What I Would Have Thought Would Be an Obvious Observation About Social Media

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Not everyone uses social media the same way.

I would have thought this was obvious. But it seems not to be. So here comes the measured rant.

There’s this pattern I’ve been seeing for a while. I keep seeing people pay intense, microscopically-close attention to other people’s behavior on social media. I don’t mean “things people say on social media”: I mean their behavior. Who are they friends with? Who are they not friends with? Who did they un-friend or un-follow or block? What posts did they like or share or re-Tweet? What posts did they not like or share or re-Tweet? A lot of people pay intense, microscopically-close attention to this social media behavior — and then tie it in with a micro-analysis of the thoughts and feelings and intentions that supposedly lie behind it. People make assumptions about shifting alliances, secretly-held opinions, behind-the-scenes machinations — based entirely on this friending and unfriending, this blocking and un-blocking, these likes and dislikes. I’ve started calling it “reading the Facebook tea leaves.”

So I’m going to say this again:

Not everyone uses social media the same way.

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Some people use social media more for their personal lives, to stay connected with friends and family. Some people use it more professionally, to promote their work or do research or maintain professional connections. Some people have a couple hundred friends, or fewer, mostly or entirely their actual friends. Some people have hundreds or thousands of “friends”: their actual friends, plus colleagues, neighbors, friends of friends of friends, people they met at a party or a conference that one time, people they friended because they made a funny comment on someone else’s page, pretty much anyone who sends a friend request.

Some people “like” pretty much everything they see on their feed. Some people “like” only things they feel strong agreement or affinity with. Some people “like” posts to express agreement or support. Some people “like” posts to keep track of the thread, so they’ll get notifications when new comments appear. Some people share or re-Tweet only when they agree with something. Some people share or re-Tweet to increase the visibility of ugly opinions they think people are ignoring or denying.

Some people unfriend or block because the blockee expresses opinions they find deeply objectionable or upsetting. Some people unfriend or block because the blockee keeps posting things they find upsetting, regardless of whether they agree (e.g., “Yes, I agree about animal cruelty, but I don’t need to keep seeing gruesome graphic pictures of it in my feed”). Some people unfriend or block because the blockee posts extensively about things they’re just not interested in: politics, religion, atheism, folk dancing, kids, gossip and news about people the blocker doesn’t know, pictures of food. Some people unfriend because they’re trying to keep their Facebook feed manageable, and are culling it down to people they know well. Some people unfriend because they’re stepping away from a profession or hobby or political movement. Some people continue to follow or be “friends” with people they have serious problems with, because they want to keep an eye on what they’re saying, or because they want to tag them when they criticize them. Some people friend or unfriend, follow or un-follow, block or un-block, like or don’t like, because they hit the wrong damn key and didn’t notice.

Not everyone uses social media the same way.

woman on computer by #WOCinTech Chat
So it’s a really, REALLY bad idea to make assumptions about people’s thoughts and feelings and intentions, their shifting alliances and secretly-held opinions and behind-the-scenes machinations, based solely on what they like or don’t like on social media, who they are and aren’t “friends” with, who they do and don’t “follow.”

Plus, there’s often an inconsistency to this micro-analysis. I’ve seen people passionately defend the right to block or unfriend or unfollow anyone you want, for any reason — and then turn around and get outraged because someone has blocked them, or has blocked other people they think shouldn’t have been blocked. It’s like that joke about “I am confident, you are cocky, they are arrogant”: “I am curating my Internet experience; you are creating an echo chamber; they are fascist censors who are stifling free speech.”

Again, I’m not talking about the things people actually say on social media. The words that come out of people’s mouths and fingers are, I think, a pretty reasonable guide to at least some of their thoughts and feelings and intentions. But when it comes to the other ways people use social media — liking and friending and following and blocking and the rest of it — can we please quit using it to decipher hidden meanings? Can we please quit trying to read the tea leaves? They’re a crappy news source, about as reliable as the National Enquirer. And trying to read them just adds more misinformation, more paranoia, more general noise, to an Internet that seriously doesn’t need any more.

