People Being People Online

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Social media is just people being people online. From sites like Facebook and Twitter, through to Livejournal, IRC, MUDs and email lists, it was behaviour more than the technologies’ intended design that shaped how these tools were used. Twitter’s hashtags, internet trolls, stalking ‘frenemies’ and ‘[Insert edgy, borderline amusing behaviour or phrase here]’ likes on Facebook¬† are more the result of emergent behaviour than design.


Online user behaviour is shaped by the features and rules of the environment within which it takes place. The tools available have a significant impact on the kind of community that develops and the social norms it adheres to. The contrast between the behaviour of a loose, anonymous community verses that of a close knit group of people using their real life identities is one example of how small differences in features can lead to contrasting behaviours. The difference between how people on Facebook act to anonymous or semi-anonymous members of forums such as 4chan (Link omitted),, and the MMORPG forum of your choice is significant.

How people act free from moderation through investment in their avatar, peer pressure, authority or social norms is different from when they actually have something to lose. The behaviour of a community’s members is the product of two conflicting factors:

  • Moderation by a perceived or real cost of violating enforced social norms
  • A tendency to maximise their own enjoyment through interaction.

Being a forum warrior or trolling is a lot more fun when people only know your avatar, but not when it loses you friends, respect and access. Any change to the user’s level of privacy can come with a high perceived cost.

The outcry over each of Facebook’s privacy setting changes and the storm that erupted when it looked like World of Warcraft (WOW) was going to introduce Real ID to their forums demonstrates just how significant consistent levels of privacy and anonymity can be to a community’s members. It is not that they may lose their privacy, but that the community evolved to match the current level, and a change would be immensely disruptive.

In some communities there are benefits to linking offline and online identities together. Twitter, as used by many marketing and design professionals, is a good example. The value of Twitter as a networking tool when used in this way is high. Like other open networks, Twitter can create opportunities for discovery within groups of shared interest and through mutual contacts. LinkedIn and other dedicated professional online communities also thrive in this paradigm.

Visual Vernacular

Visual symbols and other memes are an important part of human culture. As a product of shared experiences they can make a one group or subculture distinct from another. The creation and appropriation of symbolism and cultural artefacts for a differnet purpose predates the Internet. Sampling in early hip-hop, appropriated religious iconography, symbols tied to a common experience (like ‘Kilroy was here‘) and in-jokes are all examples of how ideas and imagery can become a part of a cultural vernacular.

Social media does not mark the birth of these tendencies, it merely enhanced existing behaviour. Through new accessible tools and expanded open networks it is easier than ever for an idea to spread and content to be created and find an audience. Before the Internet it was almost impossible for most people to create or appropriate media and incorporate it into a conversation. The change is not that Rick Roll videos and parody ads are being created at all, but that the tools are more readily available, publication is cheaper and more accessible and they are being posted as a part of normal online conversation via forums, new social media, email and instant messaging.

Video, images and audio are as much a part of interpersonal communication online as the written word. On Facebook, forums, Twitter and other forms of social media they are as much a part of the conversation as its subject. The difference between publication and conversation online has disappeared as the conversation around the media becomes more visible.

People will always be people, even when they are online. Actually, people will be people especially when they are online and assume a certain level of anonymity. These emergent patterns of behaviour are not that radical, and are an extension on existing tendencies. The change is in the options open to the individual.

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