It sounds like some sort of crazed forum addiction, and it can be exactly that, but Online Community Dependency can also be a lot more subtle, and a lot more prevalent, than people realise.
Online Community Dependency is not, in most cases, an addiction. It’s a reliance on, or trust in, a virtual environment, to the degree that the individual stops or scales down their activity outside of that particular community. The walls of a single site start to become the boundary of the Internet. For a Twitter user, say, the world outside Twitter steadily ceases to matter, and the user becomes increasingly reliant on influential sources within Twitter for all of their information online. You can see a sense of this in the Twitter-derived image heading the post.
Forum or message board users can become similarly insulated from the rest of the Web. The individual starts to perceive that information delivered within the forum serves their every need, so they scale down or even stop their use of search engines.
Those who administer a blog or website may, at least subconsciously, be aware of this phenomenon. Hits on your blog from inquisitive sources may typically result in a reasonable amount of exploration. The visitor comes in from Google, lands on a page, reads it, and then moves on to other pages. But when visits come from feed-based (social media) sites, there can be a sweeping and dramatic drop in the rate of exploration. People tend to read what they’re told to read by influential members of their community, then return straight back to their community without considering looking any further. If you do blog and you’ve had posts go viral on the Social Web, you’ll know this is a thing.
And you can see this happening from the other end too. If you observe the behaviour of people on forums and networking sites, there tend to be very small numbers of influencers, and very large numbers of dependants. Most of the time, the influencers are not dependent on the community at all, and indeed recognise that in order to remain influential they must explore the wider Web and bring back their findings. It’s through these people that blog posts and website pages go viral. But the dependants are people who’ve come to see the influencers almost as macro Gods. It’s a sort of parent-child thing. The dependants are fed by parent figures, and become so comfortable in the convenience of this that they see no need to go out and source matter for themselves.
WHEN THE DEPENDANTS DON’T GET FED
This is one of the most interesting parts of online community behaviour. What happens when the influential parties fail to deliver the information the dependants want? Well, rather than going out and looking for what they want themselves, the dependants start to speculate.
“It’s probably because of…”… “I imagine it’ll be down to…”.
Most often the actual information is out there, but online community dependants just won’t go and look for it. They’ve come to see a picture in which there is no Internet outside the community, and if the influencers haven’t spoken, there must be no way to find out.
Influential dependants are typically people who have importance within the community – either because they’re successful in business or have high, perhaps even celebrity profiles. Because of their perceived importance, they get waited on by other members of the community, who want to impress them or be noticed by them. Even though they have high influence because of their position in life, these influential people lapse into the role of a dependant. Rather than going out and looking for what they want, they realise that it’s far easier just to ask the community to make the effort for them. This is very common on social media sites, and in particular on Twitter. The influential dependant asks: “Where can I get one of these?”, and a group of scurrying brownie-point-hunters rush off to Google, and return with a convenient link.
Most dependants in online communities are not entirely institutionalised. They’re just much more inclined towards the provisions of the community than the wider Web. But there are cases in which dependants do become totally institutionalised and forget that things like search engines even exist.
They’ll perhaps see an expression used, then they’ll ask the community what it means and wait half an hour or more for an answer. Some will even repeat the question when it isn’t answered. Googling the expression would reveal an instant answer. It sounds almost ficticious that some people would be this dependent on a site like Twitter for information, but it is a reality.
Indeed, Twitter is particularly prone to extreme insularity, because it serves its content in such a convenient, short-form format. Once some people get used to Twitter’s bite-sized, micro messaging, they can no longer be bothered to read anything that requires more effort.
From here on, we get into the territory of addiction. This is normally attention-driven rather than purely a reliance on the community for information. On social sites and forums there are unthinkable numbers of people who are not just attention-seekers, but addicted to attention. They rarely get the attention they need, and they find that hard to deal with. The tactics they use to address the situation vary, but could include fabricating grandiose claims, trolling, over-the-top sycophancy, asking questions to which they already know the answers, feigning illness, or repeatedly threatening to “leave the site”.
It’s in the latter eventuality that you really get to see how powerful these online attention-addictions can be. After months of threatening to leave the community, the individual will finally go ahead and deactivate/close their account in the most histrionic manner possible… Only to reopen it again within 24 hours. They CAN’T leave the community. They’re addicted.
The obvious dangers with Online Community Dependency are the proliferation of misinformation, and what the search provider DuckDuckGo has termed ‘bubbling’. Basically, ‘bubbling’ is getting enclosed in a space of limited, or increasingly limited information, and consequently developing a distorted, compromised understanding of the world. DuckDuckGo used the term in relation to Google and its personalised search results. But what happens on forums and social sites can be much worse and more dramatic.
It’s so common on forums, for example, to see members concluding that “everyone thinks this”, or “everyone thinks that”, simply because a handful of users agreed in a complaint thread that they didn’t like something. The user’s visualisation of the forum as the entire Internet (or even the entire world) prompts them to dismiss the possibility that anyone outside the site could think differently. Their conclusion is not: “Sixteen posting members of this forum say they hate winter”, as has been demonstrated in the thread, but simply: “EVERYONE hates winter”.
With so much reliance on imported information, facts, as well as perceived opinion, can quickly become distorted. Because so few community members read the information at source, and those importing the info often don’t present or explain it very well (or they have their own agenda and so deliberately bias it), it gets warped. Forums and social sites can so easily prompt situations in which inaccurate speculation becomes the headline and the reality of the original fact gets buried.
If you’re a writer who extensively researches and produces articles for the Internet, then succeeds in positioning them prominently on the search engines, it can be frustrating to find people on social sites wildly and inaccurately speculating on the thing you’ve taken so much trouble to put at everyone’s fingertips.
But it’s also fascinating in a psychological sense that this happens. You start to see how easy it is for newspapers to dictate opinion, for advertisers to manipulate, and for authoritarians to control. Ignorance is not down to a lack of information. It’s just public laziness. Online communities are a microcosm of that. The difference is that online communities can be monitored and observed by anyone. The Internet is telling any of us who are interested, why, contrary to popular belief and the old salesman’s catchphrase, a million people can, indeed, be wrong.