Saturday, May 9, 2009

Thin skins on twitter? Toward a theory of social-media niceness

I’ve been following a couple instances of critical commentary and backlash on various blog-like objects like this one (involving a debate over website design) and it raised some questions about tone and style in the social-media world.

It’s not unusual of course for people to express strong feeling on the web, often too strong, protected by the anonymity and distance of the screen, saying acerbic and mean-spirited things they would never have the courage to say in person. That’s not what I’m talking about right now (though it’s related to one of my theories below.)

What’s interesting to me in these cases is less the initial critique than the tone and rhetoric of the response. In several cases, I’ve noticed that people have reacted to reasonable if somewhat snarky criticism by complaining about the critic’s attitude or style or even intention, as if there was something unethical about making a critical comment in the first place.

The link above is representative: The original poster complains that the critic is spreading “pedantic negativity." Other bloggers have told their critics to "have a sense of humor" or "lighten up" Or "be positive."

Pedantic negativity? Lighten up? Interesting. In two different ways, these responses reframe the critic’s attempt to correct an error or express a difference of opinion as a social gaffe, a lapse in decorum. 1) These responses undercut the critic’s point, not on the basis of evidence or argument, but on the basis of style. Those of us who have spent any time in front of a classroom know that the accusation of being “pedantic” is often an easy way of dismissing someone who has the bad taste to call you to account for an error. Details, details. Can’t you just go with the flow, dude?

The new age language (energy, negativity) reinforces the point by suggesting that the critic isn't just being rude but in fact has a bad intention to begin with . Anyone who has particpated in the identity politics debates of the go-go grad school 90's knows what it's like to be accused of not being wrong so much as bad.

I don’t mean to suggest that this is only kind of exchange out there. The web is way too big and messy and multifarious for that. But there does seem to be a dominant rhetorical style emerging, one which to my (admittedly cranky) ear has more in common with a support group’s optimistic cheer-leading and uncritical support than the public sphere of reasoned debate across different points of view. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se. In fact, it maybe exactly what most people want. Sharing ideas and accomplishments and getting a lot of rhetorical high-five's in return.

But my original question was: how did this happen? Why is is the social-media style developing this way. Is this the natural progression of any unregulated social groups talking their way into self-governance? Here are a couple more half-assed theories

Theory #1: This is the personal, subjective, confessional one. People are just nicer than me. I’m skeptical by nature and just temperamentally unsuited to all the unsupported optimism flying around, about which who cares and too bad for me. I should just lighten up already.

Theory #2: People are compensating for a learned or intuitive sense that short-form comments often get read more critically or negatively than they are intended. Most of us have dashed off a quick email at one time or another and were somewhat surprised to learn later that we really pissed the receiver off. I’m not sure why short emails often seem meaner than they are intended to be, though most people seem to agree that it’s true. I remember reading a review in the NYRB of some Janet Malcolm book or article on email decorum that basically advised people to over-compensate for this accidentally negative tone with lots of happy enthusiasm and “that’s greats” in their emails. Seems like an interesting problem for some social linguistics grad student.

Theory #3: Fear, though of the deep Hobbesian variety. We’re mostly dealing with strangers here and a lot of them, so rather than risk offending someone who might go psycho on us, it might be best to err on the side of friendliness and support rather than risk repercussions the dimensions of which are scarily unimaginable.

Theory #4: Early adopter effect: The early adopters (enthusiastic, energetic, positive techies) set the happy tone, a tone which seems pervasive in the tech community (though I’d be curious to hear about the mean techie cultures) and since they were clever enough to come up with this stuff, we all just stuck with it.

Theory #4a: Related to above. It’s generational. I’m somewhat dubious of big generational claims but most cultural observers have agreed that kids these days are an awful optimistic bunch, a pov that I mostly share. They’ve had a pretty good run of it, until recently, and gosh darn-it, they just don’t see why they can’t make the world abetter place, and get rich and famous in the process, all before they get, like old…. They also, somewhat notoriously, don’t like criticism so much. And many of a certain class, at least, were raised in a culture of deep support for just about everything they ever did. So maybe they’re just passing along the love.

Theory #5: The Brainstorm: Just about everyone who has spent a season in an office has participated in a brainstorm-like event and heard the now familiar rules. Here's one version: No idea is a bad idea, support, withhold judgment, build on ideas rather than "squashing them," or risk being shot with a nerf gun. There's a lot to be said for these principles too, and I can imagine they are an important corrective to the top-down power-mad cultures that they are trying to loosen up. MMost people view the social media sphere as one big brainstorm and so bring the same stay positive principles to bear.

I'm sure there are more, but in the meantime, I'll take a chill pill, just as soon as I finish this section of Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung.


tilly pick said...

Another theory is "avoidance". Some people are deeply engaged on the surface while others actually think at great depths. For the former to engage in debate would be a significant behavioral modification, maybe a level of thought and engagement that is bound to create stress. So they just avoid it and try to keep you close to the surface where it's easier and more comfortable.

Yet another one is "blind follower-ship". Humanity has followed leaders blindly over and over throughout history, often in self-perpetuating fashion, and often also into demise. To question that leadership is to question yourself, your worth and that whole ball of wax. I suspect there's little incentive for most people to do that. It's easier to keep following.

sk said...

Thanks for your adding, even darker, theories, TP. The question of authority is particularly interesting in the new media landscape. As authority, or some kinds of authority, become more defuse are we getting more nervous about challenging anyone?

Heather said...

Room for another theory? The comment was legitimately mean and whether that speaks to the inner workings of the first web expert's character or just that his lunch didn't agree with him, it counters many people's inner sense of fairness and belief in ideas like "above all else, be kind."

With comments enabled on blogs we all know we have a right to critique, but pithy talking down to another popular rival reeks of both wanting to be funny and thus liked as well as his competitive nature to beat web guy number two as they seemingly share an audience.

sk said...

The more than merrier. Thanks for weighing in from you much expatriate outpost (yes, I'm jealous).

Your point about fairness is really interesting and suggests we might be over-compensating because the rules of "fair" critical engagement are still so undefined in the interweb. I'm not sure you should hold the guy's desire to be funny and liked against him. He might have failed but being well-liked seems a relatively common desire out on web as well as most other places.

But so glad you brought up the point about rivalry. I think you're totally right there, and I stupidly hadn't thought about it. Makes me wonder what it suggests about social media as a potential extension of off-line professional rivalries.

As I understand it, the unspoken professional and practical rules of decorum about pro rivals are that it might be okay to critique your rivals over drinks with friends but not on record. (You never know/don't burn bridges, etc). Is "speech" on social media suspended between the two categories of speech (blow-off-your-steam conversation and traditional media). It's definitely "on the record" but there's more room--as you suggest--to control the tone of your critique than when speaking with a reporter. Demands more thought and examples. Thanks again

Anonymous said...

Hey, just want to say hi. I'm new here.