I spoke at a school administrators' conference this week about social media. "It's nice to hear some good things about social media," said one of the ladies in the audience. "Especially after all the negative things we've been hearing about how the riots in the U.K. were caused by social media." I know the answer to this one, I thought. I wrote a column on this just last week.
"Social media didn't cause the riots," I said. (I confess to being a little disdainful on this point.) "I hope David Cameron grows to understand that. It's no different tp phones; they can be used to encourage or incite."
"Oh, good," replied the lady. "And what do you think about kids bullying each other on social media? I mean, I suppose it's no different to phones, either --- kids bully each other through texts all the time."
"But it's not the same at all!" I cried -- and then I heard myself.
Is it the same, or isn't it? Is social media to blame, or isn't it?
First, allow me a moment to explain my reaction on the bullying issue.
Bad behavior is bad behavior. It can occur anywhere: on social media, through texts, by phone, face-to-face. People should be held accountable for bad behavior wherever it may take place.
But behavior on social media, good or bad, has a different effect than behavior on more intimate communications channels. If I send a bullying text, the recipient suffers. But if I post a bullying comment on Facebook, the recipient suffers and is humiliated publicly, and I give implicit permission to others to copy my bad behavior.
But who am I, to give permission to anyone? I am more powerful than you might imagine --- and so are you. We are the reference points for our peers, as they are ours, in the self-reinforcing phenomenon of social proof. Robert Cialdini, author of "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion," says of social proof: "Multiple others and similar others -- those are the key amplifiers of the social proof effect. If you can get people who are similar to the person you're trying to persuade to speak on your behalf, it's a lot easier for you than if you have to try to hammer your message one more time into a reticent mind."
Social media is the ultimate facilitator of social proof. After all, there is a high likelihood that I will be similar to my Facebook friends. And if I see them behaving a certain way -- whether bullying or uplifting -- I am more likely to behave that way myself. On an innocuous level, this is why Sponsored Stories ("Michael likes MediaPost, click here to Like it too") are so effective. It's also why movements that take hold on social media -- whether positive or negative -- can become so amplified, so quickly.
I haven't changed my mind about David Cameron's idea of banning people from social media; I still don't think it's a wise move. Social media was still not the cause of the riots, and people inciting or engaging in violence still need to be held to account regardless of the medium. But the more aware we are of the drivers of our own behavior, the more conscious our choices can become. And the better our governments understand the nuances of issues like these, the better equipped they will be to make wise decisions about how to engage with their communities.
I welcome your thoughts on this issue, in the comments or on Twitter.