(Images 1 and 3 by #WOCinTech Chat‘s page of free stock photos of women of color in tech.)

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Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

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What I Would Have Thought Would Be an Obvious Observation About Social Media
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39 thoughts on “What I Would Have Thought Would Be an Obvious Observation About Social Media

  1. 1

    Amen.

    I’ll add one other thing because it’s handy to not have to keep explaining it:

    I have over 4000 FB friends. FB limits you to 5000. So I have had to change how I decide who to accept friend requests from and have become more ready to unfriend.

    But more importantly, when you get above a thousand, you literally can’t see most of the notifications, which max out at 99 (you can dig back further but no one has the time even to read the 99, which is usually 99 per day or even per hour in my case). Which ones I see is random (the ones that just happen to top my home page when I log in). So you definitely can’t judge anything about me by what posts I don’t “like.” Because odds are, for any given post in my feed, I have never even seen it.

    Even people with fewer friends may have this problem, since it’s a function of how much time they have to read their feeds.

    So, also, that.

  2. 7

    @Ophelia Benson #2: That right there? That’s one kind of behavior in which you sometimes engage that heaped fuel onto the bridge fires. Perhaps that’s your aim – in my view, you certainly don’t have to be friendly or conciliatory towards anyone – but since you have asked exactly what behaviors people found so problematic at various points, I thought I’d point out how that’s likely to be read.

    @Richard Carrier #3: I’ll thank you to please not use “child” as an insult, as it denigrates a large group of people with very few rights or means of exercising power who are oppressed in some way in most societies on earth; “jerk” (a class of people defined solely on the basis of bad behavior) or “troll” (fictional analogy) or something like that would be better. That said, I do think Ophelia’s comment on a blog post that agrees with a major point she was making when the kerfuffle that resulted in her leaving FtB was going down is in poor form, especially since I don’t remember Greta really being involved much, either “with” or “against” Ophelia.

  3. 10

    With much sadness, I am blocking Ophelia Benson.

    It is certainly the case that the behavior of some of her critics is part of what I’m talking about here (although a very small part — I see this stuff a LOT, about a lot of things and people). Her own behavior, and the behavior of some of her supporters, is also part of what I’m talking about here. But again, it’s only a very small part. This post was NOT about Ophelia Benson and the controversies and conflicts surrounding her. All of that was only one example of a pattern I’ve seen many many many many many many times.

    But it’s clear that she’s not willing to engage here in a way that’s respectful and charitable. This is clear from the extremely nasty and insulting tone; the lumping together of all of her critics; and the fact that in her response post, she’s doing the exact thing I’m talking about here, while excoriating others for doing it.

    I’m going to ask that this comment thread not turn into a conversation about Ophelia Benson, and the conflicts and controversies surrounding her. It’s not fair to criticize someone in an arena where they can’t answer back. Thanks.

  4. 11

    But more importantly, when you get above a thousand, you literally can’t see most of the notifications, which max out at 99 (you can dig back further but no one has the time even to read the 99, which is usually 99 per day or even per hour in my case). Which ones I see is random (the ones that just happen to top my home page when I log in). So you definitely can’t judge anything about me by what posts I don’t “like.” Because odds are, for any given post in my feed, I have never even seen it.

    Richard Carrier @ #1: Yes. This. A thousand times this. I meant to mention this in my post, and forgot to: I may have to write a separate post about it. It’s very frustrating when people assume that their friends/followers have seen everything they’ve posted onto social media. The “Like this if you want to stay on my friends list, it’ll show that you care” thing especially drives me up a tree. If I didn’t like it, chances are I just didn’t see it. If I tried to stay caught up with everything in my feeds, I would literally never do anything else, including eat or sleep.

  5. 13

    Frankly, I don’t have time to play social media big brother. I have, at times, asked for clarification if somebody retweeted something I thought to be out of character, since people use retweets both as a means of approval AND a means of showing something horrible somebody else said they think other people shoudl be aware of. Sometimes it showed that I had misjudged their character (if you follow me I’ll take a quick look at your profile and if you tweet stuff I’m interested in I’ll follow back. I don’T analyze 10k tweets), sometimes they just wanted to get that out there.
    It’s become much better since Twitter implemented the quote function so people can add a few words like “look at this clueless git”.

