Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why does social commentary frequently bring out mob mentality?

A few years ago, my work involved analyzing social media. This was in the early days of social media, when new social platforms (Facebook, Twitter et al) were seemingly springing up overnight. The very common, almost throwaway criticism of social media--usually made by people who spent little to no time on social media--was that it was all so nasty, all that flaming and trolling, so much negativity. As a researcher, that was all part of the environment and I didn't think much about it (or tried not to) anymore  than a zoologist notices the rotten banana peels on the ape house floor.

Then I also became a novelist, my first novel coming out in 2011, when social media and the book publishing business were just getting to know each other and working that relationship hotly. In short order, I got to see what it was like when anyone and everyone had an opinion about your work and the ability to voice it. Ouch.

But after a short while, I learned to ignore it, to stop reading the reviews. You thank people when you find out they've said something nice about you but you learn not to click on links that will only take you to someplace you don't want to go.

Because I've trained myself not to look at the comments that follow a blog post or to dig into forums, I was a bit taken aback by this article in ELLE DECOR, "The Ugly Side of Beautiful Rooms: Design in the Age of Internet Comments". The sub-title says it all: "You'd never walk into someone's home and say 'vomit'. So why is this happening so often online?"

To be honest, my first reaction was deja vu. If you think "vomit" is a harsh reaction from a stranger to someone's hard work (in this case, interior design), try reading some book blogs. Try being pilloried by a reader who has obviously skimmed your novel at best and seems to be channeling another review (a phenomenon that was even mentioned in David Mitchell's latest novel, The Bone Clocks, in which one of his characters, a novelist, sniffs that reviewers in the internet age just seem to google what others have written about a book and sample liberally. If you don't think this happens, you aren't paying close attention. Talk about mob mentality.)

My second, more measured reaction, was surprise. Yes, surprise to hear that there are still people who practice widespread negativity in online forums. That's not naivete on my part; there have been several recent studies on how hopeful, cheerful, optimistic items are circulated more on social media than negative ones. People don't tend to share, retweet or otherwise spread negative items with their social networks, and from a commercial (non-personal) perspective, that's the whole point of social networking. People tend to drop or shy away from someone's vitriol-spewing diatribe. The picture that gets shared a million times on Facebook is not of someone stoving in another person's head with a shovel.

What's the point of this post? I'm afraid it's fairly pointless because you can't say anything definitive about online behaviors. Ten years (roughly) into social media and people are still pointlessly vicious to each other while at the same time 'liking' and sharing simple-minded photos of kittens smiling or babies dressed up as flowers. You'd think these can't be the same people doing both these things and you'd be right and wrong. In the end, social media is about human behavior. It's remarkable in that it makes observing that behavior easier and readily countable. But it doesn't appear to change human behavior, at least not yet.