My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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New Pew study on tone of social network sites

Pew Internet & American Life Project just released a new study called “The tone of life on social networking sites” where they examine adult meanness and cruelty. This complements their piece on “Teens, kindness, and cruelty on social network sites.”

Like teens, most adults find people on social network sites to be kind. But what fascinates me about both the adult and teen studies is that frequent users are more likely to witness negative exchanges. (Not surprisingly, young people are more likely to be frequent users which helps explain part of why young people report higher exposure to negativity. Cuz, guess what? Adults and teens aren’t that radically different.)

But what I want to know is: why?

Most folks will probably jump to the conclusion that SNSs produce the meanness and cruelty and, thus, frequent use means more exposure. I suspect that this isn’t the case. Instead, I suspect that the types of people who are drawn to and use SNSs frequently are more likely to engage in drama, meanness, and cruelty. But who are these people?

I especially want to know more about the adults who are more likely to have negative experiences. And I really want to know if there’s a connection between teens and adults when it comes to negative experiences. For example, are teens who have bad experiences online likely to have parents who have negative experiences? Or are they totally unrelated? I can imagine it going either way. More things to think about…

In the meantime, if you’re interested in the issues of bullying, drama, meanness, and cruelty, make sure to check out these two Pew reports. They’re fascinating!

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9 comments to New Pew study on tone of social network sites

  • Perhaps it’s a similar effect to that of 24/7 news – the meaness and cruelty has always existed, but we would never ordinarily be aware of it, in the same way that the developed world is generally safer for us than it has ever been, but the need to fill the news means we hear about far more incidences of crime and violence.

  • gregorylent

    a yogi would say ego … when self-concept/identity feels threatened fear is at play. … adults have learned a little bit more about what is “actually” threatening and what is not … only a little bit more, though, than the identity-forming stage that adolescents are undergoing…. adults still can freak out about many silly things like beliefs.

  • Sid

    You know what the most interesting finding of this study is? That people who put together studies like this think that “helpful”, “negative”, “mean”, “kind”, “generosity”, and other social evaluative terms aren’t culture-bound and interpreted within widely varying cultural matrices.

    There was some excellent work in studying the prevalence of rape perpetration that was done by asking the subjects if they had ever committed specific acts, without naming them as “rape”. I would like to see something similar done with relational aggression online — something much more specific and interesting to study than “meanness”.

  • @Sid excellent comment. ‘Meanness’ = bias and the result of a study anticipated before it even begun.

    Some time ago, I wrote a comment about the first study http://not-really-goth.livejournal.com/69520.html being flawed. It seems like two factions here, (1) that accentuates guidance, and (2) self-consciousness of teens as in movies like Donnie Darko http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0246578 . In order for teens or parents to support the second more humanistic approach, it needs time for building trust, and news coverage. That is extremely difficult, as local media (at least in Europe) increasingly grew dependent on professional lobbyist snippets, like those of teachers’ associations and school boards. These then dominate the argumentation in the public eye.

    Pedagogic concepts usually treat teens as children, and this relies heavily on bullying; that there is at least one outsider per class who serves as a valve for teen’s boredom. Being treated like a kid is stress (back then, in the class we asked ourselves all the time how on earth we could feel prepared=safe for later joblife, with the kind of education we got), and that produces satiric response, which is being redirected in form of peer pressure. The “mean teen” is both a myth by teachers (what they fear, to be laughed down at the blackboard), and a dynamic. It excuses conclusions and avoids taking action, while they could be very well open provided the stress-level carefully reduced, in order to give it a fair chance.

    I agree, what makes it a reality is, teachers and social pedagogues have such a strong income and standing in political parties, that noone can compete with that kind of money and pressure groups. In the current climate, would a research team destroy its reputation if not at least on the surface supportive of established views?

  • K3

    The people who fall in the outlier range of usage for social media – the very frequent users – report witnessing the most conflict-y drama. To a middling-user of social media it seems like the obsessive user is highly correlated with creating and perpetuating drama, too.

