Virtual shadows: Conversation in the age of social media

Most people who travel understand that flying on an airplane can be a social experiment in human behavior. Sure, any type of travel is a test of wills, patience, basic courtesy and bladder control; but there’s just something a little more visceral about air travel, sharing the same oxygen as the stranger in the seat next to you. Talkative people become even chattier while quiet people avoid eye contact, put on their invisible capes and try very hard to fold in on themselves. Whether by force or free will, folks usually start engaging in the famously polarizing pastime known as making small talk.

Does this conversation sound familiar to you?

“Are you on your way home or going somewhere?”

“Well, I’m heading to Tampa for business, but then I’m going to stay with my sister and her family for the weekend. They live just outside the city. Should be nice, I’ll finally get to enjoy some warm weather!”

“That sounds wonderful. I used to live in Tampa but now I’m back in Chicago. Not much warm weather there.”

“I LOVE Chicago! A few of my college friends live there now and I go back to visit at least once or twice a year.”

“It’s such a great city. Have you ever been to ….” and so on, and so on.

Think back to any number of similar situations you’ve been in. When you first start talking with someone you don’t know, do you jump into talking politics? Gun control? Climate change? Probably not. There’s a good chance the conversation steers towards what the two of you has in common. To avoid that dreaded awkward silence…, one idea needs to build on the next. And when we first meet someone, most of us like to seem friendly, open and agreeable.

Now sit back and picture conversation in the social media stratosphere. What comes to mind first? People rip strangers heads off on a minute-by-minute basis. Anyone else wonder why the gloves come off faster? Is it because the consequences of overstepping bounds and general bad behavior don’t exist online? Social media appears to subvert traditional courtesies and any other emotional buffering systems that keep us from verbally attacking strangers on airplanes. (Sometimes late at night, I wonder if social media diverts us around social norms that kept us from getting kicked out of the cave, and could alter the future evolution of our brains and the way we socialize, not for the better. Leaving that here for now).

Social media is a tool. On it’s own, it’s neither good or bad. I work for a marketing agency, and social media is an essential part of our business strategy and the strategies we implement for clients. It’s nearly impossible to build a brand today without an online presence. The deciding factor of good vs. bad belongs to humans and how we use social media.

From here on out when I’m talking about social media, I’m referring to its recreational use. And not to pick on Facebook, but I’m focusing on that one because it’s the most politicized and weaponized to that end.

The Long and Short of It

Facebook’s current character limit for any post is 63,206. That’s roughly 25 pages of text at 12-pt type. So pretty darn long. Long enough to craft and share some really thoughtful, intelligent content.

But does Facebook make it easy to consume long-form written content? Not really. It truncates long posts with ‘See more’ and hides comments on content for easier scrolling. It does have live stream video, but what percentage of people use live stream for sharing information on politics or current events?

Even more relevant, how many of us pour a cup of coffee, kick off our slippers and settle onto the couch to read a single Facebook post? More often, we’re scrolling and scrolling; clicking on a few friends’ pictures, reading a handful of comments, checking our notifications, and keeping up with a small percentage of our digital friend base. Picture your body language as you’re scrolling thru social media on your phone or computer. Is your back up straight, or are you slouching? Do you log into Facebook intending to learn something new, or to relax and ‘brain drain’ a little? It’s a totally passive experience. We’re at the mercy of whatever gets posted by our friends, and served up by Facebook’s algorithms.

 Speaking of passive, Facebook updated their News Feed algorithm in 2018. Active interactions to posts like commenting, sharing and reacting are weighted more than passive reactions like clicking, watching, and hovering/viewing. For brands, this means their content has to be good. Good enough that people comment on the post and share it in order to get the highest weight to appear on a news feed. In this way, Facebook helps facilitate meaningful conversations between brands and consumers.

But what if you’re not using Facebook to sell a product or service? We can find and post articles to our personal Facebook accounts from a wide variety of sources, both credible and not.

