Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wasting Time and Probing the Future on Facebook

By James Hathaway

I’m a university communicator who normally writes about research and science, but lately I’ve been led to thinking a lot about something strange and un-science-y and seemingly unrelated to my profession: social media. Facebook… Twitter… where people update you on how their day went or give you their deepest thoughts in one short sentence… To see how unrelated this appears to be to my work, consider how much complex research you can actually talk about in 140 characters (about the length of the sentence before the parentheses).

I came to social media a couple of years ago, first as a parent of teenagers, doing what parents often do – checking up on what my kids were doing on Facebook (which suddenly seemed to be occupying a lot of their time). I didn’t make the immediate connection, but at the same time, the world of science writing was changing and morphing into something new and different too. While most public writing on science had always been in books, magazines, and newspapers, much of it was now suddenly migrating to blogs. The blogs, I soon began to understand, were social media too – they had relatively small audiences of fellow-travelers interested in whatever subject area they covered, and they tended to develop enthusiastic online communities around the topic. Curiously, all my science writer colleagues all around the country also suddenly had Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, which they connected with their blogs… between showing off cute pictures of their cats and the details of their latest vacation. It started to occur to me that some pretty serious communication could also be happening on these seemingly “personal” social tools that my kids had been using.

I decided that the phenomenon needed further investigation, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. The social media “experts” I found out on the web did not seem to be saying anything terribly profound about where social media was going and what it was going to do to professional communication, except for saying over and over something increasingly evident – that it was “going to be big.” I work with science and scientists day in, day out, so I decided to do something that they would do – I decided to experiment with the tools. I took my existing Facebook account (which so embarrassed my kids) and set up a Twitter account and began using both actively in ways that I thought might be useful for communicating things I cared about: topics in science, the environment, neuropsychology, psychiatric medicine, education and education reform – a hodgepodge of the things I was most expert in from doing science writing.

Meanwhile, the professional world generally decried social media as “frivolous,” “a time-waster,” “childish,” and generally as a dangerous thing for professional people to be involved with. I felt pretty foolish, but the tools were still growing and I was still intrigued.

And then the world began to change. Major companies hired “social media managers” to advise them and orchestrate company activities in these media. Ads on television suddenly had Facebook and Twitter logos displayed right next to the product name. All the major media were suddenly providing buttons for linking their stories to personal pages in social media. The New York Times and the Washington Post websites started showing me articles that my Facebook friends and acquaintances had also read and liked… And it started to be a little more socially acceptable to tell professional colleagues that you had a Facebook page or a Twitter account.

Which brings me to what I really want to write about here. The other day, I ran across another sign of social media’s sudden “street cred” among serious people: a reference on a science blog to a “new finding” about Facebook – a published academic study on how to best use the tool: Someone doing academic research in business had done a study aimed at discovering what were the worst mistakes someone could make while writing on their Facebook page, causing their “friends” to “unfriend” them. A scholarly study on the best and worst practices in using Facebook – clearly social media had arrived!

The study was interesting, but (I think) a bit superficial in its view of how Facebook (and other social media) works. The top two reasons for “unfriending,” the researcher found, were when users posted far too many irrelevant things in a single day and or posted on “polarizing” topics, like politics. This is an interesting, if fairly predictable finding – if you dominate the conversation and bore people, or if you get strident about a sensitive topic, folks are likely to walk away. However, from my own experimental research, I have my own thoughts.

I've been quietly testing these "parameters" of sociability for about a year by posting fairly frequently and posting links heavy with political comment, hoping for controversy and discussion. Intriguingly (at least to me), my findings have been significantly different from those of the researcher. People may be "hiding" my posts, but I haven't lost many friends, which I thought might well happen. This has led me to begin to think that there’s something more complicated going on here than is covered in the researcher’s assumptions -- the idea that being on Facebook is like being at a large dinner party where the idea is to be witty, pleasant and not make waves so all your new acquaintances will like you.

In some ways, Facebook is like a dinner party, but it’s a dinner party where (depending on how you use it) you might have invited hundreds of acquaintances (and even acquaintances of acquaintances) or perhaps just your close friends and colleagues. And it’s a dinner party that doesn’t just last an evening, but goes on for years, at least for some of the guests. Those who stay tend to be people who enjoy each others conversation and share each other’s interests. While the people who just “friend” you out of courtesy may get bored with what you like to talk about and want to leave, those know you (like you, agree with you, or are interested in the same things as you) tend to stay. After you have been on Facebook for a while, your Facebook friends naturally tend to be more of the latter than the former.

