2 of 4: A simple experiment
In the first section, I presented a small experiment on consensus building within an online social networking environment.
This second section presents the results and preliminary discussion, to share few thoughts about what differentiates this new environment from the usual mass-media.
As I wrote in the previous section: re-discover the past to look into the future, and win the audience as individuals, not as a group.
The key issue is simple: mass-media does broadcast messages, while the new media allow person-to-person communication, and potentially convert each member of the audience into a “message repeater”- both online and offline, but lending her/his personally credibility (few people post comments and then remove them when they change their mind).
Each member of the audience can use various means to show a personal involvement- but, as the choice is personal, you can often generate a stronger and longer-term emotional link with the position assumed than you would get with, say, standard “mass-media broadcast” politics.
The upside: an higher level of commitment than when the member is just part of the usual “crowd”, notably in relationship-oriented cultures.
The downside: depending on the level of commitment, and the cultural background, you risk having no second chance- each member of the audience could develop a “tunnel vision”, and a resistance to fact-based arguments.
It is a kind of snowball effect: the more somebody shows support to a position on new media, the more they need to confirm that they were right- to a degree often unknown in everyday verbal communication.
Another dimension of analysis is the level of integration of the specific individual within the new communication approach: and it is not just the standard, age-related differentiation between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”.
The paradox is that those who do not even bother to care about the “mechanics” of new media and just use them as a set of communication to integrate in their own everyday life are probably the ones benefiting most from the new media.
In my observations, younger and older users are the ones that are best benefiting- exactly for this reason.
The risk? A partially overlapping set of expectations- and plenty of misunderstandings.
And this is certainly something worth considering before using new media to build consensus.
In traditional mass-media, your audience has limited, no access, or deferred access to communication channels: online, anybody can publish anytime on almost any channel.
But there is something more: “consensus” online is not limited to showing support- but also to acknowledging the “communication territory”: something that in old, face-to-face politics, was quite well known.
The results of the experiment
I collected results on three online social networks, but I will focus in this discussion only on Facebook, as it contains, within a conveniently small package (one picture), most of the information needed for the discussion.
Before, I would like to thank the three contributors:
The first element is the “form” of contribution: as you can see, it can range from using what is specific to Facebook (the “like” button), to mimicking the spoken language, to written communication.
The second, the “form” of approval: the “like” is really more a delegation than just approval, it is an unqualified support, but you can use both the “like” and the comment to qualify your support (or disagreement).
The quest for consensus online
A rhetorical game that I play with an online friend is what I call “wall jacking”: commenting to a wall posting (e.g. a status update, as the one shown in the picture), and, by slightly shifting the communication to ancillary subjects, along with somebody else slowly moving onto another subject.
In our case, it is usually well accepted- as we never distort the original message- simply, we expand the “communication territory” of the thread; moreover, we do it under something written by the owner of the wall- so, (s)he can at anytime stop the expansion.
But quite often you see it in its crudest form, when comments criticize or willingly alterate the original message- basically, comments appear on what the author would have liked to read, not to what (s)he read.
Most people do not bother to read the full thread- but glance over the original message, and then actually “see” the most recent comments- and the lack of face-to-face interaction removes certain social constraints on communication.
If you want: if you reply, you cannot control the spin, as you would do with traditional media, and risk “hosting” in your online communication something absolutely unexpected- and undesired.
That’s why, beside the content and form, also the venue matters.
If you are “testing the waters”, use a space where you can “moderate” the communication, i.e. clean up if something deemed offensive for the audience is presented.
But beware: censorship backfires, and it is better to either drop altogether the “thread”, or to let a general consensus on the need to remove the offending comments be presented by other members of the audience.
Structuring the message
I learned the hard way that writing a single phrase or page to convey to an audience a message is more complex than writing 10 or 20 pages.
But those extended dissertations are usually the best tool to “preach to the choir”, and would appeal to an existing audience (friends and foes alike).
Sir Richard Branson delivered an unexpected clarification of the same principle.
Suffering from dyslexia, he said once that part of the success of Virgin is due to its straightforward messages, with highly visual marketing campaigns.
His concept? If I can read and understand it, anybody can- on a micro-attention span.
While he developed and applied his concept within mass-media, he often started or supported each campaign with highly visible stunts, where he was personally involved.
The purpose? Deliver something that was unique, attention-grabbing, and relatively cheaper than the usual flooding of TV and radio airwaves- and his own presence was the common thread between all the various Virgin initiatives, not just a narcissistic exploit.
Incidentally- he, obtained each time plenty of free mass-media coverage.
Again: being an iconoclast could pay- but what matters is also consistency.
Otherwise, considering the short attention span, your risk confusing your audience- and, thanks to the low cost of online publication, produce material more useful to prepare parodies of your own communication, than to increase visibility of your message.
And, online, this is even more important: as any potential member of the audience would probably be on the receiving end of tens or hundreds of messages everyday.
Before reading the next section, an humble theoretical framework (in the “walking on the shoulders of giants” spirit), why don’t you simply start your own small experiment- or look around for other examples?
Maybe you could identify your own framework- to adopt for your own purposes, target audience, means, and messages.