So here we are, looking to see what our friends and the world are up to. Then, we scroll across a news story about Trump’s wall. Or Hillary Clinton’s emails. Or the Mueller investigation. We weren’t looking for these articles, but they appear on our screens. And we start to prickle up, like porcupines defending against a predator, ready to stand our ground.

In this moment, the Facebook user can type a comment. Subtle subtext can come through in written comments, and everyone knows the power of a deftly-placed emoji. But that’s all we have to express ourselves. On really complex topics that are thrown in our faces and oftentimes make us feel angry or confused. Not to mention, maybe we’re having a bad day. Or maybe we don’t know the person who posted the article and so we take on a more combative posture because it’s digital and we can. Then multiply these affects times the millions of people logged in.

This next part might seem like a diversion, but I promise it’s related.

For the last several months, I’ve been slowly (so slowly) making my way through a book called How Emotions are Made by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett. Human emotions – how they are formed, expressed and interpreted by others remains a subject of debate in brain science after more than a hundred years. In her book, Dr. Barrett dismantles the classical view of emotion which argues that we’re all born with the same set of prescribed human emotions like happiness, sadness, fear and anger. According to this theory, a particular emotion, say fear, gets triggered by an outside stimulus, and this fear response produces a “fingerprint” in our brains that’s identical in people from Alaska across the globe to Russia. Dr. Barrett walks through how this theory developed, how the scientific data became misconstrued and misinterpreted, and outlines an alternative theory for how human emotions actually work.

In Dr. Barrett’s theory of constructed emotion, she explains that emotions aren’t reactions to stimuli from the outside world, but instead they are used to construct our outside world. As we grow from infant stage, we accumulate life experiences that form what are known as emotional concepts. We build these concepts of happiness or sadness from our own unique experiences throughout our lives. Our brains constantly create simulations to explain our current physical experience, and these predictions are based on past experience. Barrett explains, “The simulation that’s closest to your actual situation is the winner that becomes your experience, and if it’s an instance of an emotion concept, then you experience that emotion.” For some more high-level background on Dr. Barrett’s research, check out her Ted Talk.

What’s interesting about this is that no two people have the exact same life experiences, so no two people build or apply the emotional concept of say happiness exactly the same. But constructed emotion also makes a strong argument for the supremacy of face-to-face communication, where we have the greatest ability to pick up on physical context clues in the other human being and build a more accurate (and empathetic) grasp of who they are and where they come from.

So, how does this relate to social media? Let’s assume the intended use and initial design of the earliest social media was not to be a stalwart for politics and current events. However, today social media holds a top spot in its influence over our lives, and it remains one of the primary tools, if not the primary tool we use for discussing these topics with both friends, acquaintances and people we don’t know.

Social media looks like it’s here to stay, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. But, its design has not adapted fast enough to how humans use it. A huge gap exists between the complex processes that drive emotion and the limitations of the digital tools we use to communicate those emotions on polarizing topics. This incongruency has consequences, consequences we’ve already seen. How many times have you heard the expression ‘social media detox’? It begs the question – What can we do to design interfaces that support meaningful conversation between Average Joe and Average Jane, and help to safeguard us against ourselves (because we’re emotional after all). Emojis don’t seem so ironic anymore. Right now, they’re all we’ve got.




2 thoughts on “Virtual shadows: Conversation in the age of social media”

  1. I recently posted something I wish I did not. It wasn’t directed at anyone, but my annoyance with the issue definitely came through. Your article further cements my new rule that I don’t comment on any posts that raise that ‘irritation’ feeling within me. It doesn’t help those that read it and it certainly doesn’t help me either! Peace (for everyone) is way more important than proving a point and I bet if I were face to face with someone, I wouldn’t say it to begin with. Great article 🙂

    1. I hear you! I’ve been caught in some minor Facebook wars and always feel worse for it. A healthy debate is a great thing but when we’re already wired to focus on ‘winning’ and can hide behind a screen, whoa, watch out. 🙂

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