After some weeks of digressions I’m returning to my main theme for my 13th post in this series (am I superstitious about 13). My series of posts under this title expand on posts by Dr. Tracy Dennis, a serious researcher in the area of social media. While there is an ample supply of commentary about social media there is little actual research. As I’ve explored this topic I have been able to find a lot of usage statistics and some informal surveys but Dr. Dennis wants to ask and answer questions about the impact of social media on behavior and development. In short, is social media having some deep and/or lasting impact on us? Without a doubt using social media is certainly a phenomenon that has engulfed a significant share of our species and at a surface level certainly changed behavior, but are we really different?
In this post Dr. Dennis raises questions comparing our online and offline lives, using the metaphor that it is same-same, but different. As a qualifier I think this is very broad question and vis-a-vis all the types of social media we have to first qualify which type. Texting is more directed to people who actually know you F2F and requires fast interaction so not much opportunity to create an online you that is different than the offline you. OTOH, blogging is the other end of the spectrum, all the time in the world to project yourself through your writing, using your choice of topics to define yourself online, and given the media implies more effort on written communication you probably are stylistically quite different than the offline you (I can almost promise your written work is very different from a spontaneous verbal presentation because we use different skills for each).
So I suspect this broad question is most applicable in that in-between world of Twitter and its equivalents, and Facebook and its equivalents – where we are a real person, probably more focused on the here-and-now, but also primarily actually focused on social interaction with a group (rather than an individual as in texting). Many in the group may be fairly distant acquaintances, even strangers, so any disconnect between online and offline identity won’t be so noticed and some desire for privacy may encourage.
So let’s follow the structure of Dr. Dennis’ post. She says:
I feel like life online is just like this – same, same, but different. How we interact, how we create identity, how we feel special and understood online is the same, same but different from our offline life. Here are three examples of this:
The first example is:
1. What counts as clever. In the offline world, being clever usually involves being quick-witted: having the fast comeback, thinking on your feet, etc, …. But online, you have oodles of time to compose, rewrite, think about, and edit every comment you make. Self-presentation becomes a long-term process rather than a series of quick, face-to-face exchanges that “disappear” as soon as they have happened. These disappearing impressions are what used to be the basis of our views about each other. …. It’s just that when we’re trying to be clever, we can take our time about it.
I once worked on voice recognition products. One tool we used was to record people in spontaneous conversation and then have the recordings converted to transcripts, then have the people read the transcripts. Most people believed the transcripts were somehow altered because they didn’t believe they sounded like that (just like hearing ourselves on a recording we sound different). Without any firm references I’ll make that claim that how we talk is quite different from how we write (and social media is mostly written). Writing is a low-bandwidth communication and omits so much of a physical presentation so we know we have to change what we say and how we say it in written form. Right away our online and offline self will be a bit different due to different modality.
Another way for any of us to become more aware of how we talk is to be partially deprived of it. In another job I spent multiple sessions of a week with Japanese partners who spoke little English. Japanese technology types had many college courses in English and so are fairly proficient at reading but they rarely get much chance to hear and even less chance to speak English. Of course I knew no Japanese so the only chance of communication had to be through English (a mixed blessing of having the dominant language of commerce and technology be your first language: good, it’s easier for you, bad, you don’t have to learn other languages). Anyway, in normal discussions with my staff in English I speak rapidly and, just as I write but worse, with lots of words. That’s really tough for someone who has limited English listening skills. But body language is fairly universal, so when our meetings would start (these were design meetings and as the architect I led them) I quickly noticed I was losing my audience. The first thing was my staff kept signaling me to slow down and pretty soon I thought I sounded like molasses but more was getting through. The second thing is Japanese language really uses compound clauses, so a quick thing to do is put in periods, not ‘and’. And with those periods, put in a long pause. In short, don’t actually speak more than a few words without a pause. And since techies love whiteboards in fact mostly write out words that are jargon and might be lost on an ESL audience. After a week I spoke so wildly different even though I was still only speaking English nonetheless I drove native English listeners crazy. It was an interesting experience to provide perspective.
So at one level the idea of being “clever” (or any other attribution or synonym for clever) is likely to be different in social media communication because it is written. Try, as an experiment, to actually write how you think you talk, but use voice recording and talk naturally and see if you’re actually the same – I doubt you will be. Plus written language is so dry whereas verbal can be filled with all sorts of inflection and flourish. Or, as an opposite exercise take some of your best writing and read it out loud and see how much more dull it seems and how much you’ll be tempted to spice it up a bit with various kinds of emphasis and non-verbal communication.
