How is the phenomenon of Social Media affecting modern culture and rules of behavior? Dramatically.
In my Social Media Certification Class at Drury University, we are reading about how anthropologists, ethnographers, linguists and humanistic theorists are studying the evolving phenomenon of Social Media. Sound scholarly? Yes – it is – but it’s also really cool. It’s fascinating to see how a unique culture has formed around this ability to converse instantly. And to contemplate how this has changed our interactions irreversibly. And I’m all about contemplation! Have no fear that we are de-volving! Surprisingly positive patterns are revealed.
Just what is REALITY?
Setting the stage: anthropologists digg deep to study Social Media sub-culture
Expert Michael Quinn Patton explains a research approach called Grounded Theory Method that is being applied to this research. I like this method because it seeks to get close to the subject of study and evaluate based on real experience not possibly biased conceptual theory – hence ‘grounded.’ Rather than coming up with a theory and finding evidence to support it, researchers gather data and evaluate commonality to find threads of experience, then explore inferences and patterns based on that.
Quinn explains in Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods, “how you study the world determines what you learn about the world.” Grounded theory depends on methods that take the researcher into and close to the real world so that the results and findings are ‘grounded.’ He then quotes Hubert Blumer’s metaphor of “lifting the veils that obscure or hide what is going on. The task of scientific study is to lift the veils that cover the area of group life that one..is studying. Not by substituting preformed images for first hand knowledge”… but by getting close to the area and digging deep with care and respect to observe accurately. As a storyteller, this is of keen interest to me, as people tell their unique stories as they change their personas, taking on Avatars in Second Life, and idealized identities in online dating services. Did you hear of the case where a woman divorced her husband because he was spending more time online with his Avatar wife?
It also resonates with my Mindfulness and Siddha Yoga meditation practices where you focus on the breath to bring you into the present moment, to observe, lift the veils of past and future, and become grounded in the pure present. Witnessing the play of the world and seeing each person as an actor on the life stage is a very high practice.
Ethnographic research asks “What is the culture of this group of people?” The idea of culture is a guiding principle in that “every human group that is together for a period of time will evolve a culture. Culture is that collection of behavior patterns and beliefs that constitute standards for deciding what is… what can be…standards for deciding how one feels about it, what to do about it, and how to go about doing it.”
Rules of Engagement: how social media changes our behavior
Translate: Did I really need to hear that?
It was once inconceivable that you’d air your personal concerns in front of others, without so much as an “How do you do?” Now it’s incredible to me how many people walk around in public on cell phones discussing the intimate details of their lives for all to hear. Me among them. From health concerns to romantic nothing is sacred.
As my aunt, Anne Heimann, a veteran New York City artist quipped, “It used to be you thought someone was a bit tilted when they were talking to themselves out loud on the streets of Manhattan. Now its one side of an actual conversation into some Star Trek device!”
So that’s one boundary shift we all witness and probably demonstrate. Humans now act ‘as if’ there is some kind of barrier between us and the rest of the world, as we stroll around plugged into headphones and blue tooths. Like we are in the proverbial phone booth. Working in cubicles did a good job of reinforcing this ‘illusion of privacy.’
More subtle, far-reaching and probably evolutionary are the changes in what is acceptable in human discourse and interaction. What are the implications of not being able to see who you are communicating with? What rules apply? Who can you trust? Is that 12 year boy in the model airplane chat room really a boy? Is that 25 year old woman sharing her opinions on the latest fashions in truth a market researcher? Is that handsome guy on the latest dating service the real deal – with his high income, Harvard degree and Ferrari? Guess again. And how do we jump from being familiar online to meeting in person and assuming a false intimacy that in previous society would take time to develop. This is a quandary and a frustration I have felt when a relationship jumps ahead without the comfort of the courting rituals that allows one to become comfortable with the physical presence of another. This is one behavior boundary I choose to curb. It takes time to find depth of meaning – even in cyberspace.
Who are you anyway?
Using the research model discussed above, Jennifer A.H. Becker and Glen H. Stamp published a communications study, “Impression Management in Chat Rooms: A Grounded Theory Model” exploring social interactions online. Citing the study: “Impression management is the process by which individuals attempt to control others’ perceptions.” The premise is that “misrepresentation to present oneself in the most positive light is prevalent and to be expected in (all) social interaction.” This is just how we are wired. No matter the culture, ethnicity or age – we want to be accepted, loved, and in control. The study examines how this manifests in the fishbowl of online chat rooms. Becker and Stamp do a revealing exploration of “how individuals who regularly engage in chat room discussions understand and experience their own online encounters with regard to impression management behaviors, including misrepresentation of self.” They document this rather than imposing their theory – observing, recording and then forming an opinion of how these behaviors have shifted to accomodate the instantaneous in the now of the internet.
Chat rooms are stages for intense identity play
Managing other people’s impression of us is a survival response. We all do it. We all want to be seen in the best light. Human nature. But how extreme it becomes when we can literally create an identity, play with it, see how it fits and then toss it away is really interesting. Chat rooms are the perfect place to engage in impression management. People literally take on “Avatars” to play with new roles they imagine for themselves. Personal reality takes on new meaning.
The chat room forum reveals that human drivers behind the behaviors are consistent: Desire for acceptance, the desire to create and develop relationships, and the desire for identity experimentation. This is what makes us want to control and manipulate what impression we make on our world – be in a chat room, a Second Life adventure, or a dating site.
