People are often quick to point a finger and sneer when a social media user lapses into a crazed meltdown. But have you ever considered why these cataclysms of raging temper and self-destruction always seem to play out on a site such as Twitter, and not on a site such as Flickr? What is it about classic social media that pushes us over the edge?
Well, in this post I’m exploring five ways in which social media worsens our behaviour. Next time you feel the urge to scream in block capitals from the belly of your keyboard, bear this little lot in mind…
HATING FOR POINTS
Classic social media sites force their users to display their popularity. In fact, a user can’t utter a word without a selection of ratings being attached to their comment. The number of Likes, the number of Shares, the number of Replies… This is not a nod to the whims of statistical analysts. It’s a score, in a manufactured game. And it’s not just seen by the individual user it relates to. It’s seen by everyone. It’s a means of turning ordinary communication into a competition. Whether through the enforced display of our follower/friend total, or mandatory publication of our electronic applause volume, social media is perpetually grading us. Degrading us if we don’t work on becoming more popular.
These protocols can be psychologically destructive for those of us with lower popularity scores. But they also have another damaging effect. The artificial and exaggerated pressure to look popular prompts people to fish for approval in unnatural and often negative ways. To say and do things they never would in the offline world.
Peer pressure is highly influential in small groups, but when a peer group inflates into the thousands, it becomes dangerously powerful. If you identify with a particular social group, and they’re all saying something, it’s tempting to say the same. Even if they’re attacking someone you have nothing against. And especially if they’re your perceived route to increasing your popularity score.
The social sites’ enforced display of user popularity creates a new motivation for hate speech. Users are spewing out venom not because they hate the person or group they’re attacking, but because they feel unnecessary pressure to win popularity points from those who do.
THE RITE OF REPEAT
Social media makes our visibility incredibly transient. It’s engineered that way. The social sites don’t want you making one brilliant post and sitting back for the next six months while everyone comes knocking to congratulate you. They want you working. Building their empire, whilst you’re fed on a stream of adverts and recommendations, which net them a profit.
So if you want to get a message across, and have people actually remember it above the million new bids for their attention hitting the site every three or four minutes, you have to say it again. And again. And again, and again, and again.
And people do, until it becomes a nuisance. But it’s okay to be a nuisance, because look… everyone else is being a nuisance. Social media encourages repetition to the point of annoyance. Every day, masses of users repeat the same thing, over and over, because if they don’t, the message they want to define them, is buried under the melee.
ENTITLED TO ATTENTION?
Social media is different from publishing or sharing sites, in that it encourages users to start conversations with people they don’t know – or at least attempt to – without any basis other than the desire to chat or connect.
Indeed, on Twitter, it’s impossible for users to disable the facility for random attempts at personal interaction. The site is like a dating platform in the way it permits valueless, non-content-related messages to be addressed directly (albeit publicly) to specific people. Even a spammer in a blog comment thread must wait for a post to be published, and is expected to say something relevant to that post. But Twitter eliminates that pretext, and effectively invites users to whisper sweet nothings. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons some users have come to see Twitter as a dating site.
The hardwired facility for valueless approach has managed to persuade a quota of users that they have a right to be heard, listened to, and responded to. That they’re entitled to attention. Even when they offer nothing that would warrant anyone paying them that attention. You can argue that it’s users, rather than the sites, who make the decision to pester or stalk. But the fact is that you don’t see this behaviour in anything like the same volume on blogging platforms, or forums, or any other site that requires matter of substance to spark debate.
And when the expectation of a response is not met, or doesn’t result in the desired response? Well, we often see the ugly spectacle of rejection rage. This is how a lot of targeted and sustained trolling campaigns begin.
The me-bubble, or narcissistic bubble, is a zone in which self-serving behaviour is taken to sociopathic levels. And the personality it shapes? Think Veruca Salt (the Roald Dahl character – not the band), with the added support of a cheering entourage. Indeed, me-bubbles are created by that cheering entourage, and this is why social media is such fertile ground for their development.
Digital applause normally has a hidden motive. People don’t applaud a photo of a reality TV star’s deck chair because they wanted to see a picture of a deck chair. They’ve probably never asked a search engine for a pic of a deck chair in their life. No, they do it in a bid to ingratiate themselves to that celebrity, and hopefully gain a payback of kudos for themselves. But from the other side – the celebrity’s side – all that applause and contrived sycophancy can look like genuine enthusiasm for things that are either low or completely lacking in value, or for behaviour that might be manipulative, greedy, offensive or even blatantly hateful.
As the bids for approval intensify, the constant applause can enclose the subject in a bubble. Persuade them that they’re always right, and entitled to unmitigated support, regardless of their behaviour. Hey presto; a relatively normal person evolves into Veruca Salt.
Some of the most obvious me-bubbles on social media tend to surround naturally selfish people with a level of fame that falls just below mainstream media interest. If the person is big enough to be watched by the media, the media will act as a line of discipline, and the narcissistic bubble is held in check as journalists queue up to re-align public opinion. But if the individual falls below the media radar, whilst still having enough fame to essentially win applause by default, only their own behavioural compass will decide what happens. If they’re naturally irresponsible, egotistical and/or selfish… Well, you know where this goes.
When the inhabitant of a me-bubble is approached by a particularly determined attention-seeker, the result can be explosive. Our Veruca clone may not simply reject bids for attention. They may instead turn the process of rejection into a quest for digital applause – publicising it, revelling in it, and heightening the anger of the rejected party. It’s a recipe for conflict, sometimes meltdown, and the whole situation is heavily fuelled by the psychological distortions of the social media environment.
LIFE COMPARISON SITE
It’s tempting to dismiss social media as “just a toy or game”, but it’s actually real life. Particularly for those who don’t have much else going on, social media can become pretty much the entire world.
Because social media prioritises content based on engagement, and naturally successful people draw the most engagement, many users are going to be comparing their own lives with those of higher status individuals. People who are more attractive, have more money, a better lifestyle…
That can be depressing enough in itself. But there’s a simultaneous pressure for those who are depressed by it, to pretend that they’re not. To pretend that they too are enjoying great success, against the indications of their all-telling popularity point tally. It doesn’t take a trained psychologist to see that a tenuous pretence such as this, amid a general feeling of depression, would not make for a comfortable experience. And of course, the more people pretend to be successful, and applaud the smugness of the influentials on their timelines, the more smug and boastful those influentials will become.
One could argue that trying to ‘fit in’ is good behaviour. But if it’s taking people into a negative mental space, it’s not healthy, and therefore it’s very definitely bad.
It’s no coincidence that archetypal social networking sites are the places where the Internet’s wildest meltdowns take place. Never underestimate the power of the environment, or forget its motives. Everything you want from social media, social media wants from you a thousand times.