As happens from time to time, there is a bit of a backlash against Twitter and other forms of social media at the moment. Jon Ronson is publicising the paperback edition of his book, so the headlines focus on his ‘disenchantment with social media’. Ed Sheeran has chosen to concentrate on some new experiences ahead of releasing his third album, so he has turned away from social media. In highlighting these examples, we run the risk of misunderstanding what being online can mean. Despite the stories we are told, it is more important that social media are social, rather than media.
A city street might have many purposes, and see many forms of human behaviour: teenage shopping, adult drunkenness, coupling, casual conversation, protest, police brutality, acts of charity, theft, commercial deliveries, commuting by car, walking, running, sports events… the list is potentially endless. But we rarely define the street by one, or even a small group, of these activities. We are more likely to talk about the activity itself, with the location either ignored or sidelined.
We have yet to reach that level of maturity when talking about online interactions. Too often it is still the case that the medium in which something happens is identified as a cause of that something. Our understanding of these platforms is thereby impoverished.
I have been ‘online’ in some form or another for almost 25 years, starting with places like Usenet and CIX. Over this time, I have noticed some recurring patterns in the way people become social online.
Where to go?
As we become familiar with our own towns and cities, we learn quickly where the best places are for particular types of gathering. There is no point in holding a protest where we can’t be seen or heard. Likewise, an intimate dinner isn’t likely to be found in a casino. There is a huge range of online places, each of which supports different kinds of interaction. Some are also specialised as to the topics they cover. On the larger platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, everyone needs to create their own community.
When things start to go wrong online, the cause is often a lack of common understanding about the nature of place. If one person thinks they are in the right place for a contemplative discussion about life, but someone else considers that their agressive responses about the government’s political choices, there is no common ground. Sadly, this kind of mismatch still happens too often — often because people forget or don’t know about the next point.
This step is one that many people do instinctively, but is sometimes missed by those who don’t understand its importance. Euan Semple wrote about this very well today:
We’ve all had that situation of having agreed to link with someone on LinkedIn and then second message they send is trying to sell us something. Or maybe we’ve been reading that influential industry blogger’s posts for years and, thanks to their easy going style, feel like we know them – but how would they react if we reach out and try to connect with them?
This is why lurking matters. Finding the people you want to connect with, working out where they spend time and watching how they behave. You need to learn the ropes, get to understand the rules and the etiquette of people and situations. Think about the person you are about to connect with. What are their challenges and priorities? What sort of language do they use? What is your motivation for connecting with them and is it mutually beneficial?
For many people, it is enough to listen. Nearly a decade ago, Jakob Nielsen drew together a number of strands of research to suggest that as a rule of thumb, 90% of participants in online communities merely observed the discussion. (Of the rest, 9% contributed occasionally and 1% were responsible for most of the contributions.) This 90-9-1 rule has been challenged more recently by researchers at the BBC, but their data was gathered by survey rather than from monitoring actual community usage.
Whatever the figures, lurking is a natural human behaviour. As we circulate round a drinks party, we listen to the conversations around us and familiarise ourselves with what is going on before joining any of them. And we only join in when we have something interesting to add. Listening skills are valued as a means of generating trust. The same should be true of lurking. Learning about a community by sitting respectfully and observing what it does and what the key norms are only helps when the time comes to join in.
Making connections and sharing
When the time comes to speak up, rather than listen, normal social convention requires that one adds some kind of value to the conversation. That is true online just as it is in the pub. Commenting on a blog post or joining a Twitter conversation is most meaningful when the original participants benefit and the remaining audience gets something they might not have had without the intervention.
This cycle of connection and reciprocation is common offline, and is reinforced by all sorts of social and implicit norms. It is often harder to express (let alone enforce) similar norms online, which is why trolling can become a problem. Online, it is also much more likely that there is no homogeneous audience. The troll’s audience is almost certainly completely different from that of the person he attacks.
I have no deep-seated aversion to ‘content marketing’ — after all, this blog is probably an example of the genre. However, there is a growing body of material that is pushed willy-nilly via various ‘channels’ with no real appreciation of the way other people interact in those fora, and with little engagement by way of conversation. I do have an aversion to that because it uses a social medium in an unsocial way, and thereby taints it.
[In January, I will be running a workshop aimed at PSLs, but possibly of wider interest, on good social media use. Sign up on the Ark Group website if you’re interested.]