Follow up to Redefining Social Media
This following piece looks at social media and the inferences made about group opinion through our experiences online as a test of our own sanity and group belonging. Much of the social media space provides us with answers to the question “how do we compare to others?”. To what extent do we fit in, and to what extent are we marginalised in our beliefs and way of life?
I propose that social media offer us a means of self-regulation via observation and interaction with online groups, however vague or blurry the groupings may actually be. Through experimentation we can discover where boundaries lie and where we are in relation to them in order to adjust or to recalibrate if we want, or if we simply feel it to be necessary. In this way, social media is like an unintentional game.
In short, social media is a new form of social proof that in a very general way provides us with examples of how we should behave in an almost infinite array of scenarios.
Old media are slow to transmit social proof because it requires an enormous amount reading in the case of books which usually contain the ideas of a single person (weak evidence), and so therefore require further occurrences of the same or similar ideas in order to be considered proof in the social sense. Old media is also mostly one-dimensional in the case of television because most broadcasts simply represent opinions rather than commentaries on opinions (debates), and are frozen in time and out of reach for critique except for the rare occasions where you can call up to voice your ideas, if they choose to let you. On the other hand, social surveys in the form of reviews and likes are a highly condensed version of social proof often in meta form, that are not necessary time-limited, or constrained by how many meta levels they may contain: a comment on a video may have a reply which has a reply which itself has a reply and so on.
A single glance at the view-count or number of likes a post or video has is more than sufficient to signal on a basic level not just whether or not the content is worthy of our time and attention, but more importantly how the public opinion leans in relation to it.
The more widespread something is the more important it appears, and the more likely we will be to imitate and propagate its privileged position. However, the problem is that due to the nature of computer algorithms and their increasing use in shaping the internet, we now have the impression that things are more common and universal than they are due to how information is being filtered and selected for in order to give us more of the same in one form or another, in addition to our tendency to generalise from our own experiences and limited information. Thus, the effects of neo social proof are compounded by other mechanisms which are unique to the online environment.
Comments on websites such as YouTube are highly self-aware, meaning that now they no longer simply function as a method of opinion sharing, but also as a platform or stage upon which anyone is invited to perform. Meme-style comments are particularly prevalent examples that are less about their content and more about their form. Form becomes an easily recognisable and reproducible characteristic that signals and creates group cohesion for no other reason.
A now rare example, which was once quite popular is the simple phrase “first!”. Although the idea was often that the commenter was the first to comment, claiming some kind of victory like sir Walter Raleigh planting the British flag firmly in some newly discovered foreign soil and in the name of Queen Elizabeth, like any meme it adapted, and later on seemed to be used in a more ironic and slightly less juvenile way than before. Proclamations of “first!” became references, not to the idea of being a pioneer of any sort, but to the contrary, they quickly evolved into references to the meme itself, which is precisely the arc that all memes follow and are largely defined by.
So instead of a comments section being a unitary space in which to air opinions, it has become a spectacle that is in many cases more interesting and alluring than the content upon which we are supposed to comment.
Why is what other people are thinking and doing so important? Because all social situations are opportunities to test our social skills and to develop and strengthen our relationships, particularly in respect to a group. By observing what ideas and actions are punished, and which are rewarded, we implicitly learn where the boundaries for a group are, and what type of behaviours and beliefs are acceptable. Because there is no written code of conduct, which allows the standards and norms to change over time, we cannot simply sit down and take a test or read a questionnaire in order to determine which ideas we agree with or dispute before deciding to integrate (or not) with any group. This means that there is always an inherent risk, not just with trying to join a group without irreversibly offending its members, but also in failing to be accepted at all. We therefore must engage in social experimentation in which we gradually expose ourselves to the group, and in turn the group to ourselves and our ideas, and we carefully collect and analyse the results of these interactions in order to formulate an image of what the group and its rules look like, but perhaps more significantly, how we might want to adjust our own behaviours or beliefs in order to fit in. For, the process is not static as would be expected of a veritable scientific study, rather, the evidence is being gathered so that we may calibrate or alter ourselves in relation to it.
Failure to adapt to the norms of the group in which we live or find ourselves situated will result in punishment of one kind or another. Failure to correctly identify the norms may actually be handled more leniently than an outright refusal to conform to them, because such a failure is often associated with some kind of perceived mental illness or inadequacy, rather than what could be bluntly labelled stubbornness or rebellion. It would also seem that the lack of concern for social acceptance or the inability to accurately judge customs is a lot less common than the tendency to outright disagree with them. Furthermore, disregard for the gradualness of the process, i.e. a failure to ‘test the waters’ and engage in a certain level or type of “small talk” can in many cases be a punishable offence, and certainly signals something up front about how that individual regards this particular norm. Instead of tip-toeing around social situations in order to feel them out, and letting the behaviour of others enlighten or guide them, the inept and the aloof impose their own standards in much the same way, as neither is in line with whatever happens to constitute acceptable behaviour for the given situation.
