Thursday, June 27, 2013

Being ignored online is very different from offline

Some years ago I said that every time Facebook changes its user interface, it virtually chops comebody's leg off, making him or her unable to walk. Maybe it isn't that good an analogy, but I mean to say that interface changes force people to relearn basic functions of the site - and this is a site used by more than one billion people, and for many of them Facebook is a very important part of their social interactions with other people and also a storage space for their writings, photo albums and other stuff.

At the time I was studying at University of Michigan and attending Professor Cliff Lampe's eCommunities course. I was mostly concerned about how the interface of a social networking site (or system) limits a user's interactions with others in everyday situations, and its changes disturb the mental model users have developed. In the offline world, you don't have to relearn making a phone call or riding a bicycle - actions that are quite elementary, just like private messaging would be on a social networking site.

What I did not consider at the time is how the online world changes the concept of ignoring others - or getting ignored or thrown away from a social group.

Today's peculiar events

This question was inspired by an interesting occurrence that happened this morning. I actually got banned from a Facebook group ("Paskimmat puujalkavitsit" - Finnish for "worst puns") after I criticized its admins for seemingly deleting members' posts in an arbitrary manner. Admins did not state a reason for the surprise ban, and now I cannot return to the discussions I had, or see the member list, or see the list of admins who may be responsible for this. Facebook did not notice this banning in any way - there was not even a notification.

Actually, when you try to enter a group where you have been banned (for example, from a URL still in a restored session), Facebook says that such a group cannot be found, and the reason for this is unknown - it could be that you are banned or this group does not exist. So, you might or might not be banned, nobody knows, and there is nobody who you could ask.

I think the group's admins have the right to dictate the group as they wish and kick people out if they like (though it would be more polite to just ask them to leave). Social interactions are still social interactions, even if they happen online, so there exist concepts like politeness, crudeness online as well. However, the actual event of ignoring or kicking off somebody on Facebook is very, very different from the old, boring, offline world.

Exclusion in online world

If you get thrown off a night club, there is maybe a mean bouncer doing it, hired by the company running the night club. The situation is probably unpleasant, but you can try to talk to the guy. You can talk to his boss. The club is not going anywhere. Also, if you are a member of an association, they probably cannot throw you out just like that - they have to go by their own rules. In the case of Finnish non-profits, dismissing a member against approved rules of the association is something that you can take to the court - and once again, the association and its people are not going anywhere, nor is the house where they hold their meetings.

If you break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend, they still exist. Their home exists. Even if you don't want to meet them, you might bump into them on the street. You are supposed to behave yourself even if you disagree and give each other space and let them be grumpy if that's what they want.

In the online world, exclusion can mean that the entity that excluded you just ceases to exist. Or - in this Facebook group's case, Facebook would not even admit whether it has knowledge of the said group or not. It might exist, it might not. Maybe you are just dreaming and it is you who has a problem.

In today's case, I was actually concerned whether I could even control the content I posted to that group, but since I could not even see it, I could not delete it either. All my interactions go through the Facebook Black Box, which contains magic.

In the online world, the entity that excluded you is in a state that is even worse than not existing. Facebook, which is like laws of nature for its own universe, has its own Uncertainty Principle. Within these laws of nature, even the knowledge of the virtual non-existence of the entity that excluded you is forbidden!

Not that I would care so much in this case. As I said, they can dictate their group, and if people don't like it, they can leave. However, soon one of the admins (let's just call him "Pirkka" to protect the innocent) sent me a message but instead of explaining the rationale for the ban, he accused me of deleting the group's attachments (files that are attached by admins for the use of the members of the group) and apparently also hacking my way in, since it is difficult to imagine how I could even access those files if I was banned. Pirkka also said I was being very childish and not a good fit for the group (whose existence Facebook will not confirm) and that my vandalism has no effect because they have backups.

Implications for social interactions

There have been many stories of people getting banned from social networking websites or whole proprietary ecosystems (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon) including all their services (gaming, social networking, netdrives, purchased ebooks, other subscriptions), because of some "violation of terms of service", without getting explanation of what has been violated. Many companies have some "community rules" and possibility of reinstating their account, as dictated by the companies themselves, and if the company doesn't cooperate, it doesn't have to.

You lose your access to everything you had within that ecosystem because the company chooses to, and by the law it does not need to state a reason - unlike governments who have to provide their services to you by law, companies can choose their customers, and it reads in their terms of service that they don't have to serve you.

Now, you lose your whole online world and there is no bouncer (mean, friendly or otherwise) you can talk to, no boss to complain about the bouncer, and regardless of what you say, they can choose not to believe you, even if you had never done anything wrong. And worst of all, it happens by somebody clicking a button that says "lock account" or something similar, maybe even automatically. This cold corporate behavior - often described Kafkaesque - is making its way into social interactions of ordinary people, because you can do the same thing to your online friends.

It's not just about not answering calls any more. It's wiping unwanted people from your spectrum of interactions altogether - something that many people have dreamed of, I'm sure. If a people you know behaves badly, or if you just feel like it, you can exclude his or her online manifestation from your online life often with just one click (or two, if "Are you sure?" counts), and because it is so easy, here is no room for words. Why ask somebody to leave when you can disintegrate them? Why waste time being respectful if you can erase them with one click?

Conclusions

I believe the capability to totally exclude people online (by companies, groups and individual people) has already shown how it can make interactions very cold and make the person in control totally ambivalent about the fate of the "victim" - it even encourages this. In some cases it can reduce the complex social behavior of the homo sapiens into a game of people being "within my universe" or "I don't care, as long as I will never ever have to acknowledge their existence". I believe (I cannot cite any study to support this!) that this is also the reasoning behind throwing trash into the nature - when the trash loses contact with the litterer's hand, it virtually ceases to exist, which is why littering does not matter to the litterer.

My approach to this is that because in the offline world we have to coexist with about seven billion people, we ought to coexist with them online as well. There are no "governmental social networks", so our online interactions happen largely within proprietary services that operate to generate money to their operators and where users do not have "human rights", except of course if the company decides to portray itself as altruistic, which it may choose to do, but which may not matter in most situations.

My rant is not about forcing people to interact or talk to people they don't like. It is about concern for the development of the concept of exclusion in the online world, which I fear will become even more stringent - just because it is easy and possible. And in the end, people are tempted to choose quick and easy short-term solutions if they are available, and social networks make them available - just one click needed!

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