Monday, April 14, 2008

The Dark Sides Of Social Online Media

I am a fan of how social online networking and social media can bring people together. For a long time I resisted the real power of making connections online, but in the past year I have witnessed how such relationships with others have positively impacted my life. While one still needs to have face to face human interactions (I fear some folks hide from reality and live on the internet), online relationships can help people explore and discover many things about one another.

There are many good things that comes with being active online, but there are also some dark sides that accompany the brilliance of the internet. We need to be conscious of the "icky" parts of humanity that can creep into the social online universe in order to protect ourselves and others.

I am not referring here about the pornography and predictors that litter the online landscape, although those are real dilemmas. Instead I am talking about the tendency that people have in online communities to behave without regard to polite accepted etiquette.

To start with, not everyone you meet via online networking really has mutually beneficial motivations. Some are just link collectors who want to raise their number of "friends" to astronomical highs. Others are takers, who want to have access to your network, but are not really planning on helping you should the opportunity arise. This is true of online connections as well as face-to-face relationships, but becomes more common-place when people are distant and masked by anonymity.

The real problems are that for some reason many individuals feel that they can hide behind their computer screen and write very mean-spirited, inflammatory and untrue (or partially true, but slanted to make a point) statements about any subject with which they feel passionate.

The issue here is that people tend to react quickly online and also enjoy stirring up the emotions of others. You see this a lot with the political topics, but these flaming blog posts and comments are also common in the business and other circles.

More than once I have seen people skew the truth to make a point on the blogosphere. I know that I have also been guilty of letting my passion for a topic take precedent over all else. The painful part of this is that then others on line pick up on the exaggerated or false statements... and post about them on their own blogs, Twitter, email lists or other media source. These who re-post take what they read as 100% factual, even though they have no knowledge of the actual story. They then add their opinions, comments and exaggerations without any regard to the facts. These small deviation becomes like the childhood game of "Telephone" where the story morphs and changes and has no resemblance to reality when it reaches the other side.

One argument that traditional journalists make about bloggers is that they do not have the checks and balances of an editor overseeing their writing. Now, we all know of the highly publicized examples of the traditional press making bad judgement calls and running stories to advance their causes.... but usually the editorial process does provide the good judgement to limit presenting emotionally charged opinions as fact.

Some bloggers argue that they have the power of the people and do not need the structure provided by an editor to advance the discussion of important topics. While sometimes this is true, we can all easily find examples of bloggers who do not report fairly, and this is dangerous. Very dangerous.

When emotions run wild, good people can get caught up in the excitement and the mob-rules mentality can take over. When this happens, common sense and judgment get sidelined and innocent people get hurt. Whenever I see people who love the emotions of a cause more than all else, I know in my heart that all bets are off on what they will say or do to make their point.

But one has to be careful to jump in when the mob has taken over, or you can be crucified. Recently I have been warned by other bloggers to stay out online discussions on heated topics because of the fear that other (more powerful online personalities) would retaliate. There are those who fear individuals in social online communities with large followings because they can use their power to bully others. Many feel that one's reputation can be crushed if the mob decides you are not in line. YIKES.

Most upsetting to me are the people who cheer on the bullies. It reminds me of the fight in the halls of a junior high.

There is no "fix"to this
dark side of social media, as by its own nature it is about the interaction and connections of people to people. There is no way to police these social communities, other than by the community itself having mutually agreed upon standards (which is tough to define, enforce or understand). Those who live on the internet often hate the thought of "rules", much less common courtesy.

Many of the worst offenders on the internet are the ones with the biggest audiences. They flame and defame anyone without any regret, and their sights continue to get more and more readers. This causes them to just say more outlandish statements and they embrace the "Shock Factor" and justify it by the amount of traffic it creates. And like a violent car accident, viewers continue to slow down to see the twisted heap of metal on the side of the road.

Just some thoughts. Social media is a force - "But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side of the Force, are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you, it will... as it did Obi-Wan's apprentice." (Yoda to Luke Skywalker).

Have A Great Day.



Scott Allen said...

People bitch about how virtual interaction is inferior to face-to-face interaction because it loses the nuances of body language, tone of voice, etc., but then they don't take advantage of the benefits of virtual interaction over face-to-face.

