Social media arrived in reality before anybody had given their effect on societal environments any thought. Based on a misapprehension of how humans interact as social beings, political processes today have been replaced by extensive networking, introducing new rules to how people form and shape opinions. Democracy as a form of government is weakening, while autocracy is on the rise.
In his essay, Marc Nottelmann-Feil gives a matter-of-fact overview over developments everyone of us has already experienced for him- or herself. He illustrates why this revolution in human communications makes reconciling the interests of individuals, political groups and nations more difficult rather than easier.
Marc Nottelmann-Feil read Japanese Studies, Mathematics, Logic and Philosophy of Science. Since 2000 he has been working for the "EKO House of Japanese Culture" in Duesseldorf. He is a Buddhist priest of the Jodo Shinshu school.
The Structure of So-Called Conversations
At first glance, what seems to be going on in the Facebook groups are conversations. But if we look more closely, we find that these "conversations" are different from the conversations and discussions we have in real life or participate in at political party meetings. The first difference is semi-anonymity. Apart from the few scanty variations of emojis, we are not only cut off from non-verbal communication channels in this medium (leading to all the pitfalls and disadvantages we have already encountered with e-mail), we don't even know the true identities of the people using Facebook. All personal information in a user profile can be manipulated at any time; it is no more than a shell covering a nicely draped network node that was electronically generated by the Facebook environment. Hence, we don't know who we are dealing with. Is the user old or young? Is the user serious or just trying to play a role? Is the user an investigative journalist? Or maybe the user is a Russian spy, or the disciple of some Brazilian guru? True, we are right to assume that most people would behave the way we do. They are likely to disclose some of their personal information and be honest with us. But even then we read short texts from total strangers and write them open e-mail messages. How is mutual understanding possible in such an environment? Isn't it exactly those short statements that are highly dependent on the person uttering them and the context in which they are uttered? On a church congress, the short sentence, "And may God bless you!" has a different meaning than on a leftist party convention. How can any exchange of thoughts work at all in a reduced setting like this?
A social-science experiment that to my knowledge has not been conducted yet could run as follows: Each pupil in a school class is instructed to write messages containing 200 characters each on ten slips of paper and throw them into a big box. Then, at random, the messages are drawn from the box and read out to the pupils without telling them who wrote it. After each message the pupils are asked what they think of it. Will this experiment add to the tensions in the class or relieve them? - The experiment can be conducted with several variations: For instance, the pupils could be instructed to write up the faults of a classmate without mentioning his or her name. In the second round, they could be instructed to guess who wrote a particular sentence and to whom it refers. Of course, the experiment would have to be announced as a game aimed at building mutual understanding and relieving tensions in the class. In the event there had been tensions in the class before the experiment, I venture to guess what the outcome of this test design will be: it will be disastrous for the way the pupils treat one another, causing the situation to spin quickly and totally out of control. Every instant of mistrust, envy, and wounded pride will come to light, and any solidarity there may have been in that class will be damaged beyond repair. Talking about a person without knowing that person is an extremely dangerous communicative situation that is rarely found in real life, yet it is the defining principle of communication via Facebook.
LET US HAVE A LOOK at the way the discussion develops in a Facebook group! As we have seen, the most natural form of communication is face-to-face communication. The people you talk to are in the same place at the same time as you and you have known each other for some time, unless you are Columbus establishing first contact with the natives of the New World. In what way exactly does Facebook abolish this unity of time and place?
Facebook does little to mask its basically technological set-up. Communication is structured like a tree, one that is turned upside down, to be precise. The first posting you can enter, for example the rather trivial question "What are you doing at the moment?", forms the tree's root and remains visible as the "conversation start". Below the conversation start is the comment level, structured like a list. It would be possible to number the comments consecutively, which would allow people to immediately identify the structure as a list. This list proceeds to grow new branches: Item 3 can be expanded by further sub-comments, creating the subordinate items 3.1., 3.2., etc. Even these subordinate items can be commented upon separately, creating a third-level sub-thread (3.1.1. 3.1.2, 3.1.3., etc), though third-level sub-threads get followed rarely.
