Thursday, July 17, 2014

Who is manipulating us on social media?

It is Apple or Lenovo? A gorgeous white man with dark
hair and glasses clutches his mysterious laptop.
When Google’s search results became personalised, anxious voices were raised about the danger of keeping individuals within their own happy filter bubble, where they only saw things in which they had an established interest, only heard opinions of which they already approved, only came into the presence of people like themselves.

Similarly, when last month it was revealed that Facebook had been conducting unethical psychological research on its users, people were outraged that they could be so manipulated. Laurie Penny said
“Nobody has ever had this sort of power before. No dictator in their wildest dreams has been able to subtly manipulate the daily emotions of more than a billion humans so effectively." 
And I’m thinking, what about us?

Now, I can’t tell you how big a fan I am of social media – without it, my universe would often shrink to the size of a bed. However, the biggest danger of social media is how, quite unconsciously, we influence and are influenced by one another. None of it is terrifying but - just like bearing in mind that all our free tools belong to commercial interests with American cultural values - this is stuff we need to think about.

On-line and off-line social behaviour differs in three main respects. The first is by far the most explored; with fewer clues to social status and identity, people talk to others with an ease that doesn’t occur in the same way off-line. This is mostly a good thing. Disadvantages are obvious.

The second is that on-line, a person may socialise with a wide group of people at any time of the day or night, in almost any physical location. Things can get intense, which isn't always a problem - a lot of information can be exchanged and friendships can fuse fast. Yet equally, this social world can become psychologically inescapable. It can be hard to leave alone, whether you’re in the middle of a great conversation or a raging argument. It's in your pocket. It sleeps beside you at night.

The third is this world’s typical reliance on one central and cohesive identity for each person. Some people have a few different on-line handles, each used for a different purpose. But most people have just one. Off-line, a person may be one version of themselves with work colleagues, perhaps another with the boss, another on the train, at home, with the in-laws, at choir practice, in the football team and so forth.

In the olden days, the internet was yet another place to be where you could be another, often freer or more authentic version of yourself. It was a place marginalised people flocked to, in order to be around other people like them and to find acceptance of the versions of themselves (as members of sexual minorities, disabled people, crumhorn obsessives etc.) that wouldn't be made so welcome elsewhere. Facebook, in particular, encourages us to consolidate all our identities into one definitive self. 

We need to be aware of this and how it affects us and I don’t think we generally are.

Almost the first people I found on-line as a teenager were other young people with my chronic illness. This was a wonderful thing but after a while, I came to terms with my condition and grew disillusioned with the culture of these groups. I don’t want to tar all illness-related support groups with the same brush or slander my friends who are still part of these groups - most of my experience is with particularly vulnerable young adults. But there are groups, or cliques within these groups, which work like this:

Everything people talk about is placed in the context of illness. Every positive experience must be qualified with the cost in symptoms (probably spoons these days) – this turns a lot of positive experiences either neutral or negative; I had a lovely day today but I will now have three weeks of raging agony. Other people’s positive experiences can be celebrated but not without regret; So glad you had a lovely day; if I did half as much, I would probably collapse and die. Everything that goes wrong in life is put down to or made very much worse by illness. Outsiders can’t possibly understand.

This is a caricature, of course, and it’s very important to recognise that people who edge in this direction are not especially morbid and self-obsessed. It’s all about isolation and belonging. Folk are isolated and vulnerable to varying degrees but have found a group to which they can belong. So they cling onto that, imitating one another’s behaviour and constantly reasserting their qualifications for belonging: I am one of you, I am one of you. Did I mention I am one of you?

It’s a strong example because the common ground is very specific. However, I've seen something like this in pretty much every on-line community I've wandered into since, whether creative communities, sceptic or geek communities, political or egalitarian groups. 

Political campaign groups are particularly at risk because of the combination of passion, urgency (things must change – lives are at stake) plus the issue of public opposition. Any social media campaign will meet with dissent – Blogging Against Disablism Day has a very broad remit, more a carnival than a campaign, but still meets a few voices of derision every year. 

Campaign for something specific, something counter to the status quo or government policy and there are going to be objectors. It may even be that most people in the world basically agree with you but don't care enough to be involved - objectors care enough to let you know about it and often in abusive terms (even if it's about the faces on our banknotes). It can very quickly feel like the enemy is everywhere. This adds to a sense of isolation and increases the need to feel safe and secure within the group. 

And again, the three big difference between on-line and off-line worlds come into play:

My fingers on a keyboard. Photograph by Stephen.
Relative anonymity as well as - I think, more importantly - geographical and psychological distance allow arguments to rage. I've seen trolls, but far more often I see two people who have the same objective abandon basic civility over one small contested matter. I'm guilty of this myself. 

Someone can campaign from the moment they wake up in the morning until they go to bed at night. They might be doing many other things as well, but there’s less likely to be a set time for this activity, after which they leave it alone. Without carefully managed separate accounts and a will of steel, it is difficult to socialise while staying clear of politics. There are rows in grass roots meetings in the village hall, but everyone goes home after an hour or so. 

Having a single on-line identity means that everything feels personal. It’s more difficult to differentiate between an attack on your views and an attack on your person. And then there’s personal branding.

When I first started blogging, I quickly saw that the way to get the most hits, comments and links was to be as consistent as possible; blog about the same kind of thing, or different things but from the same angle. I resisted this, not for any noble reason around authenticity or being true to myself. It’s just that this blog very quickly became a tremendously useful vent and I wanted to  use it however I fancied.

However, there was and is - now more than ever - validation to be had in consistency. There are times when I've had a spell of writing about the same kind of thing (usually gender, sexuality or disability) and it is during these times that I get the most hits, the most links and the most retweets. This naturally drives me to do more of the same. These are also times I have felt quite lonely. After all, I am not all about disability, or gender, or sexuality. Meanwhile, people agreeing with you - worse, simply retweeting or showering you with "likes" isn't engagement. It's tremendously gratifying, it's very nice. It is, in fact, successful branding. If you're a business or someone who needs to sell themselves professionally, this is exactly what you need to aspire to in your professional life. But it's applause, not social interaction. You win fans, not friends. 

Folk always got hooked on applause and I see a lot of that. Not just blogging about the same thing, but tweeting on the same subject, backing that up with Tumblr, doing the same on Facebook. I see a lot of it in political movements, but I also see it in the way someone might tell the same joke over and over, the way some parents now keep a cameraphone between themselves and their kid, the way some people apply cynicism to everything other people care about and then feel compelled to apologise for any glimmer of enthusiasm. It's so tempting, to keep coming back to what works, but when we do that, we risk denying ourselves the opportunity to do something different; it's not who we are, it's not what others expect, we're going to confuse and disappoint them.

I strongly feel we need to avoid being one brand of person - partly for our own health and happiness, but also for the health and happiness of others. We're no longer in high school; we don't have to identify ourselves as the sporty one, the diva or the nerd. We don't need to identify our tribe, fall into line and hold on tight, forsaking all the other interesting people around. 

Believing we have the strengths that others attribute to us can be a confidence boost or it can set us up for a fall. Believing we have the limitations that others attribute to us can be a killer.