I’ve been pondering a few of the discussions I’ve seen on online versus offline research approaches: Zebrabites’ thoughts on the need to understand users in person as well as hypertext; Matt Rhodes of Freshnetworks’ recommendation that we understand people in natural online communities as well as specially-constructed research communities. People share themselves and their opinions differently in different contexts.
We tend to treat an online conversation (on a message board, a blog reply, a social network) as an honest record, right there on the screen, of what Audience A thinks of Topic B. Or, at least, we might elaborate, what Willing Contributors from Audience A think about Topic B. As Katie and Matt suggest, it’s not quite that simple.
Why wouldn’t people say what they think, in an online network? Why might they keep quiet? In my view, social pressures shape our conversations online just as much as they do in everyday life. Indeed, some of those pressures to behave may be even stronger online.
The other day, I touched on discourse or conversation analysis, where you analyse a given conversation and you look at the way the participants frame their discussion. You also look, as far as you can, at what’s missing.
What is the meaning of silence, online? (Or: have I gone mad in trying to express what I mean?)
Let me try and explain. Online, we have talk (the posted conversation which we can analyse to our heart’s content) and we have silence (the large majority who read but don’t contribute). The posted conversation may not be an accurate reflection of the whole, in the same way that conversations in a group discussion may not always be good representations of individual opinions.
What silences people who might otherwise contribute? Here are my top three.
The silencing power of strong opinions
If I read a blog with lots of passionate contributions, my decision to contribute will depend on my viewpoint and how I feel about throwing it into the conversation. If I dislike loud online argument, and those who have already commented are arguing passionately with each other, I may choose not to contribute my dissenting comment.
Another example: a couple of years ago, I helped troubleshoot an online community that wasn’t working too well. It was pretty unmoderated: new people joined but they rarely participated. It turned out that the community was dominated by a small group of older, vociferous and rather right-wing users. New users arrived, took one look at some of the ‘hanging’s-too-good-for-them’ rants, and ran away. They didn’t feel welcome.
Perceived social disapproval
I may choose not to talk about something that actually excites me because I suspect that other people will be negative about it. To take a minor example, I use the blog network, Livejournal, and I’ve recently become a convert to Twitter. People on LJ are routinely scathing about Twitter. When I first started using Twitter seriously, I didn’t mention it on LJ. Eventually, I broke down and talked about it, and various of my LJ mates broke out and said ‘Ooh, yes, it’s great, I have one too and here it is! ‘
I would never have known if I hadn’t asked.
Online conversation persistence
In stable online networks, our conversations can be very, very easy to follow. As a result it can be very hard to gossip: nothing is hidden. In real life we can sit through a boring presentation and then have a whispered chat with our neighbour about how dull it was, before putting on a bright smile and congratulating the speaker as they breeze up to us and ask what we thought.
If we thought that the entire conversation with the neighbour would be retrievable later by the speaker, we might act rather differently. Online, a third party may be able to do exactly that.
The persistence of online conversations also leads us to be careful about expressing our opinion of someone who doesn’t appear to be present. They might come along in 3 hours or 3 days (or 3 years), and get upset.
‘The lurkers are supporting me in email!’
They might be.
Silence is not necessarily agreement. It can be curiosity, boredom, or dissent, at the very least. All of us are lurkers (readers), as well as participants. Sometimes, we watch the debate and we don’t join in publicly.
If a counter-opinion can’t be expressed openly for fear of social consequences, back channels can help participants let off steam. Sites like PostSecret help some people express socially unacceptable views. Private messaging options and quick polls (the kind where you can’t see what everyone else put) can make it safer to express yourself.
You can do all sorts of things to make a network a safe space in which to express opinions. Ultimately, though, you might need to triangulate your findings by mixing methods: networks and one-to-one, online and in-person. Lifting an online conversation straight from a ‘natural’ network may lead you to some highly unreliable conclusions.
Thoughts? Have I managed to express myself on this one?
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