Illusion in Social Media

 Posted by on 23 February 2012 at 8:00 am  Ethics, Friendship, Technology
Feb 232012

Earlier this week, Trey Givens, Paul, and I discussed the questions of the upcoming webcast over dinner. (Trey was visiting us, which was super-lots-of-fun!) In our discussion of the differences between online and in-person relationships, Trey told us about a horrifying case in which an unfriending on Facebook led to a double homicide.

Obviously, that particular case wasn’t really about Facebook: something like that only happens because some people involved are unstable and depraved. However, this general observation on social media in the article struck me as quite insightful:

Facebook crystallizes the dynamics of our friendships and social interactions — bringing them a clarity that can be measured by clicks, visits, and comments. Having our social interactions brought into that level of focus means that a relationship that might have once ebbed over time naturally through avoidance and ignored phone calls can instead be cut off in a dramatic and confrontational way. Perhaps laying bare the end of a relationship in such a deliberate way means an intensified emotional reaction for those involved, or a sense of finality that one wouldn’t usually get. (When I blocked an ex-boyfriend on Facebook years ago, he was angrier about that than at any other point in our breaking up.)

I’ve certainly found that to be the case, and I think that’s why social media has the potential to cause so much disruption in online communities. (I’ve got a question on that topic in the webcast queue that needs your votes!)

Social media like Facebook and Twitter enable people to easily connect with others with similar interests — more easily than ever. That capacity to find the kinds of people I like is one reason why I’ve been active on e-mail lists for nearly two decades, why I’ve maintained a personal web site for almost as long as the web has existed, and why I’ve blogged for almost a decade. I use those venues as a filtering mechanism, so that I can find the kinds of minds and souls that I enjoy knowing. However, those older internet venues tend to be more one-way than social media: it’s too easy to be seen but not to see others. I like social media because people are more apt to speak out in large and small ways that reveal their personality, character, and values. That enables me to see others, and them to see me. So I can come to understand acquaintances better, as well as find likely potential friends.

However, that transparency comes at a price, as the article indicates. That price is not that people see the stupid, ignorant, annoying, and/or mean facets of distant acquaintances. Often, it’s a bonus to see that from afar because then people know to keep their distance! Rather, the price is that that online interactions make people within a far-flung community seem closer than they really are. Then, when people in those communities conflict, as they inevitably will do, people often fail to recognize the true distance and insignificance of the relationships involved. As a result, minor annoyances and disagreements between people who barely know each other turn into nasty public conflicts. That level of social drama used to be saved for bitter divorces, not people who’ve never even met.

These problem will sort itself out with time, I think, as people come to a better understanding of the nature and limits of these new social mediums. Certainly, I’ve made mistakes myself, most notably in fostering some unhealthy acrimony in the debates about the 2006 election. My attitude toward that is “Yippee Mistakes!” I’m not indifferent to my mistakes, not by a long shot. However, since Paul has yet to build me a time machine, I can’t undo those mistakes. I can apologize and make amends as needed, but mostly, I can use those mistakes as prime opportunities for discovering how to do better in the future. I can’t control what others do, but I hope they adopt the same approach.

Mostly though, I’d like to see a warning sticker on social media — something like the warning on passenger-side mirrors on cars: “People on your screen are further than they appear.” Taking that to heart could do a whole lot of good for online communities.

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