Sunday, January 30, 2011

Are people online really "real"?

As someone who has been involved in online communities for years, this week's readings really hit a nerve with me. At the same time they also taught me an essential fact, something that I had been aware of but never consciously examined before: People on the internet are still people. This may sound trite, but it actually explains a great deal of how online communities compare to and affect real life relationships and connections. Yes, the online environment allows behaviors and personalities to be exaggerated and even transformed, but in the end we all put at least a part of us in our online selves, even if that self may take the form of a talking white rabbit with OCD.

Unfortunately if judged by the readings, many researchers and commentators on the subject of online communities seem to have forgotten or prefer to ignore this very basic fact, and treat online communities as something completely removed real life society, and in some cases even from the people they're made up of. They portray members alternately as driven purely by narcissist desires for status, as lacking in real life bonds and socialization, or as naive and unwitting tools of a corporate money-making machine”. No matter which state of things one believes to be true, it’s hard to trust in the objectivity and validity of research conducted by anyone who calls the possibility of online communities reflecting real life communities "absurd".

The first assessment by Rosen is certainly true in some cases, and some online communities such as MySpace definitely seem to encourage such status-seeking behavior, for example by putting emphasis on the number of friends displayed. Everyone who has spend a certain amount of time in such communities has probably heard of or witnessed examples of some "destructive" behavior, such as the case of a man publicizing the break-up with his fiancé on Facebook by changing his status to "single" for all to see. Yet at the same time, do we judge the value of real life interaction by those who act badly? In the "real" world, do we condemn a whole group by the actions of some of its members? Of course there are some who do, but in general this would not be considered wise or useful, especially using it for research.

Yet this is exactly what happens whenever the community in question is online. Does no one consider how these users who are made examples of may resemble their real life personalities? Would the man who airs his break-up for everyone to see act less callous offline? Again, a platform such as an online community makes it easier to exhibit such behavior, but does it actually cause it? Similarly those who yearn for thousands of friends and some elusive status supposedly conferred by them will probably be the same people who in real life drive a big fancy car or tout their supposed wealth, good looks, of whatever makes them feel above everyone else.

Another aspect that Rosen mentions briefly and Bigge expands on is the alleged naivetĂ© of users who not only don’t realize the need for a certain amount of privacy protection, for example to keep Facebook communications out of employers’ hands, but who are completely unaware of a hidden system or corporate power that ensnares them and turns them into willing tools for surveillance and profit. Yet witnessing how earlier research ignored important factors doesn’t exactly make me confident in the statistics proving this kind of unawareness, and as there may be reasons other than ignorance for users to be very open about certain parts of their online presence.
Albrechtslund definitely has a point when describing the "eternity" of private information on the internet, yet he ignores very common possibilities of dealing with this problem such as filtering, withholding, or even faking privacy data, all of which can easily be observed by browsing through a few Facebook profiles. And while making money certainly is the major motivation for the companies that run online communities, this is not at all a secret to members, who often actively pursue ways of dealing with unwanted ads and other intrusions to their community experience, for example by using AdBlock, restricting privacy settings, or simply ignoring marketing attempts.

In general one of the major concerns about online communities seems to be the question of their value to their users. Can online relationships be equated to those in real life? Can virtual communities offer more to their members than simple connections based on one common interest? Despite Galston’s claims that online interactions are inherently shallow and distant, and can only lead to the formation of weak "voluntary communities", La Rose proves that sufficient experience of the medium can actually lead to a situation in which online communities become a valuable support structure, especially for those cut off from their traditional offline communities. This is a situation that I myself, as someone separated by two oceans and a continent from family and friends, can definitely identify with, and at least my personal experience clearly reflect LaRose’s rather than Galston’s conclusion on the matter.

