Is social media just talk radio on meth?

Through social media I’ve been following a couple of issues recently. It has lead me to have questions about social media, particularly the conversation aspect. A news story, a blog post or a Facebook page has comment tools or “like” tools and the original item acts as an initiator to a conversation.

I’ve noticed a few things in the ones I’ve been following and it’s possible the nature of the topics has influenced the character of the discussions, but here they are:

The emotional quality of the comments have not been reflected in the real world. While the pro/con aspects seen online (most in favour or most against) may be reflected there, the emphatic nature of the opinions is not. In fact, what has appeared online as something people were raging about was reflected in the real world as calmness and sometimes indifference.

I’ve also seen the negative appear to be much more engaging than the positive. In other words, there appears to be a desire to vent against something, more so than a desire to promote or cheer something. In one case in particular, a Facebook page was created to support something and gained many followers – people who were giving their support. However, though doing this, for the most part they were venting against the reasons for the need of support.

In many ways, it reminded me of talk radio. Having worked in radio, including talk radio, I know that giving people a chance to be against something, to vent, gets listeners much more quickly engaged than the opposite. That’s why there are so many talk radio shows that sound like angry cranks run them: that’s where the audience is, it’s where the money lies.

One of my questions then is this: does what we see via social media reflect how people actually think and feel?

Other questions: If it does reflect how people think and feel, does it do so in a way that distorts it? To what extent can we give it credence? And why are people so eager to rant and less eager to voice what they like? Is that question even valid?

I noticed something else about Facebook pages that I think leads to distortion. A page had been set up to “Say No!” to a particular issue. It grew as such things tend to do. Looking at the wall comments, people were angry and venting and making various statements.

Here is my problem: Seeing the comments, I occasionally wanted to comment, such as saying a fact wasn’t accurate or an argument was illegitimate. I couldn’t do so without joining the page which would add me to their numbers and suggest I supported the position when the opposite was true. So there was little or no debate on this page – it was people telling one another things they wanted to hear.

To some degree, this is a Facebook problem due to wording and how pages are set up but it is more our problem due to how we choose to see and interpret such things. And that leads me back to the questions I have about the legitimacy of what we see as social media conversations.

Is social media simply a handy tool for cathartic venting? Or is there some value to what we see? If so, how do we determine how valuable it is, to what extent does it really reflect the opinions of people and, perhaps more importantly, the emotional commitment we have for issues, artists, products and on and on?