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Why Our Understanding of Social Media Must Always Be Placed in Context
Posted on July 31st 2013
“A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person – it is of her, but is not her. It’s a reach, really – the artist is trying to inhabit, temporarily, a more compact, distilled, efficient, wittier, more true-seeing, precise version of herself – one that she can’t replicate in so-called ‘real’ life, no matter how hard she tries. That’s why she writes: to try and briefly be more than she truly is” –George Saunders, American author
I like this quote. It’s a good way of thinking about who we try to be (and convey) through our blogs and social media profiles more generally.
A lot of us are more cautious in choosing what to share. Equally, though, many of us are less. We post without really thinking about the consequences. The risk always seems low, the reward high.
I don’t think I’m adopting a digital dualist mentality in distinguishing between what we share online and what we do and say offline. Just because both occupy the ‘real’ world, the behaviour is still contextual.
The context isn’t just the offline and the online though. It’s the spoken word and the written word.
If asked to describe what we think about something, our overall opinion might not differ vastly in what we have to say compared with what we have to write, but it would, at least, be subtly different.
Broadly speaking, we do use social media to share our views “in-the-moment”. However, if asked to immediately respond to a question in person or in writing, our opinion would vary somewhat.
It’s part of the reason why I think dismissing social media research as only capturing the aspirational side of ourselves is also irrelevant. It’s a side of people you need to understand. It’s increasingly forming a big part of who they are, what they think and who they want to present to the world.
Liars, Trolls & Thieves
Oliver Burkeman’s ever-readable ‘This column will change your life‘ recently looked at how behaviour is affected by context.
He talked about a burglar in Ohio caught breaking into his mother’s home during the day. As far as the thief was concerned, you could only be arrested for robbery at night.
He also provided a couple of interesting case studies from Sidetracked, a book about unlikely influences on behaviour. One example of this was how improvements in street lighting can reduce crime by up to 70% (as Burkeman notes, our hapless thief’s logic wasn’t entirely buffoonish).
The reason for the reduction in crime is that darkness confers anonymity. In a different study, people had the opportunity to profit from lying about their success at problem-solving tasks. In a darkened room, 60% acted dishonestly. This fell to 24% under brighter lighting.
Anonymity is also an important context when we’re considering thoughts expressed through social media. It goes some way to explaining why cyber-bullying is such a big issue. The online disinhibition effect stems from the sense the usual constraints don’t apply. The internet can become a bit of a darker place when we lose our sense of identity. (Although, as Burkeman highlights, disinhibition can also be a good thing: it frees people to perform at their best; released from the sense of being watched or judged).
Context always matters. Writing or speaking. Light rooms or dark. It can all change our behaviour.
It’s why we use a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methodologies in market research.
We’re always aiming for a more rounded understanding of human behaviour. The more ways we can get there and the more contexts we can examine people in the better (methodologies like social media research and ethnography further enable us to contextualise existing insights).
Just as importantly, we need to understand how the context affects what people do and say in the medium in which we’re observing them. In our case, that means ‘getting’ social media.