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twitter-naziA short time ago, A friend sent a message to me asking for some assistance.  Her teenage daughter was spending more time online than was desirable, and my friend asked if I knew of an app or router setting that could limit her daughter’s usage.  I told my friend I assumed such things existed and that I would do a little research and get back to her.

Turns out I was lying.  I didn’t do any research at all.  Instead I just thought about it for a day, then got back to my friend and said “I think you’re looking for a technological solution to a behavioral problem.  This is a mistake.”

Luckily, my friend had already realized this and had taken appropriate steps.

I see a similar problem all over the Internet.  Specifically in social media.  In a nutshell, social media seems to be heavy on the ‘media’ and light on the ‘social’.

By nature, most humans are not inherently nice.  This is a by-product of being a species that clawed its way to the top of the food chain.  However, we are also very social creatures, so we have had to develop a toolkit we can use so that we can occupy the same spaces without resorting to violence.  And we have done so, in a variety of ways (which I will hereafter refer to collectively as ‘the social contract’).  Unfortunately, this has led the social web to the erroneous conclusion that the social contract springs into existence spontaneously and organically.  It doesn’t.  Rather, the social contract is painstakingly constructed and is constantly renegotiated.  What makes this process possible is the fact that all participants are effectively empowered to enforce the social contract.  The reason people don’t walk into bars and scream obscenities at strangers is that doing so results in paying a real, usually immediate social price.

It is this characteristic that social media glaringly lacks.  In many ways, it actually provides an opposite situation.  In the real world, if a person enters into an ongoing social situation and begins to act belligerently toward the participants, the social group itself will deal with the intruder.  This most often simply manifests itself in the removal of the newcomer.  Sometimes this is managed by someone in authority (the owner of an establishment, or some form of security personnel, for example).  Other times it is handled by the social group themselves (in my experience it almost never necessitates any kind of physical intervention).  Regardless of the particulars, though, it is not the social group that pays the price for the intrusion but rather the intruders themselves.

Not so in social media.  In this case, if an existing social group (say a Twitter discussion thread) is joined by someone inclined to act belligerently, the group has no power to address the situation.  The few tools they are given to use in these situations are woefully insufficient.  Usually they amount to nothing more than some kind of block/mute/ignore function.  Because of this, in social media it is the group that pays the price for an individual’s antisocial behavior, rather the individual causing the problem.

The real-world equivalent would be someone walking into a bar and shouting obscenities, in response to which everyone in the bar simply puts their fingers in their ears and chants “I’m not listening.  I’m not listening.”

Foolishness.  Utter foolishness.  Not least because it would never – ever – work.  There is nothing about this kind of group behavior that in any realistic way would discourage said antisocial behavior.  Quite the opposite, actually.

This is why social media is inherently broken.  And it appears that it’s going to stay broken, because the people who are in a position to fix it show little desire to do so (for various reasons, most of which are money).

Which is why, I’m sorry to say, I have decided to pretty much cease my personal participation in social media.  Not completely – just mostly.  I just don’t find much fun in playing with broken toys.  I’m not deleting any accounts just yet, though, mainly because I have hope that in the future at least some areas of social media will figure this crap out and give the people the tools necessary to enforce the social contract.

This hope is not completely unfounded.  There are some areas of the Internet that have large social components and still manage to have a functioning social contract.  Most notable among these are video games (not all of them, unfortunately).  This typically manifests in the form of some kind of guild/clan system, where the players themselves are given the ability to administer the social contract.  These kind of systems allow for like-minded people to form their own social groups that are subject to a group-determined code of conduct that is enforced by the group.  Just like in the real world.

I’m not suggesting that Facebook or Twitter start using a guild system.  What I’m saying is that those systems prove that social spaces on the Internet can function properly.  All it takes is an awareness of where the actual power in the social contract resides.

So I’ll keep checking in from time to time.

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