Search This Blog

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Professional casualties of social media

I wrote this for The Conversation (click here for the original article), and I would like to thank Laura Hood, the editor for her journalistic touches! I would also like to thank Scott Metzger for kindly allowing to use his brilliant Santa cartoon.

So here it goes:

Anthony Fisher, a lecturer at Nottingham University, has become the latest casualty of unwise social media use after causing outrage with Facebook posts about his students and their intellectual ability, or lack thereof.

Public humiliation ensued, which in turn prompted official institutional statements on the matter that could leave Fisher with a mark against his name for the rest of his career.

He is by no means the first to become a pariah for failing to think before he posts. Fellow academic Geoffrey Miller, from the University of New Mexico, felt the heat last year after tweeting about “obese” PhD applicants and PR executiveJustine Sacco was fired after sending an offensive tweet about AIDS just before getting on an 11-hour flight to South Africa. By the time she landed, her missive had been retweeted thousands of times.

Unfortunately, the media frenzy that so often surrounds these cases only fuels the fire for those who oppose social media and can be devastating for the people involved. They find themselves at the centre of debates being carried out across continents between people they don’t even know and become the subject of mocking memes, as Sacco quickly found.

Sometimes, the backlash is so extreme, it could even be defined as cyberbullying. Messages posted in response can be threatening and can involve the friends and family of the person who sent the original.

Faux-outrage or rightful anger?

But what is it exactly that causes such over-reaction? Are fellow social media users really offended by un-PC messages or is it the fact that they have been picked up by an unintended and unexpectedly wide audience?

We all have concurrent identities for different audiences and perhaps that is the problem. We are professionals, parents, children, customers, neighbours, drivers, dog-walkers, bill payers and joggers. But these identities don’t exist in isolation. We “perform” them to specific audiences and behave as accepted or required by the role. We talk the way we are expected to talk about the topics that are validated and relevant to a particular audience.

The problem, however, is that very often these roles, these identities, are conflicting: topics, words and ways of saying things could be accepted or even required in one situation and in one community, but they might well be incomprehensible or even offensive in another.

This is exactly what happened in all the cases above. Fisher, for instance, made it clear in his apologythat he had meant for the post to be seen only by his close circle of friends and did not realise that his Facebook timeline was publicly visible. He said he had thought he had changed his privacy settings to hide his posts from people who weren’t friends on the network but that doesn’t appear to have happened.

If you think about what is accepted behaviour when you talk to your friends, moaning is probably on the OK list. In fact, in some relationships, it’s practically a requirement to “perform” in this way. We moan about work, the boss, “the wife”, the traffic, sometimes when we want to really moan and sometimes as a gesture of confidence or to show solidarity.

Throwing stones at Fisher or Sacco about what they said is nothing but double standards. If anything, they should only be penalised for not realising the type of audience they addressed - whether due to ignorance, in the case of Sacco, or due to lack of technical competence, as was the problem for Fisher.

Which persona to use today?

So is banning professionals like Fisher from engaging in social media the answer? Or would disclaimers, like “these views do not represent my employer” work? The answer to both is almost definitely “no”.


Reputational resource” is a crucial aspect of professional communication in our age. This is the sum of all interactions by and about institutions or organisations. It’s the tweets from your marketing department, the Facebook updates from employees about their office and the way you deal with public criticism. Social media inevitably plays an integral part in this these days.

When it works, it has been shown to do wonders for a brand, when it doesn’t, an organisation can let it be a problem or put a positive spin on it.

The answer is perhaps a more thorough understanding of the blurring boundaries between the professional and personal sphere, and more education on different audiences you are addressing when you voice your opinions online. First and foremost though, learn how to adjust your privacy settings.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Outrageous! Self-censorship on Facebook

When I skimmed the abstract of a recent paper on Self-censorship on Facebook, I was left in a shock, not only as a Facebook-user, but also as a researcher and academic. In outrage, I could not even read past the second sentence which stated that the authors collected data from “3.9 million users over 17 days” examining last-minute self-censorship. This cannot be right, I thought, and surely not legal, so I went directly to Facebook’s data use policy to check what is said there about collecting and storing UNPUBLISHED data. As I suspected, although there is a section on data Facebook “receives” about its users, like clicks, views, data about the devices on which FB is installed, nowhere is it mentioned that unpublished content is being collected, too. The fact that people - without my specific consent - have been watching my keystrokes made me feel very uneasy, and made me seriously consider deleting my whole account from Facebook.

