Social media sites are just as prone to unconscious processes as physical environments. Indeed, you could put forward an argument that they are more so, as many clues used to test out (and refute) our hypotheses about others are either not available, are truncated or we are even forced to adapt our language to suit the constraints of the medium (as with the 140 character limit imposed by Twitter).
This is a problem where the communication is between people who know one another, but on sites where there is a mixture of people who do know one another (to varying degrees) with some who do not, the potential for both conscious and unconscious problems to arise is enormous.
In any group, forum, or club, a hierarchy of users soon evolves. Part of this hierarchy may be deliberate – the site ‘founders’, for example, may be accorded some status by the users or may consciously exert it for themselves. The same applies to ‘staff’ members. They are more likely to be more familiar with the use of social media generally, and the specific environment that they have created, and this may confirm their perceived status.
Others may feel that, by virtue of the amount they pay, they deserve a different status. (Bear in mind that this ‘feeling’ may not be conscious, ie they may not be aware of it.) For some, this will be exacerbated by the visible labels they are given. Ecademy, for example, has ‘gray-stars’, Power Networkers, Blackstars and Foundation Members. Some social media sites, keen to promote the different levels, will deliberately fuel this sense of specialness, whereas others will not or may do so in more subtle ways. Some members will be pleased to accept the status accorded to them, others will not.
People who volunteer to run sub-groups within the overall forum may feel they deserve a different status. Those who put in effort ‘offine’ might do so too, and those who feel that they give without any recompense may place themselves above those who give but expect some reward. This is a phenomenon that charities are well used to, with some volunteers, for example, never claiming their expenses and thus affording themselves more virtuosity than those who do claim.
On social media sites it is very rare for ‘elections’ to be held to determine leadership. In most cases, the individual merely claims the role and in the absence of any other contenders they have it. On one site, last year, ownership of the domain was given by the founder to someone new. The choice was based largely on the original owner’s perception that this individual was more likely than anyone to build the site rather than let it decline. As the membership perceived this new owner to have his own commercial agendas there was an immediate flurry of anger. Twelve months on, most people won’t even remember it.
Commonly, an individual who has acquired status in one area, expects it in another. So, the leader of a group in one aspect of the forum expects (consciously or unconsciously) to be treated specially or to be accorded status when they are participating in another part of the site. A common demonstration of this is where they offer wisdom in an authoritative tone on another part of the site when their status has been acquired in a different one. Some sites will allow them to do this, on others they will be flamed by members for their perceived arrogance. This may simply go against the culture of the site, or it could depend on the degree of integration of members across the different areas.
Most social media sites have some users who are active, some who are less so, some who are passive observers and some who never visit once they have registered. Some of the popular software applications for developing social media sites (Juku, vBulletin, and phpbb) can be set to accord status depending on the number of posts a user makes. Often they label the user visibly with words like… starter, novice, learner, regular, expert, old codger, and supreme commander. How the user and others interpret these labels depends on a plethora of factors, but they all impart some kind of status.
And finally, language can be used to try to exert authority. On one site, for example, a new product was recently launched and, within days, the early adopters were offering to “mentor” others. They could have chosen more neutral language; “If it would help, we could have a chat and I can tell you what happened with mine.” To ‘mentor’ someone implies breadth of experience, a depth of understanding based on their own reflective practice, groundedness, and a generosity that is free from seeking personal advantage. Again, the unconscious effect of their intervention was to seek to reinforce some kind of status.
Under some circumstances, unflinching acceptance of someone’s status, the authority that goes with it, and the expectation that their decisions should be followed almost without question, is expected. Increasingly though, the evidence is that the correlation between status and effectiveness in decision making is quite poor. Back in 1995, I wrote a book, “Self Managed Team Working“, which highlighted some extreme examples of organisations that removed managerial status completely and discovered exceptional levels of productivity and creativity among staff who had previously never been able to demonstrate their talents.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has been using the social media site, Facebook, as an outreach tool for some time. In today’s message he offers some advice to society in general, but which has particular relevance to social media sites too. He says;
“As human beings, we are all the same, there is no need to build some kind of artificial barrier between us. With this attitude, there is nothing to hide, and no need to say things in a way that is not straightforward. So this gives me a kind of space in my mind, with the result that I do not have to be suspicious of others all the time. And this really gives me inner satisfaction, and inner peace.”
In acknowledging the danger of status, he is highlighting the two sidednesss of it. Just as you might seek status, so I have to choose to give it to you. Coming from a psychodynamic persuasion, the model I tend to use to explore the dynamics of power is that of the family. As young children we observe, interpret and store away a repertoire of responses to situations and mental models of how life is supposed to work. As adults we wheel these out under circumstances that may, or may not, be appropriate. For many of us, the person of status is provoking responses associated with our relationship to our mother or father. Conversely, they are anticipating a response from us parallel to that which they gave to their parents when they were children. But, of course, we are no longer children. And it is when one person knows that and behaves as an adult, and another does not and tries to act as a parent that social media problems (as in real life) explode. But that takes us into the realms of transactional analysis and time for another blog!
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