Social Networks, Pluralistic Ignorance, and the Psychology of Interpersonal Interactions

Last week, I had dinner with two girlfriends at my favorite restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles. I had made plans with Kim for dinner and we decided to invite Deb, another girlfriend of ours that we know from years prior. During dinner, Deb, while sitting across from Kim and myself, said…

“This is so weird! I know the two of you under different contexts, and now you are both sitting across the table from me! It’s like when you are on Facebook and you see two friends that you didn’t know knew each other tagged in the same photo!”

I was amazed that she used a social media interaction to describe a real world interaction. It was a perfect representation of the infiltration of computer mediated communication (CMC) in our schemas of interpersonal interactions.

This is not unfamiliar, CMC is part of our everyday real world interactions. Asking someone “Are you on Facebook?” is a reasonable question. And, for people not on Facebook, the response prompts further discussion as to why; a virtual presence on Facebook is the default.

I have also encountered many people who opt out of Facebook because of the assumed expectations of engagement. Recently, one of my other girlfriends who is earning her PhD in Communication at Stanford University deactivated her Facebook account, citing that her friend circle had become too large to track. I suggested that Facebook should not be used to mirror real world interactions; instead we should use technology to the extent that it makes our lives easier. This does not mean that if a technology does not make your life easier, you should trash it, but rather we can, and should, control how we use the technology.

For me, Facebook is not a social substitute, it is a news feed of all the interesting things going on in the lives of people I know. I treat it like a personalized TMZ: complete with social happenings, gossip, and life events integrated into sports, politics, science, and other formal types of “news.” Engaging with people on Facebook is not the same as engaging in real space, and I think a lot of people forget that. Facebook isn’t real, it’s just a representation of information. And according to the U&G Theory of communication media, we use media to gratify our needs. If your needs are not being gratified by your various social networks, then you should change how you use your social networks.

Interestingly, I don’t seem to have this same conversation around Twitter. Perhaps it is because Facebook is the dominant social network of the moment, and people tend to focus their anger on the biggest player (e.g., Wal-Mart vs. Target, McDonalds vs. Burger King, Starbucks vs. CBTL). But I think that this anger towards Facebook also comes from the socially prescribed behavioral norms, which may not actually represent how most people use the social network, also known as pluralistic ignorance. Therefore, instead of attempting to carve out our own personal uses for technology, we ascribe the assumed norm of behavior to the interaction, and subsequently reject the technology instead of rejecting the behavior.

I’ve gone off on a tangent. Long story short, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced Facebook and social networking more, but primarily as an information source. I like the experience of seeing mutual friends I did not know existed, and I especially like when social connections appear in my news feed.

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
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