WARNING: This blog post is rated R for mature language.
It’s almost impossible to interact on social media without seeing nasty arguments or scathing comments between people who, in real life, are probably nice. So why do social networks often breed negativity?
At a recent Social Media Week panel, Len Kendall and Nicole Rehling of Carrot – The VICE Digital Agency, explored the psychological causes of negative conversations on social media, and what brands, publishers and agencies can do about it.
To view the full presentation, you can get a digital pass here: SMW Insider. The pass will also let you view other fantastic panels from SMW events in New York, Los Angeles, London and Chicago.
Here's a quick recap of this panel:
Why People Act Like Jerks on Social Media
This video from Key & Peele is a good (and hilarious) example of miscommunication, which is one really simple reason for why people get nasty online:
Everyone has seen a family member or a friend be kind of a jerk on social media. Maybe you were even that person recently. So let’s dive in and understand why:
1. The lack of disconnect from societal repercussions.
“Online conversations are nothing like what we experience in our life,” said Rehling. “We are removed from the impact of our poor judgment or the mistakes we might make.”
If harsh words are directed at you on social media, you’re literally a couple of clicks away from ceasing that person’s connection to you. As a result, people show less restraint and spew negativity much more often.
2. The self-esteem paradox.
On social media, many of us cultivate our networks in such a way that constantly have people telling us how awesome we are – and eventually we begin to believe it. Not only might we start to believe we are better than we are, but we might start to believe we are better than a lot of people around us.
“When you have this sense of ego that develops because of all this constant attention and praise, it makes it really easy to criticize other people who you perceive to be less interesting or smart or attractive than you, especially when those people are not getting all the internet praise you are,” said Kendall.
Internet praise is becoming a sort of social validation, he said: If someone isn’t getting as much as you are, they must be inferior to you.
3. Mob mentality.
Before social was really popular, you had a small handful of people who could take your brand down – maybe a journalist or a comedian. If a brand did something stupid, a someone would make a joke about it, and then people would talk about it at a bar, and that was the end of the cycle.
Today, everyone can react to everything.
In 2015, KFC posted on Facebook about the new Colonel Sanders. More than 900 people took the time out of their day to comment on whether or not they liked the new Colonel Sanders.
“It’s silly, but it’s proof that we are being force-fed debates,” said Kendall. “And again, it’s an easy way for us to be right, and sometimes it makes us kind of be jerks.”
4. Pushing others down lifts some people up.
“Unfortunately, social media has made it really easy and efficient to be a bully,” said Kendall.
We watch shows like “Real Housewives” and gossip about coworkers because, a lot of times, we can show ourselves that somebody else is worse off or has a worse life, and it makes us forget about our own problems. But while you might feel better for yourself for a short amount of time, that feeling is temporary. People who get pleasure from this behavior have to do it over and over again.
5. Broken patterns.
With platforms like Facebook and Instagram adopting algorithms that serve us content we’re predicted to like, content that falls outside of those norms becomes much more obvious to us, and enables a defense mechanism to react and use negativity as a form of getting our point across faster: “This is not my belief, this is not my opinion, and I want you to know it.”
Navigating the Waters
The foundation of any kind of social or PR plan is to make sure you’re studying existing conversations around the content you’re either building or publishing.
Rehling cited a Carrot project in which they partnered with Cartoon Network to build a Powerpuff Girls avatar generator to commemorate the relaunch of the series.
“It was widely successful, but as we were discussing the user interface and the user experience, we did some pretty extensive research on other avatar makers that have been built,” said Rehling. “We looked at their response in the social environment and what things were said about them, and paired that with a lot of the conversations that were happening around that time on gender norms and gender stereotypes. We actually provided Cartoon Network with a recommendation to not include a gender selection in the user interface experience.”
At the time, it felt like a small decision. However, once it launched, the press picked up on the decision and touted Cartoon Network for taking a forward-thinking measure.
And there’s really no excuse to not do that every time, said Kendall.
“There are now 10+ years of social data, and anything that you want to put out there, you can pretty much go back in time and find something else that someone created that might be similar to what you want to do. There’s plenty of room to study conversations in the past and learn from what worked and didn’t work.”
Know When to STFU
Sometimes, replying to something negative can draw undue attention to it and actually cause the problem to be bigger, said Rehling.
Brands should also be careful when inserting themselves into trending conversations, added Kendall.
One example is AT&T. On the anniversary of Sept. 11, the brand decided to post this picture, which they meant to be a commemoration. However, people saw this as opportunistic and inappropriate. AT&T publicly apologized and took the post down.
Sept. 11 is one of those topics that brands don’t really have a place commenting on, said Kendall.
“AT&T has done a lot of great work, but this is a misstep,” he added. “They shouldn’t have this controversial subject because there was really no way of winning.”
Looking Into the (Near) Future
Kendall and Rehling cited three trends that all marketing pros should be looking to in the near future:
1. A return to one-way conversations.
With Snapchat and Facebook Live, there is a trend of moving back to broadcast conversations or talking-head scenarios, said Rehling. And while this does discourage trolling and limits people’s ability to provide negative feedback, it also means the content is less discoverable. It’s a one-way conversation.
2. Closed communities on the rise.
In terms of more traditional forms of communication, closed communication – like messaging – is growing. For brands, the upside is that people might vent about your brand privately in a messaging platform, as opposed to publicly on Twitter. The downside, of course, is that it’s harder for brands to participate in messaging platforms.
3. Virtual reality: the unknown frontier.
Kendall sees VR impacting brands with customer service in particular.
“It’s really hard to make someone happy when you’re trying to solve their problem over Facebook or Twitter or email,” said Kendall. “There’s so much context that isn’t there. But if you imagine virtual customer-assistance people who are helping you to solve your problem, and you can see them and they can empathize more easily with you, this is actually a really promising thing.”
Virtual reality, he added, will help brands solve problems more easily and de-escalate any other issues that pop up.
View more SMW panels with the SMW Digital Pass here: socialmediaweek.org/insider/