Does social media bring out the worst? Looking at the structure of platforms


The vast majority of study on group dynamics focuses on identifying types of social groups, how they form, the roles and activities within them, and establishes practical methods of group management to prevent a group from stagnating or disbanding; however, this exploration excludes social media, and how the structure of differing social media apps and sites create groups that either contributes to or varies from established group dynamics. Some apps may completely eliminate key group roles, causing certain theories about why groups form to become irrelevant. For example, if an app or platform does not allow people to group or “tag” entries by keyword, it becomes impossible to organize any group of followers or fans around that interest, almost ensuring that the special interest model of group formation becomes moot. Some other platforms allow organization around central concepts or interests, but discourage certain types of participation. For example, an app that makes it very difficult to share information to followers can completely destroy the cohesiveness of a group. Some platforms however, seem to encourage members of groups to occupy specific roles, just based on structure alone.

Group types are classified either as formal or informal, and are established primarily based upon the focus of the group—interest group, task oriented group, reference groups, and friendship groups are examples. Members tend to fall into a list of roles based on tasks or their dynamic with the group—roles that either maintain cohesion of the group, or can lead to its disbanding. Certain social media platforms could actually be selecting for one type of role over another, simply based on structure alone. This selection process can be large or small scale, or function differently on one scale than the other. An example would be any platform that allows larger groups to break into smaller groups—smaller subgroups behave differently than larger, and when decisions within smaller groups reach consensus, that opinion may clash with the larger group, causing disharmony. That disharmony tests the structure of the larger group and its ability to satisfactorily deal with concerns and make changes.

A platform like Facebook, is structured around a person’s real world identity, linking them to their existing contacts via associations. Friends of friends can connect to one another, but it’s seldom that complete strangers connect with one another. This ensures that each user sees a somewhat different side of people that are a part of their everyday life. It can cause real world relationships to break down over ideological issues. The commenting structure attributes the words said directly to the user and posts made are put up on the user’s “wall” again attributed by name. This kind of linkage to the real world often moderates behavior in some ways, but affects the types of things discussed. Facebook, in particular, because of its familial linkage, can actually create a strange interaction between weak and strong actors, creating friction for the user—for example, wondering what will happen if your mother begins talking through your wall, to a friend who knows some of your secrets.

Some social media platforms allow group discussions, while some merely adhere to a more standard structure of call-and-response—individual posts that can receive comments or likes. Some allow private versus public communication, and some allow the user to tailor the structure of their profile, to select for certain kinds of experiences.

But the real question is, can the structure of an app or platform not only help a group to form, but also select for odd dynamics, or ensure its fragmentation and breakdown. This question extends even further, into notions about what it may mean to communicate across platforms, where culture varies. The question brings up social issues about media exposure, polarization with real world consequences, and the overall experience of benefit received by the user. Are some social media apps simply designed in a way that brings out the worst in group members?

As groups begin to experience internal difficulties with dynamics— either surrounding an inability to agree to organization, or a disagreement about the goals, etc.—members fall into certain roles that are so predictable as to have names and general behavioral types. Roles that interfere with the cohesion of the group are called blocking roles.

The Aggressor – this role can actually vary considerably, but the overall behavior is ad hominem attack. This person can express disagreement with fundamental group values, be overly sarcastic, actively argue with the feelings or ideas of others, joke aggressively, tear down the status of other members, or dispute previously solved issues anew.

The Dominator – these members primarily assert control over others based on rank or asserted knowledge, They often engage in manipulative behaviors to attempt to acquire control over some section of the group—often to then leverage that smaller group against the cohesion of the larger group.

The Blocker – Blockers are stubbornly resistant to consensus, negativist, pessimistic, and refuse to accept group decisions, bringing them up repeatedly.

The Playboy – this person makes a show of their unwillingness to participate in the groups structure and maintenance. They often express cynicism of any compromise and will constantly absolve themselves of guilt if things “go badly”.

The Special Interest Pleader – this person engages in constant hair-splitting on behalf of a smaller segment of the group, or even a presumed segment for which there is no active membership. Through argument and persuasion, they succeed in making small points which have very little relevance to the group, into larger issues.

