Friday, 7 November 2008

The Case of "Compulsive Disclosure" - Social Functionality and Norms

In the last post, I discussed the idea of “culture” and the norms that constitute it. You can think of norms in two complementary ways: as collectively converged upon mechanisms coordinating our repeated daily interactions and as affectively charged, behavior-reinforcing repositories of shared meaning and values. In this post I want to discuss how social functionality and social media impact our expectations and preferences in interactions, ultimately leading to convergence on new norms. Because it's pretty well entrenched and understood (if passe), I'll use blogging as my main example.

To older people, it’s alarming that younger people tend to be pretty easy and open with their personal information online. One reason may be that there are many more opportunities for sharing information online that are systematically legitimated, as in registration processes, profile development and online forms in general. But this sort of disclosure doesn’t have the “bare your soul” or “edit, please” quality that I’m interested in. What interests me is the use of social functionality to (effectively) broadcast what seem to be the most intimate and/or banal details of your life. A relatively familiar example is the hyper-frank "diary" blog sub-genre. People write these knowing that friends, acquaintances and strangers will read and respond. And both producers and consumers are not typically "outliers" or closet transgressors using anonymity as a means of catharsis. Rather, the vast majority of people sustaining the norm are “regular” folks baring their souls – often sharing what seem to be the most embarrassing, compromising and/or dull details of their lives – and owning up to it.

In face to face interactions or other real world self-presentations we tend to reserve most personal information about ourselves for our closest friends and family. Often, “opening up” is about displaying trust or forcing the hearer to feel as if they are somehow symbolically indebted or "down" with you. Clearly the norms of disclosure and relevance operating in “real life” aren’t the norms observed online. I don’t think this is only because blog posts are relatively anonymous and sort of like publishing, i.e. one-way. At some level, posts are intended to set the tone and define the situation for an ensuing interpersonal interaction in a public forum, albeit a relatively stilted one with no co-presence and formidable latency.

Anyway, under the old norms, the often wrenching (or incredibly dull) self-disclosure we see online would probably create discomfort and confusion as to how to understand the interaction offline. Under the new norm(s), however, it can generate praise, esteem, sympathy and positive normative response on at least some registers. Norms, by definition, carry their standards of value and evaluation with them. What has caused the stabilization of this norm of “compulsive disclosure?”

Nothing Like a Nice Bourdieu

Before looking at the case of compuslive disclosure, I'd like to suggest a mechanism by which an old norm may be nullified and new one developed without necessarily requiring everybody to be "true belivers" in the norm's values. In other words, a mechanism that lets me suggest how the counter-normative behavior of a small group of "outliers" – folks not operating by the norms of disclosure and relevance of the “real” world – can eventually result in the acceptance and stabilization of a new norm.

Following Learry Gagné, I return to Pierre Bourdieu for the mechanism. I’ve discussed this before. Effectively people seek symbolic gain in interactions, but importantly, the terms of that gain are set by the cultural milieu in which they’re operating. In Bourdieu’s terms you often have to use your cultural capital – your knowledge, skills and abilities in understanding and creating domain-appropriate cultural artifacts and situations – to gain symbolic capital – status, prestige, esteem or general recognition by your focal group.

Mechanisms like this create what Philip Petitt and Geoffrey Brennan call the economy of esteem. People engage in behaviors they wouldn't engage in were they not capable of gaining esteem from them. But they don't necessarily comply cynically. Esteem maintains the norm in the sense that people who aren't naturally "outliers" would cease the behavior were the norm no longer there to gain esteem from. But, they've internalized the norm to such an extent that their compliance is pretty much emotional or non-maximizing.

Does the Nature of Social Functionality Impact Norms?

Of course it does. Three properties of social media seem particularly relevant to the rapid stabilization of norms online.

1. The poster’s relatively low-costs (in time, money, attention, etc.) of forming a presence (blogging, posting a video, etc.)

