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digibyte: You wanna mess with me? Not on social media sites per Pew

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy August 26, 2014
Social media sites are doing little or nothing to foster an openness of discussion. This should not surprise but has an impact on the future of work.

A Pew Research report suggests that rather than social media acting as a force that fosters an opening of debates on topics of importance, people behave much like they do in real-life, avoiding controversial topics and clustering around people with whom they agree. In short, the emergence of dissenting voices that might otherwise encourage debate is not happening on social media sites.

Pew used the Snowden-NSA story as a proxy for the type of topic that generates strong opinions to gauge how people behave. Look hard enough and it is easy to find opinions that range from Snowden as her to Snowden as traitor, but the researchers found that among peer groups, what it terms the spiral of silence is alive and well. From Wikipedia:

Spiral of silence theory describes the process by which one opinion becomes dominant as those who perceive their opinion to be in the minority do not speak up because society threatens individuals with fear of isolation.

We commonly know this as peer pressure. The Upshot suggests that social media giants like Facebook and Twitter contribute to this:

Last week, Twitter said it would begin showing people tweets even from people they don’t follow if enough other people they follow favorite them. On Monday, Facebook said it would hide stories with certain types of headlines in the news feed. Meanwhile, harassment from online bullies who attack people who express opinions has become a vexing problem for social media sites and their users.

While the research did not review reasons for this behavior, it is easy to speculate that at a time of heightened political tension, many people will naturally wish to be on the right side of any polarizing debate for fear of being ostracized or labelled as traitorous on social media sites.

This is bad news for people who believe the future of work using social media sites will foster more open dialog and the surfacing of an invigorated collaborative workplace environment.  Some may view this as a good thing, as a way of maintaining the status quo inside business where strong hierarchies serve to keep what is characterized as 'trouble' at bay. Others will bemoan the findings as evidence that manipulation by social media represents a reinforcement of the status quo.

We frequently see business paying lip service to the idea of open debate via social media sites. Public positions around openness rarely become transformed into reality. That should not surprise at a time when many jobs otherwise thought 'safe for life' are being disrupted by digital technologies with no obvious alternatives in sight. As one wag recently said: the future of work will fall into two camps across a gulf that's difficult to cross - you'll either be a barista or a barrister.

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