My academic curiosity, however, was stronger than my Facebook-user outrage, so I went on to read the paper. I couldn’t get too far before coming to a halt again, this time caused by the outrageously inaccurate starting sentence of the whole paper:  “Self-censorship is the act of preventing oneself from speaking”. No, it isn’t. Self-censorship is critically checking ones message before sending, perhaps deleting or amending the content according to the perceived audience or predicted response. You won’t even need to check the literature to get it right (e.g. Hayes, 2007), just check any Thesaurus online. 
But past the unsupported, generalising statements, my favourite bit is the justification of doing this research, the explanation of how last-minute self-censorship can be “hurtful”, since members “fail to achieve potential social value”, and social media sites loose out on the lack of content creation. Is the paper really saying what I am hearing? That if I decide not to post (for whatever reason), I am depriving them from valuable content (=$$$)? Yes, that is exactly what they are saying: Understanding the conditions under which censorship occurs presents an opportunity to gain further insight into both how users use  social media and how to improve  SNSs to better minimize use-cases where present solutions might unknowingly promote value diminishing self-censorship”. I really can’t get my head around this: if they wanted to do a commercial study on “value-diminishing”, why didn’t they? Why did they have to disguise this wolf in the clothing of an academic piece of work?

Luckily, in the Methodology section the authors clarify their method of data collection, and it turns out that ultimately no keystrokes were recorded, only the absence of posting in the 10 minute interval following the commencement of content creation: “Researchers were not privy to any specific user’s activity. (...) the content of self-censored posts and comments was not sent back to Facebook’s servers: Only a binary value that content was entered at all.” 
The fact, however, that they only considered posts and comments that had been started but not published shows a very skewed picture about the whole issue of “self-censorship”. How about if I re-write the text of my posts/comments so that it does not contain the message I originally intended to share? Or even worse, I decide to delete a post one minute after it has been published? 
In this light, I am not sure what their finding of 71% of self-censorship means. Oh wait, they don’t know either: We suspect, in fact, that all users employ last-minute self-censorship on Facebook at some point. The remaining 29% of users in our sample likely didn’t have a chance to self-censor over the short duration of the study.” The rest of the paper gives a very detailed account of how user-related factors (such as age, gender and the scale and variety of networks) affect the frequency of “self-censorship”, but the ultimate conclusion they arrive to is that the users’ decision whether to publish a post or comment is hugely influenced by the perceived audience. Kinda old story though, don't you think Dr Bell?

Bell, A. (1984). Language style as audience design. Language in Society, 13(2), 145-204.
Das, S., & Kramer, A. (2013). Self-censorship on facebook. International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM),
Hayes, A. F. (2007). Exploring the forms of Self‐Censorship: On the spiral of silence and the use of opinion expression avoidance strategies. Journal of Communication, 57(4), 785-802.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

YHBT!!!* (You have been trolled!)

*You have been trolled! - An all too well-known phrase for the citizens of discussion boards, bloggers and social media fans. Trolls appear in the quietest, most unsuspecting communities, to deceive, upset and provoke - without any seeming reason.

With the rise of serious cases of cyberbullying, cyberstalking and RIP trolling, trolls have started to receive considerable attention in the mainstream media. But defining trolling is not as easy as it seems - for most, there is only a very fine line (if any) between sheer impoliteness or rudeness and deliberately upsetting a community or luring people into frustrating arguments. 

In a new study, Claire Hardaker set out to find and classify trolls. She analysed an 86-million-word USENET corpus to identify instances of perceived trolling, which were then classified based on the various strategies the trolls followed. 


