He said once that he’s rather impervious to the “Mashable Effect”.

    Still, the immaturity of much social media is mostly media and very little social…

    In my blog, I’ve yet to have such activity. When my plans for growth of visitors attains its full head of steam, I’m sure people will begin to vent.

    I’ll be back here often–good to read commentary on social media that’s grounded in reality.

    ~ Alex from Our Evolution

  3. Roel says:

    What you describe is what I consider to be the ‘problem’ with popular unmoderated media. So the ‘popular’ part is an important distinction.

    It may be that people feel less inhibited there, because there is no personal relationship between author and commenter. On the other hand, I don’t think you should see it as one-on-one interaction between a commenter and the author of the article, but as a group discussion between all of the commenters and the author. Looking at it from that perspective: the Mashable article got 64 people to make a comment, so you should see it as a 64 person group discussion. And have you ever contributed to a productive and constructive discussion with 64 people at the same time? If that ever worked, there probably were some very good moderators present.

    In that regard, the Slashdot.org discussions are a good example of a place where comments are mostly just people sharing their own personal opinions. But sometimes part of a thread can become very interesting or informative, and if you just filter for comments with a score of 5 or 4 you will find some good discussions. That’s how I have it setup, actually. 🙂

  4. @Daan it’s definitely one source. Personally I do feel that the detachment in general leads to different interaction behavior. It’s easier to act different when you are behind a screen and no one is there to see you.

    @Amzolt thank you 😉

    @Roel, good distinction. It is hard in real life to haev meaningful discussions with a lot of people. Actually, come to think of it. When people are in large groups, they sort off act like they would act on the web. You can be a bit more anonymous when you are talking with 60 people, so there you will interact differently too. It’s like the kind of guys you sometimes see at a conference. They start discussions from within the audience, but they aren’t always really discussing but often trying to “prove a point”.

  5. Josh says:

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since I wrote a blog post for a site I freelance for in which I reviewed a product under development.

    It was the kind of post you see online all the time in the Tech industry… nothing by ego and opinion, lacking in any real facts and with no real object apart from slamming this product.

    Then one of the developers involved in the project I was writing about actually stopped by and commented. It was resonable, fairly polite and it made me suddenly see what it is the internet, or the detachment you mention, can do to you…

  6. Diane says:

    I’ve thought about (and experienced) this issue quite a bit.

    The give-and-take, discussion, and synthesis of ideas seems to be losing ground everywhere – you see it most obviously in online social settings, but even in person it is disappearing in favor of everyone stating (and defending) their own point of view.

    That said, I’ve had some very interesting discussions, with questions going back and forth. Because the body language was missing it was necessary to keep reminding each other “You know I respect and like you, have you considered…” to keep the debate from getting personal.

  7. Josh says:

    Hey, good point.

    Actually come to think of it… when was the last time you can think of that you managed to actually change someones opinion?

    Or for that matter have your own opinion changed?

    Its ironic modern society prides itself on rationalism, yet the reality seems to be that we arnt getting any more rational… we are simply improving out abilities to locate other like-minded people no matter how whacked our views are.

  8. Carol says:

    I agree; the anonymity of people and a design element of the Internet – a place for maximum freedom of self-expression – sometimes allows people to be less reluctant to use harsh words. What concerns me is, America is already experiencing anonymity in our daily interactions, and a lack of self-control, as evidenced in road rage. Will this lack of self-restraint seen on the Internet rollover to the “real-world” with increasing uncivil behavior?

  9. firestar9s says:

    Great post!

    I think the level to which the “gesture, senses, feelings, etiquette, social control and pressure” are present in social media is very much dependent on the user’s investment in social media.

    I know I am certainly bound by what I feel is social media etiquette. There are many things I would never say or do online (swear at someone in a comment, make wild claims without backup, etc. etc.). Likewise, the act of following or not on twitter or similar acts on other platforms could be considered a form of gesture. And- what serious blogger doesn’t feel pressure? So on, so forth…

    Am I reading you wrong?

    If I’m not, I stick by my initial statement. The invested (participating, reciprocating) social media user is bound by – not the same- but a similar set of social rules as the real-life socializer, so the quality of interaction is typically going to be a lot greater when you ‘run in those kinds of circles.’ S/he wants a quality interaction/conversation, so s/he follows the rules or social norms that are necessary (consciously or not) to achieve that.

    😉 – erin

  10. @Josh a good example, it happens to all of us one way or another (e-mail for example)

    @Carol, don’t now. But the “tech” interface we use now (keyboard, screen) makes things complicated

    @Erin, I agree that there is social etiquette, even on the web. I also think it is a bit easier not to conform to that etiquette. Obviously most people try to be themselves on the web, but for some it is an easy way out to behave differently.
    Btw, the things I write are often colored by my personal experience or needs, in the case of online discussions I tend to find those that triggger new questiosn way more interesting and inspiring than those that provide answers. Answers can be Googled, knowlegde can’t 😉

    @Josh I do get inspired by certain people on the web. I have opinions and views, but there are lots of people that make me think, ask myself new questions and then in the end make me see things in a way I didn’t do before.

  11. Alexander,

    I think you are identifying a key distinction when you separate online discussions that have no connection to offline relationships and online discussions that are extensions or parallels of offline relationships. I do not think that the difference has to do merely with mediation, because even offline conversations are entirely mediated by language, but I think that one of the most pressing questions that the web raises is how exactly to define and articulate this difference that you have identified.

  12. Pingback: Shey’s MonthCap - 09/08 | introspective snapshots

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