People choose to share certain things via social media mostly because they confirm something about their view of the world. Even if the story or image is “shocking” on one level it’s more likely it’s being shared because it fits with an existing narrative rather than disrupting one. Understanding our own narratives and those of the people around us is an important part of developing digital identities and digital wellbeing.
“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it” Jonathan Swift
Attention in social media
This week we found out via the BBC about a 10 year old boy in Lancashire who had been questioned by police and social workers because he wrote in a school activity that he lived in a “terrorist house” rather than a “terraced house”.
As you can imagine, this become widely read and retweeted via sites like the BBC, the Guardian and social media.
I can’t link to the Guardian’s original article, though. It’s been removed pending an investigation. Lancashire police have complained about misrepresentation as the Guardian and the BBC reported later.
At the very least, and as you’d expect, the story looks to be more nuanced than the initial headline and accompanying interest on social media.
It’s a pattern that happens a lot; a story grabs attention and sparks strong emotions then a little while later either a different truth or a more complex picture emerges which gets a lot less coverage.
I’m interested in why this happens and what it says about why we pay attention to certain things online. A while ago the New York Times did a piece on this that tried to describe what’s going on and why it happens. It concludes, in relation to an unfounded rumour that a woman had had a 3rd breast implanted:
“That hoax may seem silly, but it’s instructive about the problem with rumors — they’re often much more interesting than the truth.”
That’s fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t really explain why we find something interesting in the first place. We’re swamped with information on the web so what is it that draws our gaze and incites us to action, even if it’s only to click “share”, “retweet” or sign a petition?
I think it comes down to the narratives that we make for ourselves about the world.
Comfort and disruption
We use stories as a way of making sense of what’s going on around us. Without these structures we’d be dealing with vast amounts of data so we need to filter it and stories give us a framework for doing this.
Here’s a fictitious example to illustrate what I mean.
Imagine every morning my daughter heads off to school at around 8:00. I always say “hope you have good day”, she smiles, gives me a wee kiss and I wave her off from the doorstep.
I think this confirms for me a few things about how the world works. It means my daughter is happy to go to school and that we have a good relationship. I’ve built up a narrative around it and there’s comfort in its repetition.
Now, let’s say this morning was different. This morning, I was ready at 8:00 to say goodbye to her but she was late. She was disorganised, had to be reminded about her bag and when I said “hope you have a good day” she said nothing, leaving the house quiet and sullen without looking at me or saying anything.
How does that fit my narrative? The pattern has been broken and it feels uncomfortable. I need to find an explanation why things happened differently. It might be a momentary blip or it could be the first sign that my narrative about our relationship and how school is working out is about to change.
So, two stories. One that matches the pattern and maintains a comforting narrative; one that breaks the pattern and disrupts the narrative. But why is this relevant to sharing behaviours?
I think the reason we give our attention to things on the web isn’t just because we find them interesting. I think it’s because these things relate in some way to our existing narratives but the question is whether this is to do with comforting narratives or disruptive ones.
Looking back at the Lancashire schoolboy example in it’s original incarnation, it’s tempting to see this as a disruptive narrative. It’s quite shocking, certainly out of the ordinary but I actually think it got so much attention because it appealed to an existing narrative that people had rather than challenging the basis of one. It’s impossible to say definitively what those narratives were because they’ll vary by individual but I’ll speculate for some it will be because it confirms a narrative of an over-bearing state, unfeeling bureaucracy or maybe their feeling about schools, police or social workers.
Seeing other people share the story confirms the narrative and gives a sense of belonging and shared understanding of the world. Sharing it deepens that engagement.
I suspect that the vast majority of news items, videos, inspirational quotes and images are shared not because they are actually shocking in any fundamental sense but because they are, at their core, comforting.
When the more complicated picture emerges later, as it did in the “terrorist house” story, in most cases (not all) it just doesn’t carry the narrative appeal. How many times do you see people saying on Facebook “that thing I shared yesterday? Turns out it’s a lot more mundane than I first thought”?
If something we see does actually shake our narrative view of the world that brings along many more complicated emotions and psychological responses. These sort of transformative events happen much more rarely and people may even choose not to pay attention to something “true” if it erodes the certainty of a prevailing narrative. The narrative shocks makes us vulnerable and I think most people would be reluctant to share anything like that openly , at least until another narrative has formed to take the place of the old one.
Digital identity and well-being
This is probably all stating the bleeding obvious but I think it’s worth thinking about, particularly if we’re involved in helping people make sense of digital identity and their well-being online.
Questions we might want to ask are:
- How can I understand my own identity by looking at the things I choose to share?
- How might other people’s narrative about me by affected by the things I share and does that conflict with he first point?
- How can we understand the narratives of people in particular communities online whether they align or clash? Are there risks in trying to draw these conclusions?
- How does these narratives shape social or political action?
- When and how should we challenge these underlying narratives and explore what alternatives might exist as educators.
Look at your social media timeline in Facebook, Twitter or Linked In over the course of 24 hours. Pay particular attention to the more sensational posts if there are any. What can you tell about the underlying narratives at work and how are they shaping action and relationships?
Its also quite instructive to look at the language that people in the public domain use and what it tells you about the narratives they are constructing, particularly around contentious issues. Try this story for starters…
Baumeister, R. F., & Newman, L. S. (1994). How Stories Make Sense of Personal Experiences: Motives that Shape Autobiographical Narratives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(6), 676–690.
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Harvard University Press, London.
Image: Facebook’s infection by Katie Sayer CC-BY-SA 2.0