  6. 14

    @Richard Carrier #3: I’ll thank you to please not use “child” as an insult, as it denigrates a large group of people with very few rights or means of exercising power who are oppressed in some way in most societies on earth…

    Oh. My. God.

  7. 15

    I appreciate Greta’s request that this thread not become about Ophelia Benson, but there is plainly much unfairness to be countered so I hope she’ll let it through.

    Greta, surely you understand that the behaviour you describe is exactly what happened to Ophelia. I don’t think you objected in public to that treatment at the time and Ophelia’s comment here and her post at B&W are about exactly that: you didn’t condemn this when it was happening to her, but then you – condescendingly, I think – turned up to splain to everyone about the realities of social media when there was zero cost to you. You could have said precisely the same thing when Ophelia was being attacked, but you didn’t. That’s Ophelia’s complaint and the source of her sarcastic mirth.

    Her own behavior, and the behavior of some of her supporters, is also part of what I’m talking about here

    This is a strange accusation and I think you ought to provide evidence that Ophelia engaged in that sort of behaviour and to justify using the (not cited) behaviour of her supporters as a sort of no-smoke-without-fire fallacious argument.

    Whether or not you agree with Ophelia’s opinions on everything, you and others at FtB and elsewhere are guilty of using or heeding the exact tactics you condemn in this post. I think Ophelia deserves an explanation and the rest of us deserve to know when we’re allowed to condemn such tactics and when they are mysteriously perfectly fine.

  8. 16

    Greta Christina,

    Again, I’m not talking about the things people actually say on social media. The words that come out of people’s mouths and fingers are, I think, a pretty reasonable guide to at least some of their thoughts and feelings and intentions. But when it comes to the other ways people use social media — liking and friending and following and blocking and the rest of it — can we please quit using it to decipher hidden meanings?

    Great post and very well said. What folks actually say or write or do is what’s important. The quest to uncover hidden meanings based on whom we follow or friend or which comments we “like” is a fool’s errand. Whatever hidden meanings we draw says more about us than it says about the other person anyway.

    latsot @14,

    Greta, surely you understand that the behaviour you describe is exactly what happened to Ophelia.

    BS. What happened to Ophelia was because of what Ophelia wrote and said and did. End of. Greta requested this not become a derail about one person (particularly since they cannot respond) so we won’t rehash all of the trans antagonistic things Ophelia wrote and did. Suffice it to say latsot that your’s is a transparent attempt to play a gotcha game by spinning the narrative.

  9. 17

    I find Twitter useful as a sort of news aggregator, with constant live updates. I would suggest to anyone that if you enjoy endless banter and debate, social media is a good place for you. If you are looking for a “safe space” then I would leave it alone entirely.

  10. 18

    Wow. Wanting to discuss things is bad, apparently. Wanting to discuss what Ophelia did wrong is bad, apparently.

    What Ophelia “did”? Excuse me? What did she do? Didn’t she just ask questions?

  11. 19

    polishsalami @16,

    If you are looking for a “safe space” then I would leave it alone entirely.

    First of all your use of scare quotes around the term safe space is duly noted. Second the idea that folks need to “leave it alone entirely” seems a bit drastic. With tools like The Block Bot and regular features like friending, following and blocking everyone can cultivate the kind of space they wish to participate in and can exercise control over who they interact with and what content they read. It’s not an all or nothing kind of thing.

    latsot @17,
    Enough already we’re not participating in your attempts to derail. What Ophelia did or did not do has been discussed ad nauseum so just go back and reread all of that if you missed it the first time. Nobody said wanting to discuss things is bad so that’s a strawman you are attacking.

  12. 20

    I have no intention to derail.

    Certainly what Ophelia said was discussed. Lots of people attacked her. They used the exact tactics Greta condemned in her post. Greta knew this when it was happening to Ophelia. All I’m suggesting is that she explain why that one thing is different to every other thing.