I look at blog comments a lot and in fact there does seem to be a big premium on being “clever.” In fact you can often even see oneupsmanship in the comment strings, the bar on cleverness is set higher and higher and until the comment thread changes course each successive comment must be even more clever. I actually find this strange, what is the point? It can be amusing, but frankly it sounds to me as people just showing off how clever they are and the comments have little to do with the post. So is “clever” all by itself something that changes in online vs offline – perhaps.
Moving on, here’s the next example:
2. It’s OK to brag. I’m actually not sure that it is OK to brag in online communities, but I see a lot more of it online than offline … This seems to be an important difference between online and offline, because one of the purposes of the digital social network is to get yourself and your work “out there.” … Does this mean that social mores about bragging may be changing? The interesting thing to watch will be whether these tendencies trickle down into our offline lives.
I would expand “brag” to also include what I find common and that is while talking about relatively abstract ideas people still tend to bring themselves into it and somehow make the discussion more about themselves than the idea. Either way it does seem we’re putting ourselves out there more than perhaps we do in offline life. Now as Dr. Dennis points out, often this is somewhat required since our social media presence is now very much part of how we “sell” ourselves (and in today’s economy we have to constantly “sell”, jobs are now acquired in large point via social media (or at least your social media “image”), any independent gets contracts from social media, your online image may weigh in grant decisions, and so forth, so while we’ve always had to “sell” ourselves, social media makes that both more outright and with more emphasis (again the paucity of written communications removes some of the other selling we can do via non-verbal communication).
So I’d say it is the last sentence of this quoted section, will the online “selling” more substantially affect offline lives. And I’d suggest this might be a possible platform for experiment and study, something like, get a group of people and tell them they’ve got a couple of minutes to verbally sell themselves for a job, then tell them to do the same thing via a simulated LinkedIn or Facebook for multiple iterations, then have them do it again verbally. Count self-references, both quantity and how direct and how emphatic. If this is too hard do the same thing in some other simple contrived “selling” exercise.
I watch many of the FoodNetwork cooking competitions. I don’t have actual data, but it seems to me over the years that personal persuasion has crept in. In the early shows contestants cooked their food and turned it into judges and stood there more or less silently. Now, especially in a recent Chopped, contestants reveal all sorts of personal details and how deserving they are (just as people rather than purely as chefs) and they get all emotional and so-forth. Undoubtedly this has all been focus-grouped for ratings and it works with audiences (it doesn’t for me, it’s FOOD show, not reality TV). Perhaps my observation isn’t even valid, or perhaps it is true, but it’s just competing with reality TV, or who knows what. BUT, there is a connection that I think this example might be an easier one to do an experiment.
But almost everyone has observed that most people lie, often a lot, in social media. I posted on this, that we lie more about being pretty than smart. Clearly peer pressure works both ways: a) if it’s not appropriate to do something, i.e. brag, and the peer group makes this clear (criticizing someone who does brag), we’ll do less of it, and, b) if it is encouraged we’ll do more of it. Perhaps we hear bragging and so we brag too. Perhaps we hear bragging and we don’t just brag ourselves, but we get in competition to bragging more. Since social media doesn’t have the non-verbal feedback (tell a whopper to a live audience and you’d have to be blind not to see the reaction, but in writing, how can we tell).
In fact this example seems to have the seed of a research idea. Take two groups of volunteers and expose them to posts and they have to make comments. In one set of posts have a lot of bragging and in the other extreme modesty, then measure the comments for amount of bragging. And maybe do the same experiment in person. If the results show anything it may just be the peer pressure vs the medium.
And finally, Dr. Dennis discusses this example:
3. Being cool. I’m no expert on cool, but it seems to me that how people are cool online is quite different than the traditional ways of being cool. Online, cool seems to be defined by the number of friends/followers/connections you have, as well as your sheer presence in terms of posts.
I think “cool” is a completely appropriate term but again I’ll switch it a bit to “impressive”, or we’re trying to impress others about some aspect of ourselves, “cool” being one of them (at least in the blog world, all the normal things, athletics, travel, money, skills, taste, etc., enter into how people sell themselves). “cool” is probably particularly appropriate for the younger set, but that’s just my bias, or an extension of pretty-is-better-than-smart. Certainly anyone presenting themselves professionally is more interested in impressing with smart, knowledgeable, competent, since cool may get you popularity but those other attributes get you money.