The Recognition Seeker – this person boasts constantly, will not admit wrong doing, refuses to be put in positions of lower status, they often engage in manipulation to keep control, if forced from it.

The Self-Confessor – makes use of the public stage to offer their own feelings or agendas which have little, if nothing, to do with the group’s stated purpose. This can throw off group dynamic and cause members feel socially obliged. This behavior also allows difficulties to be kicked-up whenever the person’s opinions contradict the group.

The Help Seeker – this person expresses overlarge feelings of uncertainty, confusion, self-deprecation, and other forms of manipulation to sway the group with sympathy.

Once these roles begin to appear within the group dynamic, it’s a fairly obvious sign that breakdown has begun. Any one of these roles can trigger the beginnings of a cascade effect toward polarization, which almost inevitably causes the group to fall apart. Recognizing these types of behavior can be an opportunity for group organizers to make changes that improve the robustness of group structure, but social media platforms that interfere with the leaders’ ability to adapt would prevent positive action. Indeed, some platform structures can actually encourage and select for negative cascades.

A good example of this is Tumblr, which allows any person not specifically blocked by the poster, to rebroadcast their negative opinions to their entire followership. This then can branch outward, each successive negative comment reblogged, going to another set of readers. This causes a traceable cascade effect toward polarization. It also actively selects for the specific roles listed above, as controversy tends to attract more attention. Tumblr’s ask feature also allows for anonymity, which encourages certain members of a fandom or followership to take up any of these roles from a place of relative social safety. Yes, this feature can be turned on or off, but it is still built into the platform. The structure of attribution also ensures that the poster receives notifications every time a reply or mention is made, which can ensure that every dissenting opinion becomes more relevant to the poster than is statistically warranted. Post structure, like Twitter, almost ensures that some posts become swift memetic movers or “viral”, exposing the poster to a variety of outside opinions that may influence the internal dynamics of their group or “followership”

Platforms that focus primarily on visuals like pictures or recordings often allow commentary among users. This creates whole new dynamics, particularly with regard to feelings of closeness to the content creator. Fan clubs are classified as “research groups” as they surround a primary interest but are not devoted to any task or action except appreciating, consequently, the opinion coming in is already polarized. An actor’s fan club, for example, is going to be devoted to that actor—“Stans”—and the group dynamic will be overtly and obviously unfriendly to anyone calling the actor’s behaviors into question. Thus, if a member of the group “defects”, the response to it will contain some portion of the behaviors described above. Platforms that facilitate commenting and tagging, naturally contribute to this. A good example of this would be “make up gurus“ of YouTube and the “drama channels” that follow them. The comments allow for stans of the creator to actively engage in arguments with those either pointing out problematic behavior, or expressing a dissenting opinion.

In standard group dynamics, the blocking roles are often integral to the polarization process—through which a group attains a single, extreme opinion on an issue—by attempting to steer the discussion through emotional manipulation. As said in a previous entry, when an agreement is reached about the central issue before the group, all other questions that arise within the group will obey the same behavioral models, simply because of precedent. The constant presence of people occupying those blocking roles will signal the disintegration of the group.

The primary focus of social media companies was always to build platforms that would contribute to connection, facilitate people coming together around specific issues, their every day lives, shared beliefs. I’m uncertain that much thought was put into how the structure of each app or platform would interfere with longer-term social networks. Facebook was only begun in 2004, Tumblr is 9, and so no long term data exists to measure group flux. How many times the platform assists a group in forming is immaterial, if it constantly also leads to the same groups disbanding. The more intimate the platform, the more insular. The more robust and connective the platform, the more negative behaviors are allowed to impact the core of a group. Most participants only think about their platforms as being a means to an end—a way to connect with others. They seldom consider that in fact, they may be exposing themselves to an environment built to cause constant social flux. If, as previously said in an earlier entry, a person has become ostracized or disconnected from their real life, and has inverted the relationship between weak and strong bonds, a platform that allows such flux could be inherently dangerous to the user for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the constant exposure to negativity.

More study on how the platform structure affects the group dynamics is needed.

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