  13. 24

    OK, so I’m completely confused about the context for this post. Unless there’s some relevant context on Facebitter/Twinstagram or even the FTB BackChannel, this post comes completely out of the blue.
    So Latsot’s question seemed relevant.
    Greta does not wish to discuss she-who-has-been-blocked and that’s fair enough, but I’m awfully curious what this “this should be obvious” post is about otherwise and would love for someone to make it clear.

  14. 25

    EigenSprocketUK @20,

    I automatically disregard any argument which concludes “End Of”.
    So far, this works perfectly, including #15.

    With respect you seem a tad confused as to the difference between an assertion and an argument.

    “What happened to Ophelia was because of what Ophelia wrote and said and did.” <– That's an assertion not an argument. Of course you are free to "automatically disregard" it if you like for whatever reason but don't pretend like "automatically disregarding" something because we used a phrase you don't like is something to be proud of.

  15. 26

    “End Of” triggers me, but you weren’t to know that. The assertion seemed false to me because it was implying that one side took no action at all which affected the outcome, but here’s not the place.

  16. 30

    latsot @ #28 (and in other comments here): If you want to discuss this, don’t do it in the space where the host specifically requested that it not be discussed.

    What part of “No” did you not understand? What part of “I’m going to ask that this comment thread not turn into a conversation about Ophelia Benson, and the conflicts and controversies surrounding her ” did you not understand? What part of “This post was NOT about Ophelia Benson and the controversies and conflicts surrounding her” did you not understand? Why is it so important to you that you discuss this in this particular space — a space where you have to violate boundaries to discuss it?

    If you want to know what Ophelia Benson did, and why many people are angry with her or have cut ties with her, there’s documentation here, here, here, here, and here (almost certainly in other places as well, but these were the ones I could easily find). If you want to discuss the conflicts with Ophelia Benson, please do so in a place other than one where people were specifically asked not to discuss that.

    No, “wanting to discuss things” is not bad (@ #17). Forcing a discussion of a specific topic into a space where the host specifically asked that it not be discussed? That is bad. It’s exactly the sort of behavior feminists excoriate in anti-feminists, and it’s distressing to see feminists use it on each other.

    I am sorry to do this, as you have been a valued commenter here for some time. But I am putting you into comment moderation. Any future comments from you will have to be approved before they’re posted. I do not have the time or energy to closely moderate this discussion, to make sure further derailments and boundary violations don’t happen.

  17. 31

    OK, so I’m completely confused about the context for this post. Unless there’s some relevant context on Facebitter/Twinstagram or even the FTB BackChannel, this post comes completely out of the blue.
    So Latsot’s question seemed relevant.
    Greta does not wish to discuss she-who-has-been-blocked and that’s fair enough, but I’m awfully curious what this “this should be obvious” post is about otherwise and would love for someone to make it clear.

    EigenSprocketUK @ #23: This post is not in response to anything. Or rather, it’s not in response to anything in particular. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time — long before the conflicts with/about Ophelia Benson, and with many instances of it afterward — and there wasn’t anything in particular that inspired me to write it. I wrote it now because I’m finally starting to get over a bad bout of depression, and I now have the energy and motivation to write pieces I’ve been thinking about and wanting to write for a while. Yes, the behavior I’m talking about in this post happened during the conflicts with/about Ophelia — her critics did it, her supporters did it, she did it herself — but that was only one of many many many many examples I’ve seen over months and indeed years, and it’s not what I was responding to here. I wasn’t responding to anything in particular. This post is about a common pattern of behavior that I see a lot, in lots of different contexts.

    And now, a mini-rant (only partly directed at you).

    Is this going to keep happening? If I write about some general topic or some general pattern of behavior, and something related to Ophelia Benson — something she or her followers or her critics did — was one of many examples of that, is it going to become all about Ophelia? And if this is going to keep happening — for how long? Is there a statute of limitations here? Five years from now, if I write about a thing, and something related to Ophelia Benson was one example of it, am I still going to be hearing, “Why didn’t you write about the thing five years ago, when it was relevant to Ophelia Benson?” Am I still going to be hearing, “If this isn’t about Ophelia Benson, than what IS it about?”

