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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Online Cultures and Offline Behaviors - Part 3 - Social Psychology and Online Communities

Part 3 - Social Psychology and Online Communities

There are several social psychology concepts that can shed light on human behavior online as well as raise additional questions.  Michelle Greer wrote this insightful article that is related to the first concept I'll discuss.  On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog.  You are deindividualized until you choose to disclose your identity, which is fairly common practice.  However, even when identities are disclosed, people still behave in ways that they wouldn't in person because they feel like nobody knows their identity.  When people are deindividualized with masks or within a mob, they do things that they normally wouldn't.  The example I use in teaching is the Ku Klux Klan.  Do you think that KKK members would engage in the behaviors (many illegal and horrific) that they do without wearing those masks?  I think not.  With the rapid growth of social media, remaining anonymous on the internet is incredibly difficult.  Once information is on the Internet, it's always on the Internet.  Users can be found, for better or worse.  So, unless you intend to live in hiding for the rest of your life, be mindful with what you post online.  You are an identifiable individual.

Many social networks employ some method of dialogue.  Facebook has walls and comments.  Twitter has @replies so you can follow conversations.  Many blogs allow comments on postings.  Fred Wilson's Blog has so many regular readers that they have their own microculture.  Even Yelp has talk threads.  With these methods of communication, we can see a series of social psychology concepts in play.  Humans are subject to confirmation bias, which is the tendency to only seek information that conforms to our beliefs.  We tend to disregard information that isn't consistent with our own attitudes, and we have a very difficult time being objective.  This is a concept we should keep in mind when engaging in social media and doing research or polling people on the Internet.  It leads us to search for articles we want to find, and leads us to discount information we just don't want to see.

Following that same vein, there is no hard data on what is exactly going on in social media.  There is a plethora of quantitative data on how many views a page or post receives and from where the traffic originated, but there is no data on how content is perceived.  Little to no accurate or complete qualitative data exists.  Comments on wall posts or blog posts are qualitative, but it represents a very small portion of the readers.  There is no data on how the other users who chose not to comment actually feel about the post.  So while there is data on the number of viewers and when they viewed, there is little indication of their reaction to online content.  This is where cultures can sour a bit.  Austin Yelp Talk threads used to be filled with light-hearted banter and fun topics.  Over time, a few users became snarky, rude, condescending.  Some believed that if you ignored those users (often called trolls), they would go away.  That is a very common technique in dog training using operant conditioning , i.e. not rewarding unwanted behaviors.  However, the other issue is that if those users repeatedly violated the "be cool" guidelines in the terms of service without any one calling them out, then saying nothing is in some sense establishing that behavior as the norm.  While users can flag rude and snarky posts for removal, most Austin Yelp users simply quit using the talk threads because the culture had changed.

One might think that people would be unlikely to conform to behavior just because they observed it on the Internet or in person.  The popular opinion is that humans are free from influence when it comes to making their own decisions or controlling their own behaviors.  Nothing could be further than the truth.  Many social psychology studies show that when the situation is ambiguous, people look to others and model other people's behaviors.  Even in situations where a norm is already established, others behaving in another fashion can entice people to change their own behaviors (watch the video, it's hilarious).  This may explain how a faux pas might become the norm for behavior.

One issue that doesn't have a name yet and has not been empirically studied is users' feelings after posting something on the Internet.  It appears that there is a certain sense of self-worth or accomplishment  because one's own opinion is posted on the Internet.  The user feels that because he or she has a right to post things online, his or her opinion is valued, trusted, or even validated.  While I highly value my Freedom of Speech, I do not think that just because certain information can be posted that it should be posted or that it is correct.  My personal rule of thumb is: If I won't say it to someone's face, I shouldn't post it online.

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