In Support of Digital Civility

Civility in the digital ageWhy do People Behave the Way They do on Social Networks?

Inspired by several recent observations of digital acting out, this seems like a good time to approach the subject of social networking, human behavior, and tips to make it a more productive space. The online world is relatively new, so the social, psychological, cultural, and legal implications leave a lot to be understood. I came across an interesting study offering insight into human behavior on social networking sites, but much of this article is anecdotal from my experience. I’ve also included some tips to help guide interaction on these platforms.

Starting from the premise that people are basically good and do not intend to cause harm, it is curious that platforms like Facebook pages, Facebook groups, and online forums, tend to bring out a less than loving nature in so many people. There are characteristics of the digital space that make for interesting human dynamics. Many people act differently online than they do in person. They may be more outgoing, or passive, they may be more aggressive or social online then they are in person. Here are some contributing factors for this phenomenon.

Some Reasons Why People Behave Differently on Social Networks

No non-verbal communication –The loss of tone, volume, inflection, expressions, hand gestures leads to misunderstandings.

People don’t read actual words – Instead of comprehending the words as written, people sometimes see what they think the person means, ascribe meaning that isn’t real (mis-attribution), and let their emotions dictate a response.

Enhanced self esteem – Because we present ourselves in a favorable light on social networks – the best pictures, accomplishments, vacations, and things to be celebrated, our self concept can be enhanced. Though this can have a positive effect, excessive ego feeding on social media may also encourage decreased self control and lowered impulse control.

The new soap box – Online platforms are a great place to share information, express opinion, and exchange ideas. The double edged sword is that is is also a great platform to bully, argue, and proselytize. When differing points or view are expressed, there may be grandstanding and attachment to ideology rather than a respectful exchange of beliefs. 

Consequences for negative behavior are not the same online – Aggressive and threatening behavior in person is likely to meet with painful consequences, however the result of nasty behavior online is essentially inconsequential. 

Greater homogeny (not in a good way) – People tend to surround themselves with others who share similar views, so the opportunity to see the “other” point of view is limited. Unlike most “real life” contexts, on social networks you select your microcosm, which becomes highly self-reinforcing.

Anonymity – People behave better in person. Most people would never call someone in front of them an “idiot”, even if that’s what they think. The internal censor is more active when we are face to face with another, than it is when we are not – note ordinarily nice people transforming into aggressive drivers.

In a culture of polarization, social networking may be contributing to a difficulty finding common ground. I’ve seen some bizarre behavior in Facebook groups and our neighborhood forum, where members are very diverse. A surprising kind of a mob mentality springs up around posts that touch a nerve with someone in the group. It turns into a verbal food fight, that usually starts innocently and turns ugly for some of the reasons listed above. Many people avoid the drama, some are entertained by it, and others jump into the mosh pit with full force.

As we continue to adjust to the role social media and online platforms have in our lives, relationships, and culture, the best course of action is to land squarely on the side of civility.

Tips to Self-Regulate on Social Media

These are mostly self-evident, but still a good reminder

Be a good citizen – the same etiquette that is expected in general public applies online. Don’t be mean and snarky just because you can. Come from a place of helpful support of others.

Don’t take things personally – much of the disputes on digital platforms would be eliminated if participants let go of their need to be right and just let others be themselves.

What would you say if you were in person? – Check yourself and don’t post anything that you wouldn’t say if you were face to face…and be honest about that.

Ask don’t tell – If someone touches a nerve with a post or a comment, take a step back (impulse control) tap into your self awareness, and if you feel you must respond, try asking politely for clarification. Perhaps you misunderstood the meaning.

Don’t be so sensitive – there is plenty of opportunity to be offended in our lives. When you choose to be offended (yes, it is a choice) by someone else, you assume a victim stance, which naturally positions the “other” as the perpetrator. This is a no-win situation. Honor everyone’s right to their opinion, no matter how ridiculous you think it is, and you honor yourself.

My mother always said – “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”. Cliche, yes, but so very true. If your contribution does nothing to further the discussion in a positive and constructive direction, then don’t engage.

Consider the source – Since we care more about the opinions of those in our close circle, the comments, perceptions, and beliefs of strangers should be of no consequence and therefor given no energy.

Recognize your role – we are not the content police. It is really not our job to challenge and confront what people say online. Politely offering new information may be taken as helpful, or not.

Humility  -It is more important to demonstrate respectful, intelligent, and mature responses to controversy, than it is to be right.

Lighten up – there is a lot of significance placed on the exchanges on these platforms and it is not necessary. These are “social” networks – you wouldn’t go to a social event and get into a food fight with the host because you didn’t like his comment about ____, so don’t do it online.

I spent a lot of time with this issue because, though I typically write for a small business audience, our shifting culture around digital interaction effects everyone. I hope you found this helpful and if you have any comments, please be kind and further the discussion in a positive direction. Any questions or requests for help with social media, please get in touch.

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