In the highly-connected social environment, sharing media content is as much a part of the testing process as actively creating or commenting on it is. This ability to dress one’s self in the attire of different groups, simply by sharing or creating a list of favourites that can be seen and studied or looked over by others is an unprecedented leap forward in the evolution of our social dynamics that allows us to judge and be judged from any location and point in time, and not only that, but we now have access to an unimaginably larger pool of evidence to study, and from which to draw conclusions.
This worldwide phenomenon of social proof is more complex, because in many ways it is impossible to define its boundaries, or to determine the structure of the group in which we are trying to fit. This is made more complicated by the fact that many people communicate in English whether as a first, second or third language, meaning that the social groups whose rules we may be obeying are not even coherent entities in the way that physical societies are. The level of abstraction has increased, and the constraints that shaped groups in the past such as location and even age have virtually disappeared due to the virtual nature of our new social environments. Unless restricted by their elders, a child with the know-how has access to all of the same platforms and sites as an adult does, and so is witness to, participant in, and affected by the same social games that we may naively think are reserved for ourselves. In that respect it’s easy to forget that behind the avatars and screen names are actual people, and that there’s a good possibility that they are neither the same age nor nationality as you. With this in mind we should take care when conducting ourselves online because we are not in a position to make our judgements as we would when face to face. In my experience, what this translates to is a kind of carelessness and crudeness in people’s comments and attitudes, that reveals the lack of thought and tact behind many online interactions, at least on typical social media websites such as youtube or Twitter.
In a way, the standards for behaviour on YouTube for example actually vary from video to video, depending on the content or its creator, meaning that each time we watch something new we must evalute the context of the comment section. But not only must we assess our surroundings from one video to the next, we must constantly do it as we navigate our way around the internet, which suggests that by doing so, we are actually practising social skills from the analytical side of things, and the wider the variety of communities and websites that we frequent, and better still, contribute actively to, the more we are challenged, and therefore must learn to adapt. Such voyages are in fact necessary in order to break out of the illusion that everyone and everything is the way things are here and now. Online travel should broaden the mind, just as physical travel should.
The ongoing nature of this social experiment is even more apparent in relation to online media, which has a high turnover and a broad base from which to originate, which means that there is no shortage of new ideas to which we will be exposed and must find some kind of group alignment on. In addition, there isn’t necessarily any logic or logical order to the types of social situations we will find ourselves faced with when online. Of course, we all have our habits and haunts as we do in the real world, however, media-from-a-distance has the power to impose or be imposed upon us in ways that most normal social situations are not. In effect, alien ideas and situations are imported into the context of our daily lives which is often at odds with what such media presents us, be it questions or events that have little or no bearing on our situation, or something such as an old recording of a concert, now showing long-deceased musicians in their prime.
We cannot go back to a past we have never seen, yet we can live the effects of experiencing it as a simulation through old records, and through the reactions of others to it. In this way, social media can function as a tool for the implicit sharing of ideas and ideals through gradual exposure to norms that are outside the scope of the physical societies in which we live, and the habits we have. As in the case of the children who overcame their fear of dogs by watching videos of other children happily playing with them, unencumbered free speech in the public sphere for example, is likely to aid in its propogation, and by the same token, establishing a group norm against it in one area will make it harder for it to flourish in others.
What the implications are for how our local societies will evolve in relation to our ever-expanding and all-encompassing online communities is unclear, especially because the technology that is influencing these mutations is also changing. Imagine what instant automatic translation of text and dubbing of audio could do to break down language barriers and allow all users access to the same content. This kind of technology is less the stuff of science fiction, and more the type of thing we should expect to see in the very near future.
Assuming that the power of social proof will continue to grow in tandem with the widening of the social group, how might this affect our values, ideas and traditions? Not just in relation to the larger questions of morality, religion or spirituality for example, but also in regards to things such as art and culture and personal taste. As people spend more time on the internet and in the broader social world, how might this be affecting trends in different areas? Is there a danger that culture will move towards homogenisation along with our beliefs, as we all make an effort to converge with the online status quo? I imagine that the world away from screen has a strong mediating effect that ultimately prevents and protects against any kind of total hijacking of our social cues, meaning that the physical world before us should always have the last word, provided at least that we continue to interact regularly with, and remain a part of it.