To me it is this aspect, the ability of an online community offering real closeness, that would prove its equality to real life connections. While users joining in fanclub-like groups in order to enjoy a common passion is of no less value in my eyes, no one expects the bonds of such a community to be very strong, online or in real life. A user’s motivation to be part of such a group is obviously their own enjoyment, but are there other reasons to become part of a social network or group? Is it really all about status, self-interest, or quick shallow connections? Or can an online community really provide the same support and companionship we experience in real life?

It turned out that the best answers did not come through careful selecting of a community that I hadn’t been part of before, or, when that reminded me of a newcomer’s limitations, the creation of a new Livejournal account, and the planned interactions in a newly discovered journal community that pertained to my interests. Instead it was a tragic event, the deadly crash of a passenger train in Germany, which vividly served to illustrate the nature and possibilities of online communities. Without even thinking of this assignment, I posted about the accident on both my Facebook and my Livejournal.

Livejournal screenshots (3 seperate images - click for full size)
(I didn't screencap all the comments but hopefully it's enough to give you a general idea)

Facebook screenshot (click for full size)
(it's in German, sorry)

Within minutes, the first person had commented on my journal, while even until now, almost 24 hours later, the only response on Facebook remains that of a real life friend who lives only a few kilometers away from the crash site. Out of the eight individual users who replied to the Livejournal post, only two are people I know in real life, including that same friend. And every one of those eight I originally met through fandoms, i.e. shared interests, yet as in real life, some acquaintances just happen to develop into a stronger connection, while others never grow beyond the "how’s the weather?" stage, something that Evan’s clearly points out in the article on Social Responsibility (which is another important issue, but this post is already way too long as it is so I better skip that). After all people on the internet are still people.

And just like in real life, people have different motivations. My shock over the crash, which involved a train that I had rode myself many times, may have been too vivid or emotional for many of my Facebook friends to deal with. Some may not even have noticed or cared. This is not to a criticism, it simply shows the different nature and function of this online community. Most people use Facebook for quick connections, to easily keep track of a large number of friends, acquaintances, fellow students, etc. MySpace seems to be the place to be self-centered, and to collect and show off status symbols. And then there are communities out there for people to share interests and maybe even make closer connections. For me that has been Livejournal, but it could be anything. Just as we choose groups or communities that suit our needs in real life, we do so online as well, which also explains why so many people belong to more than one social network.

Just to round this up, I’m also including a link to the journal community post I originally planned to use for this assignment (it’s an open community so the link should work for everyone… if anyone has problems just let me know and I’ll try make some screenshots instead)
I just thought it was interesting because the pattern continues there… in a group where I’m a total newcomer with a brand new profile, people respond to the post and request of a complete stranger by sharing their own experiences. Most of this is probably due to the common interest (in this case foreign languages), and again it just shows how online communication mirrors real life… after all those in search of self-validation, status symbols, or quick connections would probably choose a different kind of community. It's also something that would have been very hard to achieve offline... to in the period of 24 hours find and connect to with over a dozen strangers with a similar interest, and get them to share some very random language related experiences not just with me, but among each other. All this has definitely shown me that blanket statements about people being generally shallower, more self-centered, or unable to form valuable or complex relationships online (and maybe even in real life due to their online activities) are not only obviously uninformed, but pretty shallow in themselves.

Articles referenced:
- Reformulating the Internet Paradox: Social Cognitive Explanations of Internet Use and Depression
- Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillance
- Social Responsibility and the Web: A Drama Unfolds.
- Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism
- The Cost of (Anti-) Social Networks: Identity, Agency and Neo-Luddites
- Does the Internet Strengthen Community? (William A. Galston, National Civic Review 89(3))

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Session 1: Social Media, Violence, and Control

At first glance, the role of social media in the tragic attack on Rep. Gifford seems pretty clear. After all many of us, including myself, first learned of the shooting through Facebook, Twitter, or other parts of the social media universe, which highlights its importance as not only a tool of communication, but as a major part of people’s lives. Yet taking a closer look reveals a more fragmented picture of social media as a force than can be both valuable and beneficial as well as controversial and even harmful, and everything on the spectrum in between, depending on how we use and view it.