But Dr. Dennis’ elaboration of the cool theme to distinguish the James Dean kind of cool that seems to be missing online is interesting. And I suspect it would be very hard to pin down in research. I know a lot of people who are opposed to social media exactly because they don’t think it’s cool. Book group for short list Booker writers is cool, Facebook is bourgeoisie. Paper books are cool, eBooks are nerdy. Cult movies are cool, superheros are juvenile. Yep, James Dean cool vs Snooki cool.
So how much of this is culture (or the “times”) and how much is it people’s station in life and how much is it technology and how much of it is social media? Really hard to say.
And finally on this point, Dr Dennis says:
One reason for this shift in cool may be that online, tech-savvy geeks rule the world, so the definition of cool has altered to fit their goals and ways of being. Another may simply be a function of the technology. You can’t be strong and silent online.
Being a certified geek I’ll take issue with this. First, I don’t think, at least in social media, that “tech-savvy geeks rule”. But perhaps I use “tech-savvy” in a different way. I label myself as “tech-savvy” because I can (and have for decades) create the stuff. I do not label most of the my circle here in Nebraska (as opposed to my circle when I was in Silicon Valley) as “tech-savvy”. Oh sure, they have latest gadgets and are moderately competent at using them, but they have little clue or interest in how they work. I make this distinction because in fact the early Internet and still much of the Internet is, in fact, “tech-savvy”, but most of the come-lately’s are not. Kids who can thumbtype faster than I can and know more texting slang are not more “tech-savvy”. In fact, I’ve frequently thundered from this blog that I object to social media even being called ‘technology’ at all (did Facebook actually invent any piece of what they use, a processor chip, perhaps, a new OS, new comm protocols, new languages, interesting new database structure – of course not, and none of the social media companies impress me in the least in their “technology”.
It’s like saying kids who speed around the cars mommy and daddy bought them and wouldn’t have a clue what Carnot cycle means or how continuously variable transmissions work are “car-savvy”. And in fact because I actually think most social media users (at least at Facebook) are just the oppose, tech-illiterate (although clearly not technophobic as many people still are) I think it is only an illusion of being a geek that comes through.
Now I don’t have my fingers on the sources (some of my draft posts) but many have also noticed a gender gap in social media. Wading into anything gender related is hazardous, but I will assert that as a generalization women are less willing, even if they are geeks, to be seen as “geeks” than men, especially men who actually are geeks. So it’s no surprise to me that Facebook has slightly more women than men, but Google+ is very male dominated (Google oozes geek and probably most Google+ users like Droids instead of iPhone, and probably wouldn’t be caught dead using a Mac but probably like Linux and probably at least know what emacs is (maybe if vi is they’re old)). But it’s not at all obvious why Reddit is the real male bastion and Pinterest is the female hangout (what guys don’t like pictures, gals don’t like news – that can’t be it). So “cool” is relative to a lot of variables. However, one I’ve experienced first hand (and somewhat dislike) is that all iPad owners think they’re very very cool. Sorry guys spending a few more bucks on a fad item is not cool even though Apple marketing did everything in their power to make it look cool.
But while it may seem like a digression one area of how “cool” is measured that I understand is techie and geeks. It goes all the way back to Usenet (for extra credit kiddies who think you’re tech-savvy, tell me what Usenet is and better yet how NNTP worked or even more interesting what is an RFC). There – that’s techie cool and bragging. Most Facebook bragging and cool is something else.
So addressing the whole of Dr. Dennis post I think:
- we have to distinguish which types of social media these observations would apply to and how
- we have to distinguish which types of people (various measures) since different groups will be selling themselves and buying others differently
- and we have to look at other influences, today’s pop culture is different than pop culture pre-social-media so is TV or celebrity to blame for bragging
- and we provide have to look at long-term culture, i.e. can statements you’d make about U.S. teenagers apply to Turkish middle-aged.
- how much of the difference, if any, between online and offline is due just to the medium (writing vs speaking)
- how much of the difference is because we now can have social networks of very loosely connected people, even strangers, rather than actual friends/family/acquaintances who actually know us (do we really “perform” as much for real friends as we do in social situations of blatant selling: job interview, first date, trying to get funding for a proposal, showing our art or poetry)
So in summary I think we are different online and offline but it’s a calculated and conscious difference based on a lot of variables and only somewhat coincidentally on “technology”.