The classification of perceived trolling strategies range from not openly acknowledged (covert) to very obvious (overt) strategies, and include six types, as shown on the scale: (1) digressing from the actual topic, (2) criticising, for example aspects that are irrelevant to the content of the discussion, such as spelling, vocabulary or grammar, (3) anthipatising with the original poster or community, (4) endangering other by providing misleading information, (5) shocking others, in particular regarding very sensitive topics, and finally (6) aggressing others by threatening or insulting them.

While Hardaker's classification is a very useful tool for defining trolling behaviour, the danger of it is that it can easily become the justification for labelling people trolls. In particular, when it comes to disagreement in a debate, he accusation of someone being a troll is often only justified by the fact that they represent minority opinion and not by deliberate intention to upset or deceive the community. 

The study repeatedly emphasizes that the analysis is based on how trolling behaviour is perceived, and not the actual intentions of the alleged trollers, and suggests that further research should incorporate both aspects. Volunteer trolls welcome.


Hardaker, Claire. 2013. "Uh..... Not to be Nitpicky, but... the Past Tense of Drag is Dragged, Not Drug.": An Overview of Trolling Strategies." Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict 1 (1): 57-85.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Instant Messaging in the workplace. Theory and practice: the great divide

I was getting ready for a class on virtual communication and preparing materials on the importance of IM in today’s virtual workplaces and I was trying to find a resource books on professional communication to include in my further reading list. I have consulted the textbooks I had available in my office only to find that the guidance they give is misleading, over-generalised and it seems like it has nothing to do with the actual practice of using IM in the workplace. I had a feeling that the authors of these publications have never actually taken part or seen IM interactions from real workplaces. It seemed like, I have, yet again, come across the great divide between theory and practice in professional communication.

The Effective communication for colleges, for instance, advises us to 

“Use appropriate vocabulary and language mechanics... Sloppy messages and weak language skills distract receivers, diminish clarity, and ultimately reflect poorly on the sender. Do not damage your professional reputation with style, grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary errors." (p. 115)

Seems like they are advising students to adopt a style but forget to say what constitutes that style exactly. What sort of language skills are they referring to? What do they consider appropriate?

For IM, the books tells us to 
"Be brief and send quick, short messages"
"Be professional" - defining professionality as sending only  proofread messages, and
"Avoid multitasking" - I'll come back to this one later.

Successful writing at work wasn’t of more help, either. The book advises me to only write about one topic at a time and not to include different topics in one IM exchange (p. 86). Well, anyone who has ever used online chatting knows that this is a rather hard thing to do, so again, I am not sure how the author expects me to achieve this. 

Then they say: Avoid unfamiliar abbreviations. As in an e-mail, commonly understood abbreviations such as “FYI” or “ASAP” are fine—even encouraged—in IMs. But avoid “textspeak.”

I like this one a lot, because -again- this piece of guidance leaves more questions open than gives actual information. Who decides which abbreviations are commonly understood? Why is FYI OK to use, but NP is not?

And of course the re-occurring: Be professional! Good thing is that Successful writing gives a bit more guidance as to what it means to be professional: Never send personal messages, tell jokes, spread office gossip, or attack a co-worker or boss in an IM.

Guffey's Essentials of Business Communication has similar things to say: Be brief and avoid chitchat, beware of jargon, slang and abbreviations, and employ proper grammar and proofread your messages.