One aspect of the impact of social media in this case stood out to me was the link of social media and violence. Making this connection was hard to escape… in my first encounter with the shooting, a Livejournal post, the friend who broke the news also right away pointed out a connection that had been quickly raised by many other voices: the possible role of Sarah Palin and her outspoken violent imagery may have played in the attack. Retrospectively, it’s easy to see Palin’s “target list”, which included the graphics of the crosshairs of a gun directed at certain democrats, and her aggressive rhetoric such as “Don’t retreat! Instead - RELOAD!” as a dangerous influence, especially on those with an already unstable mindset. This connection between violent speech and violent action was highlighted not only in the response of large section of social media, but carried over to traditional news media as well, although mostly in the shape of commentaries rather than actual news reports.

With these connections in mind, reading Julian Dibbel’s thoughts on violence in cyberspace, and how the experiences, rules, and consequences in a virtual community relate to those in the real world, was especially interesting. Everyone who has been part of an online community has probably experienced online violence of some degree, even if in less virulent shapes such as nasty anonymous comments, trolling, or flame-wars, and few would disagree with Dibble’s conclusion that virtual violence, while not equivalent to its real life counterpart in impact and consequences, does reach beyond online boundaries. The Gifford shooting takes this idea one step further, suggesting that people’s online behavior can have powerful and violent consequences in the real world.

Although the recent attack is not the first this is not the first case to highlight the role of social media as a potential tool in the relaying of actual violence, the idea that words and actions expressed online can cause harm in “real life” has maybe never so easily been stamped as the truth than when they lead to a tragic and shocking result such as this shooting. But is it really that simple? While I personally in no way agree with Palin’s sentiments, nor with the way she expressed them, I also believe that we should be cautious in assigning blame for a crime on the grounds of broad rhetorical statements.

Directly linking expression to violence in this way can easily be used as support for the idea that the open and unfiltered nature of social media is a negative, even dangerous state, implying that users cannot be trusted to tell the difference between the truth and false advertising, or a metaphor and a call to go out and shoot a person. This is the argument Carol Tenopir presents in her article, in which she warns of a “dangerous dumbing-down of culture” caused be the uncontrolled and anonymous state of social networking, and the unreliability and bias of non-expert news sources (despite those called “expert” news sources having proven themselves more than once to be neither infallible nor unbiased, including during the course of the Gifford shooting when one major new agency mistakenly reported the Congresswoman to have died from her injuries).

And while neither Tenopir nor Andrew Keen, whose ideas she outlines in her article, propose any kind of control mechanisms in order to deal with the threat of “sites where ‘ignorance meets egoism meets bad taste meets mob rule’”, it is easy to see how some would make the leap from criticism to control to censorship, especially when violence is concerned, similar to the way that such attempts have been made for example in regards to music (lyrics), video games etc. This is not at all to say that anyone in favor of responsible expression in social media is implicitly favoring censorship, but I do believe it’s important to keep this possible connection in mind, since it’s easy to overlook especially when the speech in question is something many of us may personally disagree with.

Exploring the class readings and responses to the Gifford case has definitely given me some new perspectives on the possibilities and problems of social computing. I have been a participant in this world for years, yet never consciously thought about the unwritten rules or consequences involved. The idea that the openness of blogging, journaling and social networking could have actual negative impacts in real life first occurred to me when a former advisor told me about the case of a fellow professor who actually lost her job after a dispute with students over an online rating site for academics, which turned into a real life conflict.

And this seems to be what characterizes social computing of today. It involves more than virtual interaction and community on interactive platforms, instead it has become so much a part of our everyday lives that it has to includes real world connections and rules as well. This is a definite evolution from the far less interactive environment presented by Nadir and Herring, where people simply expressed their own ideas without much feedback or obvious connection. But who can image Facebook without commenting? And how different would the Gifford case have been presented in the media without the enormous number of Twitter responses, blogs, and comments to news stories?