Why I am becoming convinced that bifurcated argument on Social Media is detrimental

During this cur­rent ‘not-plebicite’ sea­son I have been asked sev­er­al times on var­i­ous social media plat­forms as to what my posi­tion on var­i­ous aspects of the debate are. But, apart from one more sleep deprived enquiry about jurispru­dence, I have decid­ed that I won’t be post­ing on the top­ic. More than this, I am becom­ing con­vinced for a few rea­sons that the place for extend­ed debate is not on social media.

Much of this has come from revis­it­ing some research I was involved in back when Tom was the ‘first friend’ you had, and Facebook was in its infan­cy (ok, it was 2006). Most of this research involved eval­u­at­ing huge­ly expen­sive telep­res­ence solu­tions such as the HP Halo sys­tem as means of improv­ing com­put­er medi­at­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion (CMC).

Two aspects of this research I will briefly consider–and most of this post is drawn from a paper I wrote back in 2015, so some bits are dat­ed, and it is writ­ten for aca­d­e­m­ic pre­sen­ta­tion. On the upside there are foot­notes 😉

Emotional Confusion

The first aspect is emo­tion­al con­fu­sion, which is often present with­in tex­tu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion is often par­o­died in main­stream media. From the inno­cent­ly word­ed text mes­sage being read in an unin­tend­ed tone, to the innocu­ous social media mes­sage elic­it­ing mur­der­ous respons­es. See that clas­sic Key and Peele sketch on text mes­sage con­fu­sion here (lan­guage warn­ing). The sit­u­a­tions are so often par­o­died because they are high­ly relat­able, many, if not all, of us have had sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences before. Why? Why does text on a screen elic­it such pow­er­ful emo­tive respons­es, when the same mes­sage in oth­er forms bare­ly reg­is­ters a tick on the Abraham-Hicks. Studies have shown that it is the social­i­ty, or social pres­ence of the medi­um that pro­vides the best insight into the emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion that can be so diverse­ly rep­re­sent­ed in CMC. 5 Specifically in our case it is the fac­tors of phys­i­cal vis­i­bil­i­ty, or more pre­cise­ly, the lack there­of that impact on emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion. When engag­ing in social inter­ac­tion an enor­mous amount of social cues are com­mu­ni­cat­ed non-ver­bal­ly, through facial fea­tures and man­ner­isms. Of course with CMC the major­i­ty of these are removed, and those that remain are rel­e­gat­ed to the domain of var­i­ous emoti­cons and emo­ji. Notably this deval­u­a­tion of the major­i­ty of non-ver­bal social cues serves to reduce the salience of social pres­ence, and there­fore the cor­re­spond­ing salience of the inter­ac­tion part­ner. It is this effect that has led sev­er­al com­pa­nies, includ­ing my pre­vi­ous employ­er, to invest mil­lions into vir­tu­al telep­res­ence sys­tems in an attempt to mit­i­gate the loss of visu­al cues and the salience of inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tion.

What does that mean? Well in essence the vast major­i­ty of social cues for inter­per­son­al inter­ac­tion are removed on social media, and it is this con­text that assists in eval­u­at­ing the emo­tion­al con­tent of the mes­sage. From a social iden­ti­ty per­spec­tive Spears et al. found that with­in CMC based inter­ac­tions both in-group and out-group salience and bounds were pro­found­ly strength­ened, and inter-group con­flict was height­ened. 6 Furthermore, the degree of expres­sion of these con­flicts was also height­ened along with the cor­re­spond­ing in-group sol­i­dar­i­ty expres­sions. Essentially, the major­i­ty of CMC inter­ac­tions serve to strength­en posi­tions, rather than act as bridges for mean­ing­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion. For more on that see my post a while ago on the Backfire Effect.

Emotional Regulation

The oth­er side of this comes in terms of emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion. On this Castella et al. stud­ied the inter­ac­tions found between CMC, video con­fer­enc­ing and face-to-face medi­ums and inter­est­ing­ly found that not only is there a height­ened lev­el of emo­tive behav­iour for a non-visu­al CMC inter­ac­tion. 7 But also found that the emo­tive behav­iour was sig­nif­i­cant­ly neg­a­tive­ly biased. So it is not mere­ly a height­en­ing of all emo­tions, but as Derks et al also observed it ‘sug­gest that pos­i­tive emo­tions are expressed to the same extent as in F2F inter­ac­tions, and that more intense neg­a­tive emo­tions are even expressed more overt­ly in CMC.’ 8

Ultimately when peo­ple are emo­tion­al­ly con­fused, in low phys­i­cal pres­ence envi­ron­ments, they tend to react emotionally–and pre­dom­i­nant­ly neg­a­tive­ly. Hence, the major­i­ty of emo­tion­al expres­sions that will be found in CMC will be neg­a­tive reac­tions from the extremes of any dialec­ti­cal spec­trum.

What is the out­come of all of this then? Well sim­ply put the very mech­a­nism of com­put­er medi­at­ed social media inter­acts with our own nat­ur­al cog­ni­tive bias­es and pro­duces an out­come that is pre­dis­posed towards burn­ing bridges rather than build­ing them. And this even before any con­sid­er­a­tions of social media echo cham­bers have been made (thats anoth­er post for anoth­er time).

Where to?

Sure, there will be always a pletho­ra of anec­do­tal coun­ters, but giv­en human pre­dis­po­si­tion I think there is a bet­ter way. For me that bet­ter way is in per­son, in a set­ting where we can explore any con­ver­sa­tion at length. So, if you want my views on the major­i­ty of con­tro­ver­sial top­ics out there, come and talk to me over a cof­fee or beer.

Chris

About Chris

Notes:

  1. Antony S. R. Manstead, Martin Lea, and Jeannine Goh, ‘Facing the future: emo­tion com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the pres­ence of oth­ers in the age of video-medi­at­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion’, in Face-To-Face Communication over the Internet (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction; Cambridge University Press, 2011), http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511977589.009.
  2. Russell Spears et al., ‘Computer-Mediated Communication as a Channel for Social Resistance The Strategic Side of SIDE’, Small Group Research 33/5 (2002): 555–574.
  3. V. Orengo Castellá et al., ‘The influ­ence of famil­iar­i­ty among group mem­bers, group atmos­phere and assertive­ness on unin­hib­it­ed behav­ior through three dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion media’, Computers in Human Behavior 16/2 (2000): 141–159.
  4. Daantje Derks, Agneta H. Fischer, and Arjan E. R. Bos, ‘The role of emo­tion in com­put­er-medi­at­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion: A review’, Computers in Human Behavior 24/3 (2008): 766–785.
  5. Antony S. R. Manstead, Martin Lea, and Jeannine Goh, ‘Facing the future: emo­tion com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the pres­ence of oth­ers in the age of video-medi­at­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion’, in Face-To-Face Communication over the Internet (Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction; Cambridge University Press, 2011), http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511977589.009.
  6. Russell Spears et al., ‘Computer-Mediated Communication as a Channel for Social Resistance The Strategic Side of SIDE’, Small Group Research 33/5 (2002): 555–574.
  7. V. Orengo Castellá et al., ‘The influ­ence of famil­iar­i­ty among group mem­bers, group atmos­phere and assertive­ness on unin­hib­it­ed behav­ior through three dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tion media’, Computers in Human Behavior 16/2 (2000): 141–159.
  8. Daantje Derks, Agneta H. Fischer, and Arjan E. R. Bos, ‘The role of emo­tion in com­put­er-medi­at­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tion: A review’, Computers in Human Behavior 24/3 (2008): 766–785.