I have been off social media for a month or so. It wasn’t a conscious ‘quit’ decision, just that when I was having my crisis, I didn’t feel like posting or engaging and since then I haven’t regained the momentum (this blog aside). The one place I have been occasionally active in has been the Books of Horror group on Facebook. Partly that is because it is completely removed from my work life, so no-one there knows me socially, and I am not commenting on anything that has resonance with work (well, maybe some horror does…). But it’s also because it’s such a damn nice group. Everyone is helpful and respectful. There is no challenging other people’s tastes or opinions as wrong, or trying to be a smartass and dominate with your trash talking view.
Maybe that’s because horror fans get all their conflict out in the fiction, they don’t need it in real life. It’s commonly hypothesised that ice hockey fans in the UK are nice to each other (face to face, less so on social media) because the violence happens on the ice. That’s probably not true, but it’s a comforting theory. But what the Books of Horror group does demonstrate is how influential social norms are when you join a community. People see how others behave, and subconsciously modify their behaviour accordingly. This is common knowledge of course, but it’s always interesting to see it in action.
When I ran our first big online course in 1999, with around 12,000 students, we had to split the forums across two servers – same structure but each isolated from the other. I wish I had taken the opportunity to actually do some research, but what seemed to happen was that two different cultures emerged. The student forums on one server were largely positive, fun and supportive. The forums on the other were combatitive, full of complaints and generally unhappy. My sense was that this was the product of the dominant voices in each server setting the tone. I joked at the time that we should create fake student accounts to post positive things to change the tone. Maybe social media platforms should take that approach and create AI bots that post supportive, reasonable responses and shift the tone. I expect someone has already tried this, but a swarm of nice bots, maybe that’s what we all need.