    There are a lot of reasons I didn’t write about this while the conflicts with Ophelia were happening. I was mostly trying to stay out of the public debates; I was trying to not throw gasoline on the fire; I was mostly responding to the situation behind the scenes (something I can’t discuss in any detail, because I actually do take seriously the requirement that FtB backchannel conversations be kept private); I was overwhelmed and overextended (as usual); I was struggling with depression (more so than usual); I was dealing with major stresses in my personal life, having nothing to do with Ophelia or Freethought Blogs; I think the thing I wrote about here is a troubling pattern in general and I didn’t want to make this piece all about that one specific instance of it. But the main reason I didn’t write about it at the time is that I DO NOT WRITE ABOUT ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. I don’t even write about absolutely everything that I have serious problems with. Even as a full-time writer and speaker, I don’t have time to do that.

    I am sick to death of hearing, “Why didn’t you write about X?” I am sick to death of hearing, “You didn’t write about X at the exact time I wanted you to write about it — therefore, you don’t really care about it and are a hypocrite for talking about it.” I get it a lot from anti-feminists and anti-social-justice folks — “If you care so much about women, why didn’t you write about [example of something bad happening to women in Islamist theocracies]?” It’s really distressing to hear it from other feminists. Please knock it off. Thanks.

  18. 32

    To everyone else: Please, please, PLEASE: If someone else comes in here and tries to turn this conversation into the Ophelia Benson Show, please don’t respond. Please let me take care of it: I promise that I will, probably by blocking them or putting them into comment moderation — but I may not be able to do it right away, as I’m leaving for Skepticon tomorrow. I appreciate the support, but I really do not have time and energy right now to monitor and moderate this one derailment. Thanks.

  19. 34

    If you hadn’t said this wasn’t prompted by anything in particular, I’d have guessed it was due to the recent changes at Twitter and Facebook. The contrast is interesting: people have complained for a good long while that it seems weird to “like” e.g. a post about some personal tragedy, so now there are a (limited) range of different ways to react on Facebook, from anger to sadness to laughter. On the other hand, Twitter had a single, relatively neutral way to mark a tweet, that was used by a bunch of people for a bunch of different reasons, only to decide that only the “like” usage counted and flatten the whole range down to that one facet. It’s a weird case of people making a tool less generally useful by (it seems) willfully ignoring how existing users actually interact with it, and strange to see close on the heels of an acknowledgement of the exact opposite from Facebook.

  20. 35

    The impression I had from latsot’s post was not ‘let’s restart the examination of Benson’s behavior’ but rather ‘the examination of Benson’s behavior contained elements that closely match what is being criticised in the OP’. Is this not within the scope of the OP?

  21. 36

    Holms @ #34: Please note my comment #9 above, in which I said:

    I’m going to ask that this comment thread not turn into a conversation about Ophelia Benson, and the conflicts and controversies surrounding her.

    Any comments made after that which continued the conversation about Ophelia Benson were in direct violation of a clearly-stated specific boundary being set by the host of the space. Including your comment. Please don’t. If you keep this up, you will be put into comment moderation. This applies to anyone else as well. I don’t know how much more clear I have to be about this.

  22. 38

    I’ll say two things:

    1) It is absolutely fair to ask people about their online associations. If you lay down with dogs, you get fleas. If I’m on Twitter and I’m blocking people who are abusive to my friends, and I notice that you follow a bunch of abusive people… I’m not stalking, or being unfair in asking why you feel cozy with abusive folks.

    2) It is absolutely unfair to attack people because of who they choose to avoid on social media. There’s people who I have fun with on Twitter, and lots of their friends have me blocked. There’s people who I have deeper relationships with on social medial, and we have blocked each others followers. We all have a right to control our spaces. I think I block for good reasons. I accept that people who block me have equally good reasons. I don’t have a tantrum about “free speech” over it, and anyone who does is disqualified from adult conversations with me. 🙂

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