One of those benefits is that you are never backed into a corner online. When you're face-to-face in a heated discussion, you can't simply wait ten minutes until you cool off before you respond -- or for that matter simply walk away from the conversation.

But online, you can. Even on Twitter, there's not an expectation that you are fully, 100% present in the space.

So that's the first thing you can do to prevent this kind of stuff:

"Never post in anger."

Step away from the computer if you have to. Punch an inanimate object. But don't type until you've cooled off.

The second thing that's difficult to do in real-time, but much easier if you can cool off for a few minutes and reflect on it, is what I think is the most important rule of netiqutte:

"Presume good intent."

You have no body language or tone of voice as context, so you're framing what's said from your own perspective, which is almost certainly not the other person's perspective. So ask yourself, "What's the best possible way the other person could intend what they said?"

Respond to that. It's a no-lose situation for you. If they didn't intend it badly, you haven't escalated, and perhaps they realize that they could have said it better. If they really did mean it badly, your softer response may help defuse it. Or, they have to reiterate their negativity, which, I promise you, if it's taking place in a public venue, will make them look bad, not you.

The most effective way to engage people who insist on this kind of behavior, short of ignoring them completely, which isn't always possible, is to give them enough rope to hang themselves.

Phil Glockner said...

I agree with everything you say here! Even before the internet, I saw this sort of behavior on Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), and flame-baiting and trolling still continues on forums across the net.

Definitely stuff people need to look out for on the 'net.

Graeme Davidson said...

I couldn't agree more with your post here. The amount of email that I receive - as well as comments on my blog in need of moderation - that are almost bordering in the most rude form of English grammar I can imagine.
I think it is the ease of use with email and commenting on other people on the 'net that it can sometimes tend to be forgotten that there is a real person at the recieving end.
Being in a job where I am constantly in touch with people by phone, email, blogs, every social networking site and even still fax (I'm in business development for a digital marketing agency) I find that some people can be just plain ignorant of the efforts that are made by some.
However, I must say....I am not innocent in this either, and have found myself sending an email or putting a comment down in a heated moment and then regretting for the next day or two, depending on who it has gone to. Oops!
"Do as I say, not as I do" Lol

James T. Parsons said...

Hey Thom,

Speaking of online mobs, one of the things I have heard used through technology is a "swarm" attack. The idea is that you get a large number of people to support your position virtually, and this can probably even be done by a small number with false avatars. The idea is to pepper the other side with criticisms, so you can generate what appears to be the majority against the object of the attack. Often if you are defending this, without allies, it can be ... upsetting.

I don't by any means advocate this method, but do think it may describe some of your observations. The benefit of on-line connecting is that the passage of time tends to test out many of those who are false. Think of the person who creates a fictitious personality on line. At some point they will get called out by life and circumstances. People who over-sell their abilities or contacts are at some point called on (or benignly "asked") to produce, or even just to appear in person at an actual meeting. Will they? Because few people will only live on-line and often want to connect outside of the virtual world, any falsehoods tend to come down quickly at that point - when the light of daylight shines on it.

For what it is worth, not sure if you got peppered with responses on a particular topic, such as politics, but knowing you well - I will say this. I may or may not always agree with your posts, but always find them thought provoking and insightful. I do think your positions are reasonable and well grounded, even when I might disagree. Most of the time, however, I do agree with your insights. Your blog is one I am inclined to check in on frequently and am glad I do. I think for those of use who are trying to have good impact in all media, the people who know us will help sort out the truth, from the rest. We ultimately may vacation online, but the test of our character will always be in the daylight.

Since you referenced "Star Wars" (love it!), while the Dark Side seemed to continually prevail in most of the episodes, in the end the Dark Side is vanquished by Goodness. I think this is true in all relationships, as well, even if they vacation on-line.

Take care and thanks for your work on this blog. It is a good one!

Glenn Friesen said...

Right on.
It's visible in how infrequently strangers will offer constructive feedback when asked in person, and how frequently strangers will offer destructive criticism when not asked online.

Tay said...

Great points and I love the Star Wars quote. I've mostly experienced the "light side" of the Force in my online community building, but I see how things can get weird, and fast. I was reading Malcolm Gladwell's excellent blog, but it was killed by an aggressive and persistent troublemaker. I think he eventually just decided it was not worth the angst. I always enjoy your blog, although this is my first comment.