What does this mean for us as we navigate this new world? According to Becker and Stamp, the reduced social cues are compensated for by sending a greater number of messages. Participants try out new identities and strategically present favorable information about themselves. They gauge what the chat participants are looking for, and act in accordance with the ‘rules’ they perceive. These interactions sometimes lead into phone or in-person relationships.
Interestingly, the participants of the study observed that they recognized they couldn’t really convey their whole personality online, and not many actually took their chat room encounters beyond the forum. “Impression management primarily happens to create and maintain a favorable image of the self (Arkin, 1986). The ability to project a desirable image to others also enhances self-image and increases psychological comfort.” For the geeky misfit, this is proving to be a good thing – a way to be successful in interactions they’d be too shy to initiate face to face. But in say a scientific forum, people actually listened and looked up things on Google to sound knowledgeable enough to keep the conversation going. And that’s really an opportunity to learn and stretch in ways one might not in the course of day to day interactions.
I loved this statement: “These ‘mediated communication channels’ … offer individuals opportunites to strategically manage ambiguity.” Ambiguity. Wow. That’s sounds impressive! To be able to manage “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention” is a good skill to master!
Though there was a filter they could use to find suitable chat partners – such as age, sex, location and interests, many said they tried on different identities to experiment. Now, because they knew they were doing this stretching of the truth to be more attractive, they were aware that they should be suspicious of the authenticity of other participants. Some even went to lengths to solicit information on the participants and changed their identities accordingly. All had created a fictitious identity at least once. They perceived they could ‘be who they wanted to be’ and recognized managing the impression you made on others was central to ‘trying out new identities.’ A more malicious use of this was sited by a young woman who posed as a lesbian to try to discover the identity of another chat room participant she suspected of being a lesbian, in order to out her in their small town.
Roll playing is not a bad thing to practice. Kind of like an online Cotillion where you learn the intricate and nuanced steps of mannered social interaction. Efforts see if you can improve your social skills are reinforced immediately. Another positive aspect, according to the study was the expertise it took to stay in the conversation. “To become an expert communicator requires considerable experience, mental concentration and keyboarding skill.” Voila! Thus evolved the shortened online language – the ubiquitous LOL (laugh out loud), ROLOL (rolling over laughing out loud), giving people a shorthand to keep the flow of conversation. To keep up with conversation, express your creativity and get a response, you have to “embellish your text thoughts with abbreviations and emoticons to express sentiment. Chat slang is essential.” Gotta know the lingo to jive with the folks.
Such terms as a/s/l (age/sex/location) can reveal a bunch of info quickly that determine whether a chat partner will move forward with the conversation or move on. As does your screen name – positive names attract chat partners – so “Buttercup” is more fun and popular than “The Reaper” or “KD9830.” Misrepresentation is selective and rampant – “its part of the mastery of the chat room cultural practices to participate in selective presentation of self to appear more appealing.” Sounds like human nature to me!
This video shows a master of changing identity. He makes a living out of appearing as a different masked character everyday on the streets of Santa Cruz, bringing the cheerful sounds of the accordion to that eclectic village on the sea.
While those of us not born in the digital age might fear the effects on the younger set, this study shows the people came to realize that the online relationships did not readily translate to offline ones. Sometimes those that did formed primarily around common interests such as sports, fashion, art. Same as life on Terra Ferma. The realization was expressed by one young man who found that the it was only through face to face interation that a meaningful romantic relationship could be developed – the barrier being the lack of trust that someone was portraying themselves honestly.
Disappointment is a good teacher – for one participant. He thought he was talking to a girl with a common musical interests that later turned out to be a boy. Madame Butterfly?
What I really liked the most was the finding that this young man, after intense and harmless experimentation with his identity, believed he came to clearer conclusions about who he was and who he wanted to be. He said, “I learned a lot that it’s important to be true to myself.” He felt he now matured to a consistent identity inside and outside the chat room as “the way my friends online and offline see me is the way I perceive myself.” If only that could be said for the grownups on the dating sites!
Well, that was a really long way around, I know. But I find it interesting. And HOPEFUL. Inclusion, affection, control and identity experimentation were the primary motivations, just like all of us on the planet. Human and animal. We want to be accepted by some tribe, flock, herd. We crave affection. And we want things to make some kind of sense – hence a need to control some aspects of the environment in the whoosh of life that propels us every day. Sounds pretty creative – who needs to pay for acting classes?
I relate this trying on of identities to the teaching of my guru, Baba Muktananda, who teaches about being in Witness-Consciousness, being aware of the actor on your inner stage, who takes on different personas appropriate to the action required in external reality. Who is it that is taking these on, who tells us about it as we are doing it? The inner witness. Cyberspace is actually a way to access that awareness if seen from the perspective of the impermanence of the moment, and yet the continuum of information captured in the realm. Says Baba in Satsang with Baba, page 237, “A meditator should meditate on the inner witness. It is that inner witness which is the goal, the object of meditation. The sages say that the inner witness is without attributes; it is pure consciousness.”
Hang on, my iPhone is signaling me that from somewhere in cyberspace, someone is trying to reach me.
Until next time…
The world is as you see it, so change your glasses. Baba Muktananda
http://www.shivayoga.org Siddha Yoga Swami Shankarananda answering questions on spirituality.