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.


Daniel said...

hello :)
first of all I am glad you posted your positives about social networking. People get so negative about it but someone on my FB posted (and he has good health) that he thanks all the people on his FB, from different countries and lifestyles. He loves reading the different people every day! I am thankful for it too!

I'm pretty certain that however "close" you get to someone on the internet, you are still not getting the full picture, even if both sides are very honest. I notice this because IRL, I see those real life people on their social networks and they only show one side of themselves or not the whole picture I see in real life. This is in the most nice way but then I am convinced some people lie about huge parts of their life. I keep them in my life but it's amusing to watch them slip up on their own life details! ;)

in some ways I think I show only some parts of my life to the internet (and that's not deliberate) but in other ways I share things online that I don't in real life.

Social Networking wants you to share, it wants you to be narcissistic and also to get addicted to wanting that approval with likes or favourites. I try now to just post what I want and don't base it on popularity but at one stage I did!

There was a study a while ago looking at how people got depressed looking at Facebook. but people don't share their whole lives on there, only mostly positive parts.

So I think if you remember that people online are never showing their whole selves (like you wrote about) and also to not get addicted to the approval and attention, you are okay.

I liked your part of the article about influence. When I first joined twitter the most fabulous social people of my area followed me and their lives were amazing! but some friends went to the tweet ups and they were not so amazing because they were tapping on twitter all the time. my impression of them was not reality. They were shy introverts mostly in reality.

Another thing to add is there is a danger about being influenced by people online. I read a lot of views and opinions and I like that! but recently I was persuaded by a friends rants that marriage is what conventional people do to fit into society (and in the LGBT world to perhaps assimilate) and so I decided that I would never get married. A few months later I realised I had been influenced by his view. But his view is from his personal perspective and I realised that is he has detached himself from such connections to protect himself emotionally. he is biased in a way. I have to form my own opinions up and I would like to get married but I can do it completely unconventionally! we all have to find our own happiness. I was shocked at how persuaded in his line of thinking I had been, always challenge everything in your mind!

finally in this overly long comment, agree with you 100% about illness support groups online. as well as M.E groups, the mental health one's I am a member of (but avoid) are terrifying! they tend to be people posting about their worst fears with extreme emotion. like "I am going to die". when I had a really bad mental health time I found it triggering! I didn't find support in those places, I just read posts of people panicking! We all need a place to rant and spill but all in one place can be difficult.

lauredhel said...

"I'm pretty certain that however "close" you get to someone on the internet, you are still not getting the full picture, even if both sides are very honest."

- I think it's important to remember that this can often be the case in meatspace, too. I've had some quite horrifying revelations about people I thought I 'knew'. I'm not really convinced, as yet, that cyber and meat spaces differ substantially in this area.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks both,

Honestly, Daniel, I think you can know someone as well as you're going to know them on-line, but I think context matters a lot. And as Lauredhel says, the same possibility of phoniness does apply everywhere.

I know many couples who met on-line, including people - like Stephen and I - who had pretty much decided to spend their lives together before spending more than a few hours in one another's company. However, in most of those stories there are long e-mail correspondences and private chats - social media is perhaps a different kettle of fish.

I've also noticed (and this is anecdotal and may not represent anything) that people for whom social media is their first experience of socialising on-line (as opposed to those of us who have had years of e-mail, mailing lists, usernet, etc.) tend to be a bit more... not exactly false, but more about projecting an image. A little like those Round Robin Christmas Letters some people send, "Here's my life, isn't it super?" as opposed to This is good, this is bad, this is funny, this is interesting...

What you describe about having your views on marriage influenced is very familiar to me. I'm involved in a lot of on-line feminism, and when I was marrying Stephen, we didn't know what to do about surnames. But every week - literally every week - I'd read some feminist piece on names, for or against various options, some of them written by my friends. And it really ground me down, like I felt I would be judged whatever we did - I wrote about it her before we worked out what to do.

It's like when you read a polemic essay by someone you've always admired and they are dismissive of something you care about, except when it's your friend, or even someone you know vaguely, it's even more difficult to resist.

Anonymous said...

Hi Goldfish, long time no see! I used to comment occasionally as Diddums but have changed my name to something less worrying. I enjoyed your post. You speak about something that has troubled me a lot, and it's whether the dialogues taking place on social sites are 'real' or just performance. Facebook has an attraction -- a simple way of finding people you lost touch with. Unfortunately the conversations don't start up again; people seem remote. It's as though we're all sitting politely at the edge of a big party, holding martini glasses and staying silent because of the noise. Thank you for the link to the psychological research! I was unaware of it but it might explain a few strange glitches. I never receive notifications of updates from one of my good friends, though we talk a lot to each other. She has plenty of news and good jokes, so maybe she was being kept from people like me who might be influenced one way or another. :-) I do find FB a rather cold place; most of the time I preserve my sanity by staying away.

Good post!

Nick said...

really food for thought as I think about my blag - the part about not playing the same note over and ove in particular stuck with me...

my blog is unapologetically eclectic or downright random, but I try to offer common threads... also, like you mentioned here in the comments, those of us from the rustic pioneer days of the internet, we tend to use the medium in a more "this is X" way, the focus on self less, or diluted. with me, ideas accumulate and blogging moves them out... intellectual colon cleanse