I've been deliberately pushing the “sociability” line on Facebook because I'm interested in Facebook’s potential as a "hybrid" tool, combining personal networking with "professional" communication. My friends are a blend of actual friends and of my writing business contacts – the kind of people that I might want to invite to a dinner party (if I wanted to enjoy the party) and the very group of people I most want to communicate with, professionally and personally. Over time, I’ve made friends with some of their friends – the ones who share my interests. It’s not a big network, but it’s one that is satisfying and even useful to me.

This leads me to an important issue in the field of “network theory” (yes, Virginia, there is such a field): the concept of “weak ties” – network connections that are casual (a friend of a friend), trivial (someone who shares your interest in Irish fiddle music), or remote (someone you met once on a trip) and the concept of “strong ties” – network connections that come out of strong relationships (childhood friends, family members), many shared connections (business partners, close colleagues) or close compatibility (political allies). In network theory, both kinds of ties are important -- weak ties serving as connections to the broader world and important links between smaller, tight networks; strong ties serving as the links that hold local, tight and organized networks together. Now, to get back to the researcher’s finding, while I'm sure that frequent, personality-laden posting on Facebook has a negative impact on developing large networks of primarily "weak-tie" acquaintances just as the study’s data suggests, conversely I wonder if it doesn't, in fact, actually strengthen a smaller number of "strong-tie" relationships and help build the kind of networks that we actually care the most about.

Now, dear reader, I am going to test this blog’s limits of “sociability” by bringing in yet another related theory, something researchers in communications studies call “framing.” Simplistically put, “framing theory” says that people naturally tend to listen to communication that they already agree with (or know about, or are interested in) and tend to disregard communication that they are not comfortable with because it disagrees with (or conflicts with) their interests, knowledge and viewpoints. Framing theory goes on to say that people thus tend to seek out news sources that support their interests and to avoid news sources that conflict with those interests. This natural focus on compatible news (with the rejection of everything else) tends to strengthen initial viewpoints and harden those viewpoints against conflicting viewpoints. (Framing theory is often used to explain the current trend towards polarization in our society.) In other words, strong-tie communication networks form naturally and become stronger and more unified over time.

So, is being ourselves on Facebook (outrageously or otherwise) turning away people who aren’t fully compatible with us, but at the same time helping us develop a powerful strong-tie network, where like-minded people come together and share important information? If we are interested in effective communication, this is a question I think we should explore.

If you are interested in using social networks and social media for communication and network dissemination, there are two ways to go. First (as this article seems to assume) you could try to build up a large network of people who are mainly just acquaintances and friends of friends and try to keep them as network contacts by basically not being annoying. While this gives you immediate access to a large number of people, it's of limited message utility because the people in your network are not necessarily interested in what you are interested in. If you post a message or a link on a topic you care about, most of them are not going to care, and if you do it too frequently, they are going to de-friend you. The second strategy would be to deliberately build a smaller network of "strong-tie” people -- close friends, political/business allies, people with deep interests in the topics that you are deeply interested in. While messages you post go to a smaller number of people on such a network, they are more likely to be re-transmitted through other people's networks (networks that are related to yours in some way) and to find solid reception in the minds of people with similar interests.

I think this second strategy actually shows the real power of network communications and social media. Just as the internet itself has evolved to develop rapid pathways for information transmission through a large number of routers and network systems, social networks encourage the development of networks based on relationship, including relationships that you couldn't develop easily without the internet. Suppose you are interested in wildlife diseases or motorcycles or defending all that you think is right and good about America ... by expressing yourself to friends who share similar interests, you make contact with their friends who have similar interests, and so on. Messages that are important to that interest group get quickly passed along the grapevine. A communications network specific to a certain topic, a particular view, a key issue (etc.) naturally develops and spreads and finds its receptive audience throughout society.

So this is why I care about Facebook and am wasting my precious time playing with it. Yes, it's a nice simple way for close friends and family members to keep in touch across the country and share news, pictures, etc., but it is also a subtle force that is encouraging the development of stronger communication links between like-minded people, though they may not be neighbors or associates. It is creating stronger networks of people who were not necessarily cohesive before. Professionally, politically, and personally, this may be very useful to some of us. On the other hand, I also think that technology’s influence in building tight, organized networks is also at least partially responsible for the interesting events that we are seeing politically. As in most things, the good and the bad are intertwined.

If you share my obsession in this kind of thing, I think you might find these ideas interesting to mull over. If not, well, I’ve just wasted your time. Then again, I doubt you would have read this far if you weren’t interested…

You can follow UNC Charlotte on Facebook at

James Hathaway is research communication manager at UNC Charlotte

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