    This does not seem much different than in-person social interactions, where the people who most identify with a scene spend the most energy policing the behavior of others in that scene to create a set of shared group values.

    It would be interesting to compare the behaviors of the high social media engager with the IRL scenester – if they experience above-average drama, how often are they the policer, the policed, the attention seeker, the drama relay, etc?

  • As I think people are suggesting, the additional complication here, is that, where negative sentiments are expressed on social channels, it is often for a wide range of reasons, that are not always obvious to the person on the recieving end, sometimes due to failure on their part.

    Yes there are places on the internet where people are cruel, apparently for their own amusement, but there are also places that react strongly to self promotion or failure to observe community rules for very good reason. There are places in which people’s willingness to tell brutal truths is actually much healthier than leaving them unspoken for fear of causing offence.

    I’m the last person who would minimise the seriousness of bullying, my school life was a living hell. But mixed in with all of the other things that I would suggest need to be addressed, as part of any approach to bullying, is a lot more emphasis on introspection.

    I think that there is an understandable resistance to teaching kids to reinvent themselves in response to bullying, that often misses an important point. If they are exhibiting behaviors that genuinely exacerbates the problem, and which can be addressed, ignoring that isn’t doing them any favours in their life beyond school, either.

    Criticism is not bullying, something that far to many of us fail to learn in school, and which still influences many people’s interaction with the internet.

  • Elizabeth

    I haven’t had bad experiences in my SNS, but I tend to lock them down to people I know. The bad experiences I have had online (i.e. flame wars) have all been with relative strangers. I think it’s similar to road rage in that adults are more likely to be mean to a stranger. It sounds inane, but I am amazed at what people will say in public online that they would never say face to face.

    In terms of bullying, I guess it could be “heritage.” Neither my parents or my aunt were very popular in high school….and guess what, neither was I. I guess I considered being an unpopular geek the “norm” in my family and never considered what I could change. Actually that’s not true – I did adjust in some ways so that my high school life was more tolerable than some people I’ve heard of, but I don’t really have friends from high school, and I don’t think my parents really did either.

  • Mikkousha

    I’ve had Internet access since I was 13-14 (I’m 24 now) and I think part of what I perceived, then and now, as being mean has to do a lot with my culture. When I was a teen I felt like people who were older than me had a tendency of being rude and they didn’t understand web-manners. Even when I’m interacting with people my age who’ve had similar experience, I can’t always tell how they’re saying something or if what I find offensive is a part of their culture/slang. I joined a writing site with people from all over the world and my use of a word that’s slang and not really that offensive where I live caused a big problem (I ended up leaving.) I’ve come up against people who are mean just to be mean, but on the average forum or in the average chat I feel the negativity mostly comes from social/cultural differences.

  • Bonnie Sutton

    I read this and thought of the pioneering days of the Internet. I have been working for years with technology. When ordinary people started on the Internet, I remember some researchers complaining that we teachers needed to get off of their important listservs. I was on a lot of them as a teacher, and as a civilian working with DMSO. The original listservs were known for “flaming” and some of it was so terrible it would shut the lists down. SNS seem to be a lot different in flavor. While we speak on sns and other ways of sharing sometimes it is the culture, sometimes it was the misinterpretation of thought
    …maybe I picked my friends right on Facebook, and maybe people who picked me on Google+ know who I am.

    Sociocultural discussions are .. interesting. Political ones are the ones that
    I kind of pause with. Of course, I am not a kid. I just thought a perspective from
    someone who has been in technology for a while might be helpful. Young relatives and I
    often have a difference of opinion about how SNS should be used, but then
    eventually they changed and understood based on information from outside like your research but also on the advice of friends ( and other relatives) . That’s a good thing.
    Keep up the good work. I was so surprised at the way you understood the drama thing.
    What great work you have done.

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