From the more pensive corners of the Hill…
Just recently I was reading a discussion in an online social media site that had nothing to do with dogs or training. The topic doesn’t really matter in this case. As part of that discussion, one of the participants commented that many of the people leaving comments were not, in fact, interested in furthering the discussion. Instead, they suggested that many of those comments were posted simply to stake out the commenter’s position. The term used was “social signalling.” It was a perspective that I had not really considered before – posting a comment in a discussion simply to identify myself and my position so that I might be obvious to both potential allies and enemies.
The suggestion was that social media forums were, on some level, a way of choosing up teams. What struck me as significant about this observation was the increasingly more common practice of arguing for or defending a point of view based on how many others express the same view. There seems to be a “correct by consensus” attitude on social media. If enough people believe as you do, your position must be correct. (There is a caveat to this. There must be enough of the right people in order to be credible. But let’s leave that for another essay.)
A few months ago, I decided to take a self imposed hiatus from participating in nearly all online discussion groups. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it is clear to me now that I was feeling burned out by all the positioning and “social signalling” that was cluttering up what I thought were supposed to be discussions about real ideas and approaches to dogs, behaviour, and training. It has been an interesting experience to just sit back and watch without comment in most cases.
“Social signalling” comes in a few different forms, at least as I have observed it. One of the most common is to quote from or otherwise identify authoritative sources who are representative of some ideology or point of view. It can be a quick way to tell others what “team” you are on. Another form of signalling is to post some comment that boosts the credibility or acceptability of another participant. This identifies the poster as an ally willing to back up a position.
“Flag planting” is a slightly different form of social signalling that deals more with self definition. I have seen posts in discussion threads that seem somewhat out of context and go to some lengths to outline the author’s position on a variety of issues, only some of which may be related to the topic at hand. In effect, they serve the purpose of saying “I’m one of these people” so that others in the discussion can invite them into sympathetic circles or join the poster in their own communities.
Perhaps the biggest lesson this experiment has taught me is that social media is really heavily focused on the “social” part of the equation. There are aversives and rewards in abundance in any opportunity for social interaction. While the Internet has created a dazzling array of new forms for us to interact socially, it seems that the same goals and strategies are just being played out on new stages.
For me, social media has become largely a necessary evil. I want to communicate with people and talk about what I am learning and have learned about dogs and training. Hopefully to help others learn more and to gather knowledge and wisdom for myself where I can. But that has been significantly impeded by the basic human need to form groups. It seems it is too easy to lose track of the discussion in our quest to identify and affiliate with allies or distance ourselves from enemies.
Social media is, for better or worse, a part of our everyday life now. It can’t simply be ignored. With all of its potential pitfalls, I believe there is still a lot we can get out of social media. But for myself, I am trying to use filters to try to separate the genuine discussion from the “social signalling” and deliberate manoeuvring to identify with the right team. It seems that the best results can come from a better understanding of the human dynamics of using these new mediums.
While I haven’t figured it all out yet, I’m getting more out of social media these days. I’m choosing which voices to give my attention to and I’m learning when to ignore messages that are just “flag planting” or “signalling” for social identification. Perhaps it’s an evolution. A gradual recognition of what messages are being sent, to whom, and for what purpose. It’s a way for me to cut down on the “noise” and get to more of the “signal”, the stuff that can really help me be smarter, better, and more effective.
It’s a great big Internet out there. Travel with care!
I’d be interested in your thoughts and observations.