Attempting to Drive From the Backseat

Source: Commons Wikimedia.org
Source: Commons Wikimedia.org

Using social media can be like trying to drive a car from the backseat. I suppose it can be done. But you may not end up where you intended, requiring the apology-equivalents of an ambulance. 

Commercial networks usually follow a rule to withhold scheduled airline advertising if there has just been a crash involving a major carrier. The proviso is in place at the request of the carriers, who have no interest in having their ads appear next to a report of carnage on the ground.

It makes sense that any presenter of material would want to know as much as possible about the rhetorical neighborhood in which it is supposed to appear. None of us want to have what we assume is a private conversation with a person who on a speaker-phone in a room full of people. To send our thoughts out with no regard for when and how they will be seen is a recipe for trouble. To greater or lesser extents, most of us share the same concerns of the airlines that a message needs an environment that is supportive and more or less congruent with what we have to say.

This kind of situation-specific behavior is a hallmark of our social intelligence, not to mention the source of a lot of comedy, when someone says the wrong thing in the wrong place.  It has always been a cornerstone of effective persuasion to “know the audience and the setting.” The logic that goes with it is obvious: our words should fit effortlessly within the situational context.  For example, politicians know that disaster looms if a private conversation happens to be captured by a live microphone.  Just such an event was Mitt Romney’s Waterloo for his 2012 campaign.

It strikes me that the same kind of challenge is present in social media. We send messages. We comment. We post. But the circumstances for the presentation of our thoughts are mostly beyond our control. Comments viewable by the public or even just “friends” are frequently placed within a thread of other reactions aggregated by an unknowable combination of logarithms and sheer coincidence. And the effect—especially in platforms such as Facebook—may not be what we expected. Facebook “notifications” of someone’s updated “status” deliver us to pages of photos and comments posted by others that can leave a user uncertain about what is new or different. To a friend who seems to be successfully on the mend from a serious operation it’s easy to offer “Congratulations!” and miss a newer post about new and unwanted medical complications. More than once I’ve been mislead into offering a comment that could appear to others viewing the site as insensitive or simply foolish. Without a lot more time on the page (which is, after all, what any site hopes for) I could not have known what others have said on the same topic, and what triggered a thread that pulled me into missing a rhetorical bulls-eye by a mile.  In communication terms, this is known as the problem of a “boomerang.”  Comments intended to have a positive effect do just the reverse.

My view is that using social media is somewhat like trying to drive a car from the backseat. I suppose it can be done. But you may not end up where you intend, and the apology-equivalents of an ambulance may be required. The problem is reflected in the words of marketing experts who have noted that its mostly impossible for an advertiser using Twitter to know who exactly they are reaching.  This is a long way from the ability of marketers to track the web habits of consumers, who can know exactly what a consumer ready to buy is looking for.

Even so, the open-ended nature of social media represents a sea-shift away from ability to identify and target a specific audience. The very fluidity of these platforms is partly what makes them exciting.  But there is little doubt that they impair our ability to adapt to a specific set of human targets, with the consequent effect of posts and responses going off-message. The result is sometimes a catalog of potential slights: ignoring, offending, bewildering and failing to acknowledge the people with whom we wish to connect. There is irony in the fact with increased ease of making connections we have also made  it easier to misunderstand what others are saying.

Comment at woodward@tcnj.edu