Facebook's original intention may have been to offer its conversation groups some kind of notice board for publishing opinions and comments. The first user sticks a note stating his opinion to the board and people happening to pass by read the note and stick notes of their own stating their opinions below the first note. On a computer or smartphone screen, however, display options are very limited. With a real-world notice board, there would always be the option to move into the second dimension, arranging the second-level thread horizontally while continuing to arrange the third-level thread vertically. The screen of a computer or smartphone, however, allows only vertical movement: scrolling.
The designers of Facebook were right to assume that very few people's thinking is as structured as theirs. Who would actually be thrilled to plough through a list sub-item by sub-item: 3., 3.1., 3.1.1., 3.2., 3.2.1., 3.2.2., . Only philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein who wrote his Tractatus logico-philosophicus in this structured style would enjoy this type of text. Hence, the clever decision was to present the users with only what's absolutely necessary: in addition to the initial posting, users can see only the two or three most recent replies, everything else is hidden from view or packed into an indifferent link saying "View more comments". - Goodbye, lines of reasoning!
Are these message lists an actual conversation? This is hard to imagine because a real-life conversation requires all participants to be in the same place at the same time. Courtesy requires people to answer questions and not ignore anyone completely during the conversation. Facebook has done away with all these rules, for obvious reasons. Yet, Facebook conveys to its users the impression that they are using this medium for reflection and thinking something through together with others in a kind of public brainstorming. - Does Facebook actually work that way?
LET'S OPEN a long Facebook conversation in its entirety to examine it! Anyone attempting to seriously evaluate such "conversations" needs finely tuned philological instincts. As users frequently respond only to the two most recent posts, "conversations" dart this way and that like dialogue in the Theatre of the Absurd: trivial and witty comments, sublime and offensive remarks - all frequently appear in quick succession, seemingly without any logical connection to one another. This medium is without memory, it keeps bubbling away and seems more like a patient with Alzheimer's who repeats himself over and over.
Yet, among the many branches of this "conversation", we keep stumbling across exchanges that show a coherent thread of conversation. That is because Facebook notifies its users as soon as someone has responded to their posting or comment. When they respond, their reply is integrated into the appropriate branch of the conversation thread. A type of locally open e-mail exchange ensues that may last a couple of hours or days at the most.
As a matter of course, these sudden encounters between strangers as arranged by Facebook - without smiles, handshakes or a joint dinner - do not always take place under a lucky star. As a result, something frequently found at this level of a conversation thread are heated exchanges between opponents who have repeatedly clashed before and simply cannot understand their counterpart's mulishness. Each of them simply wanted to nail their personal opinion to the message board and walk away, but instead they meet someone else wanting to do the same with his - opposing - opinion. Haven't they each made themselves clear enough?
One strong ego locks horns with another equally strong ego in a setting largely unfettered by social conventions. For all intents and purposes, such a situation is almost laughable and more of a funny intermezzo - with a snag though: those involved don't see through the simple set-up of this digital arena and are dead serious about it all. If you take a sober look at the storm fronts clouding this type of Facebook "conversation" you'll find that you're witnessing the emergence of the enraged citizen from the suds of digital small talk.
Users at the top level of the conversation don't get to notice much of these quarrels. Discussions like these ensue as a consequence of Facebook's notification system which links all responses at a sub-commentary level that never makes it to a conversation's top level. If they were to give it some thought, the realisation that they're fighting a lonely fight most of the time would come as a bit of a shock to the squabblers. In general, everybody believing they are showing off to the public - ie a group of about 1,000 members - in an educational discussion is fooling themselves.
WE HAVE TO KEEP CHANGING OUR PERSPECTIVE CONSTANTLY in order to examine how Facebook affects its users! Normal users may not have that much to do with the cockfights going on in the nether regions of sub-commentary. Normal users are sitting in a...