We need to work out the social norms of social media: Why?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about David Brooks’s column on today’s version of evolution and the new survival of the fittest: survival of the most cooperative, whereby people develop moral communities and the social norms that help those communities succeed. Then I watched Brooks’s TED Talk about a new humanism that’s emerging which expands on that. It’s not the right-leaning New-York-Times-columnist part of Brooks that has struck me, but rather what he’s seeing (and eloquently expressing) about this profound shift we’re all in the middle of – one that I believe is more about our humanity than our technology. I’m seeing what Brooks is seeing from my viewpoint too, at the intersection of youth, the Internet, and parenting. I know it’s an uncomfortable shift for many parents and educators, but it’s ultimately a progressive and even healing one, I think.

In the TED video, Brooks says that “for centuries we’ve inherited a view of human nature based on the notion that we’re divided selves, that reason is separated from the emotions, and that society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions…. This has produced a great amputation, a shallow view of human nature” and – he says at the end, briefly putting on his political analyst’s hat – a lot of policy failures over the past 30 years.

Becoming undivided in the digital age

Looking at this from the perspective of online youth, I think we’re seeing the new-humanism revolution here, too, and we’re experiencing this revolution while using a revolutionary medium (social media) that – by the new conditions it presents us (disinhibition especially, but see also the conditions described by researcher danah boyd) – is almost forcing us to reunite reason and emotion, policy and values, in order to use social media successfully (and avoid more policy failures in this field too). Why does it call for a more undivided, balanced approach? Because the medium we’re talking about is social – any policymaking around it concerns human behavior, sociality and creativity. [BTW, when I say “social media,” you know I don’t just mean “social networking,” right? By “social media” is meant all media that have social or collaborative features, and there are many: e.g., blogs, wikis, Google docs, social games, texting, virtual worlds, photo-sharing, vlogging, tweeting, online auctions, etc., as well as Web- and phone-based social networking, whether educational, recreational, transactional, etc.]

Social norms support safety, success

The arrival of social media, the medium of people’s own interaction and production, requires us to work out social solutions at least as much as the top-down regulatory ones that were created for the top-down, one-to-many media of our childhoods. And the main social solution, as in all of life, is social norms – the social norms of a medium that is also very much a “space” where interaction happens. By definition, this social medium requires us to work out those norms both our and our children’s own safety and success in this space. And, unprecedentedly, the medium is requiring the social-norm-development process to be a conscious effort on the part of every user – naturally including young users, for the very reason that they are producers, participants, and contributors to its collective product (see this) and no longer just consumers. This is the new media literacy we all need to have (for more on that, see this).

But we’re not starting from scratch! We have social norms in offline life and our online and offline lives are increasingly enmeshed, so really we just need to be sure they govern our online and in-media experiences too.

From a control model to an agency one

I see this as a tremendous opportunity for humanity and more specifically for children and families. It may feel very uncomfortable to shift from a control (parental or government) model to a user-agency one, which is part of what user-driven media are requiring of us, but the good news is that agency and participation…

* Promote parent-child communication
* Foster both emotional and cognitive intelligence, and
* Increase young people’s confidence and self-actualization.
* Teach us how to function and thrive in community, which is protective and supports each member’s well-being (see this).

I think we have to work through the discomfort quickly, with as much grace as possible not only because of the benefits but also because these new participatory conditions are upon us. But the shift doesn’t put the onus only on individuals (as in requiring self-control); it puts the onus on all of us collectively to get on with adopting and reinforcing the social norms that foster and support that self-control and respectful behavior. It’s going to take time, but as awareness of the need grows, we will all be engaged in it – in homes, schools, and online communities such as Facebook, Xbox Live, virtual worlds, multiplayer online games, etc., with the help of their providers in the media industry, and perhaps some intelligently written laws (I wrote in March that Facebook’s new “social [abuse] reporting” is an early example of how social media services will be contributing to online social-norms development).

I keep writing about this in different ways, inspired by fresh evidence of this thinking wherever I see it. I’m working to raise that awareness, and hope you don’t find it boring because – if not and if you’re with me on this – maybe you’ll help me with the awareness-raising by tweeting or liking it or doing your own writing and letting me know so I can send attention your way! And watch Brooks’s talk – it’s not boring at all. It’s inspiring, and I bet it’ll get you thinking too.

Related links

* “Survival of the most cooperative?”
* “Online sometimes ‘alone together’ in a room”
*Pink shirts in Canada: Ultimate social norms model”
* “Social norming: SO key to online safety”
* “Online Safety 3.0: Empowering & Protecting Youth”


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