Having read thousand and thousands of lines of IM interactions from a variety of settings, I can say that NONE of the guidelines above would actually be helpful in real life. Here's why: 

  • There are no universal rules for IM usage in the world of work, so there is no point in trying to make some up... There is nothing wrong with “textspeak”, it’s fine to use abbreviations, emoticons, and as a matter of fact, anything, as long as they serve to convey our intended meaning. Even ALL CAPS are FINE (and they don’t always denote shouting).
  • IM is one of the most important communication tools for people who work in distributed work teams. So “corridor talk” or “watercooler talk”, joking, teasing, small talk should not be banished, but quite the contrary. They should be encouraged, as -just like in physical offices- it is through these interactions that people create and maintain good and collegial relationships.
  • People do multitask. They are engaged in multiple conversations, or they work on something while chatting to a colleague. This is the nature of working virtually, so you can't not do it. What you can do, however, is learn how to maintain several threads, how to keep track to your conversations, and generally, how to use IM  in the specific environment you are in.
  • The key terms are not defined. When books talk about appropriate style, they should be specific. What does appropriate IM style mean? What is sloppiness? What is professionalism? If the authors find it hard to define these terms, it is perhaps because they ARE hard to define. These aspects depend greatly on contextual factors -  is IM intended to be external or internal only, what are the communication norms of the actual team, are there any discussed or perhaps unsaid rules of communication,  what is the purpose of the interaction, what is the relationship between the colleagues, how urgent is the task, and so on. 

Students should be taught to be flexible and competent communicators in any situation, including IM, and the only way of achieving this is  by showing them how language and discourse works in its closer and wider context of use. Prescriptivism and vague guidelines simply won't do the trick.

The books: 

Brantley, C. P., & Miller, M. G. (2007). Effective communication for colleges. Canada: South-Western Publishing.
Guffey, M. E. (2010). Essentials of business communication (8th ed.) Cengage Learning.
Kolin, P. C. (2012). Successful writing at work (3rd concise edition ed.) Wadsworth Cengage.

Monday, 19 November 2012

The gun-focus effect?

Today I had to sit through a meeting where an e-mail was scrutinized and identified as rude. I found the decision unjustified, in particular in the light of the fact that no communication was aimed directly at the people involved: the e-mail had all the usual (and expected) formalities - greeting, addressing, expression of appreciation, and even the ‘most critical’ points of the letter - the adjectives - referred to “the procedure”, rather than the addressee.

It is very hard to use objective, logical arguments in such a situation, however, mainly because computer-mediated genres, in particular asynchronous types, do not allow for instant revisiting, instant reformulation, instant clarification. There is no vocal tone to reveal intention, no loudness to signal anger or the lack of it, no non-verbal cues to clarify communicative intent. To make things even worse, the perception and interpretation of these written messages (both in terms of their content and intent) is greatly influenced by the social contextual factors related to the reader (see e.g. Ledbetter on the effects of the reader’s gender and the message timing in the perception of supportiveness of e-mails).It looks like emotions and emotional empathy are the key words in this issue - the emotions that are generated by  a written text and then perceived and interpreted by the reader, who is greatly influenced by his or her own preconceptions, computer-mediated communication competence and interpretation of the real or hypothesized non-verbal signals in the message in question. I think it is clear that we are standing on an extremely shaky ground for an argument about “who meant what and with what intention”. The question we can confidently argue about is rather “who reads what into the message”.

As I was listening to the arguments, I couldn’t help but recall the gun-focus effect - an effect that has been known in crime witness testimonies, namely that the witnesses were able to recall the central information (such as the type of the gun) with great precision, but could not remember the peripheral details (such as the face of the attacker). Researchers link this sort of memory narrowing to the emotions associated with the event: in the crime witnesses’ case the negative emotions allowed for the precise recall of one central detail, but not the peripheral information, whereas in the case of positive emotions associated with an event enabled people to remember several details of the event, but none with particular precision.

The reason why this topic came to my mind is because I couldn’t stop wondering how the emotions generated by a written message determine the details we are likely to remember? Could the reader’s negative perception of a message and the resulting negative emotions further narrow their focus to the elements of a message - to a critical word or expression - thus preventing him or her to see the ‘real’ content?

I could not find research to answer my question, but based on today's session, I have to say yes.

Ledbetter, A. M. (2008). Chronemic cues and sex differences in relational E-mail. Social Science Computer Review, 26(4), 466.

Yegiyan, N. S. (2011). Gun focus effect revisited: Emotional tone modulates information processing strategy. Communication Research, 39(6), 724-733.