2. The consumer’s low cost of switching and/or forwarding.

3. The ease and efficiency with which feedback accumulates from the consumer to the poster.

The first suggests that you’ll get relatively high volume of content, providing social and cultural “outliers” in particular an equalized platform. The relatively small number of people who really do have a need to bare their souls in a public forum – counter to the norms supported by the larger culture – now have a potentially much larger public forum.

The second suggests that people can zip between posters easily both because of the arbitrarily linked nature of the web and because of the conventions of social media content genres (short, easily digestible pieces, e.g. blog posts).

These two together give the "outliers" a forum and a mechanism for gaining an audience. Basically, the qualities of the medium allow potentially counter-normative behavior – behavior at the "edge" of normal – to be viewed from the center. The third helps solidify the self-disclosure sub-genre by providing a stabilizing and often legitimating feedback channel.

To unpack this a little, "outlier" producers – the people who naturally transgress against the "real world" norms – use the platform as a cathartic mechanism for logging their innermost feelings. The relative impoverishment of the context reduces the salience of applicable norms so the discomfort of witnessing the transgression isn't as acute as it would be in person. But norm transgression, in this case the enactment of intimate privacy in a public space, can be fascinating in itself and this appeals to a significant “outlier” subset within the audience.

So we have a platform that's just distinct enough from the real world to allow public transgression of dominant interaction norms without the crushing sanctions that would occur in the "real world." The platform also provides extensive means of getting this narrow-appeal content before appreciative eyes. Finally, the feedback channel largely provides validating evaluations of the transgressive performance (partly because of the self-selecting nature of the audience). Constant public transgression coupled with forwarding and positive, visible feedback via the third property effectively weakens the old norms while laying the normative framework for new ones. Enough exposure to a new way of framing an interaction or self-presentation coupled with public displays of acceptance and evaluation can create the sort of structures of expectation, preference and values that define new norms.

But what’s interesting beyond this formation of the norm among the “true believers” or "outliers," the folks who would break the old norm anyway, is the fact that the norm can stabilize among the mainstream. There is a lot more comfort with, expectation of, and preference for personal disclosure in some online contexts than there is in most offline contexts. Basically, I claim that the voiding of the offline norms was facilitated by the properties of the medium. They effectively amplified the dispositions of the “true believers” creating an environment in which new normative expectations – expectations of others expectations that conditionalize our preferences in situations – could stabilize and spread beyond the “true believers.”

The norm is adopted by the larger community because of user's expectations of other's expectations, i.e. the possibility of the earning or withholding of esteem. Considerations of esteem don’t enter into it for the “outliers” or true believers. They’re just that way; their behavior is a manifestation of their values. However, it does enter into it for the majority of people who perpetuate the norm, both as producers and consumers. They wouldn’t necessarily behave this way without the existence of the norm to generate esteem. The discomfort at transgression of the old norm is lost and a new set of normative standards – a set of felt preferences and eventually internalized ways of simply being in the world – replaces it. The normative standards provide mechanisms by which self-esteem and esteem can be gained, either consciously or rationally – for “posers” or cynics – and unconsciously or emotionally – for people who may not be outliers dispositionally, but adopt the norm “in good faith.” As long as no one knows everybody else’s true status – true believer, esteem seeker or poser – and the groups are effectively indistinguishable in behavior, then if esteem is flowing the norm will stabilize and perpetuate.

Clearly, the properties of social media have deep effects on the norms and (thus) culture online. Realizing this fact has important ramifications for how we design and deploy social functionality. We can see that we must design for the development of pro-social norms. We can also see how media and cultural dynamics interact in the abstract. But clearly even non-antisocial norms like compulsive disclosure can appear negative from the outside (though I personally don't think that they are). And because the norms that develop are the path dependent and immensely complex results of strategic negotiations and interactions among enormous numbers of actors, there’s no way you’ll be able to predict what norms will actually emerge. However, with this understanding you will be able to make non-judgmental sense of – and thus develop coherent, non-reactionary policy to address – the ones that do emerge.

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