Unraveling Social Interaction (part 5)

Putting digital communication trough the test of the insights we gathered in the previous four articles. It turns out that unraveling human interaction is more important for digital communications.

In their book Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust Chris Brogan and Julien Smith hand out practical advice for social media etiquette. They make it all very tangible through the analogy of a cocktail party.

In this fifth article on human interaction we will be reviewing insights we gathered so far and put them through the digital test. The book of Brogan & Smith turns out to be a great source for this test. [Disclaimer: this article requires that you have read the previous 4 articles]

You are the one in the room

Social Theatre

When using the metaphor of social theatre, we discovered that the situation determines the roles we play and the rules we follow. This tends to be true in the digital world as well. Each digital platform determines the roles we play and the tone-of voice we use. For example when you are the author of a blog article versus the reader or commenter. Another example is your employment status: who are you representing when you are interacting on Linkedin versus your interactions on Facebook or Twitter?

Your avatar (profile picture) and your tagline are important elements to clarify the role you are playing in these types of situations. Every social media platform seems to be a different stage where we can play a different role.

Social Economics

Social economics is about the reciprocity of social interaction: the give-and-take that constantly equilibrates everything in a relationship. In online interaction we completely lack the non-verbal cues that are used to acknowledge or respond to a request (for example: nodding in agreement). However, this doesn’t mean that there is no need for acknowledgement by means of a ‘thank you’ or simply responding to an email. Brogan & Smith state in this respect that you would equally respond to someone asking you a question at a cocktail party.

Not responding to an email that contains a question is like staring with a blank face when someone asks you something at that cocktail party. A request creates the expectation of a response or an excuse – this is no different in digital communication. Reciprocation means that we exchange a social currency of +1 and -1 in order to equilibrate the face value that is claimed.

Conflicts of Context

So what happens when contexts mix? For offline people this is something relatively new that happens very often in online contexts: the blurring of boundaries between different contexts. For example: in real life it may be very easy to separate professional relationships from personal and family bonds, simply because they happen in a different time and place.

However on online platforms it requires a serious balancing act if you want to make sure that none of the contexts interfere. Applications like Facebook and Google+ help their users to create categories or ‘circles’. You may even have developed a rigid policy for yourself in order to balance out the role and face-value you claim on a certain platform.

But when you try to categorize people you will always end up with a handful of persons who belong to all of the categories and to none at the same time. Strange enough, for this handful of people we never experience a problem of face-value in any of the contexts we interact with them. That is because we are human and authentic in their presence. Connecting contexts does not create an inflation or devaluation of face-value in these relationships.

Conflicts of Generation?

What do we learn when generations mix? The difficulties we encounter with blurring boundaries between different contexts are caused by the differences in face-value we claim in one context versus another. A water-tight separation between these  contexts makes us feel more comfortable.

On the other hand, when contexts mix, it may cause a devaluation or an inflation of our face value. This increases uncertainty and whenever the uncertainty in a relationship goes up the level of trust goes down. In face-to-face human interaction we can fall back on formality or uniform language as it is the case for aviation communication. What is granted and claimed gets calibrated through formality.

However, on the web we see that the opposite is true – or so it seems… At first sight there seems to be less formality in digital conversations because in succesful conversations another dynamic applies: that of public disclosure and honest interaction.

The Emotional Bank Account of Trust

We tend to look for indicators of trust in every human interaction and we build relationships through cycles of testing and response. The same is true for online conversations. In their book Brogan & Smith report that we tend to use the following signals of trust for bloggers online:

  • design of a site,
  • longevity (for how long am I following this blogger?),
  • volume of productivity  (How long has someone been around?),
  • number and quality of comments,
  • number and quality of links,
  • the domain name and the background of a blogger.

Still, these are only formal criteria on which we base ourselves in order to estimate the online deference we grant to a person and subsequently the face-value and role we claim for ourselves.  Therefore they also refer to the “trust equation” of David Meister:

T = C + R + I / S
(where T = Trust, C = Credibility, R = Reliability, I = Intimacy, S = Self-orientation)

It turns out that self-orientation (giving yourself a “+1”) works out very negatively on the web. It’s a sign of uncertainty.

Digital Formality

On the web formality gets replaced with etiquette. Let’s be honest here: in the digital world there may be no procedural guide or dictionary telling you how to behave, but nothing is more regulated than digital conversations.  Brogan & Smith underscore the use of etiquette at the digital level is because all of the interactions on social media are human by definition.

They recommend lurking as a starting strategy, instead of rushing in and stumbling over all the social norms. One thing is true: even though they are invisible, the dynamics of politeness and honesty are far more important in the binary world than in the real world.

Honesty As the Best Strategy

If all of the above is true, then what is the best way to approach digital communication? I would suggest to place all bets on honesty. Honesty on the web characterizes maturity in a relationship: maturity in this sense would mean that one is relaxed with the mixing of contexts because one can rely on human and authentic interaction to equilibrate any level of inflation or devaluation that a mixing of contexts may cause.

One relies on connection instead of control in order to equilibrate relationships. By the way, this is why I am convinced that the categorizing of people in different groups or circles will only be a temporary solution. Its use will be restricted to the categorizing of mailing lists etc. for communication purposes in the long run. Not for separation purposes.