How Will Online Socialization During COVID-19 Change Us?

Now that more of our social lives are online, how will they change?

Posted May 12, 2020

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Shelter in place and self-quarantining have dramatically changed our social lives.
Source: Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels

During the current period of shelter-in-place, we are all spending more time socializing online. This means a lot more time socializing through posts on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other text-based platforms. These platforms subtly shape the way we interact with each other. What will that do to our relationships and social skills long term?

First, social media sites offer very specific types of feedback. You can see “likes” and comments (or replies), but not subtle nonverbals that tell you whether someone is a little skeptical, slightly curious, or confused. You can’t tell when someone is agreeing through “back channeling” behaviors (like saying “mm-hmm” or nodding along), and that means you can’t shape your comments to suit your audience. In fact, social media communication is largely context-free: Most comments are public, so they aren’t targeted to a specific person, taking into account how that particular person would interpret them. Instead, you only get feedback when a threshold of emotional response compels someone to post.

The native forms of social media are “posting into the void” and “lurking”—the two sides of a failure to connect, facilitated by the lack of information about who you are communicating with. People’s thoughts, beliefs, and stories are competing with cat videos, Wikipedia, and sensational “infotainment.” Social science research has shown that activating emotions like moral outrage can break through this apathy to get responses and reposts. For example, a study by William J. Brady and colleagues estimated that each additional “moral-political word” in a social media message increased the likelihood that it was shared in the network by about 20%. This was a large predicted increase relative to just sharing moral information.

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Moral outrage increases how far a message diffuses in a social network.
Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Further, we crave attention. A study by Natalya Bazarova and colleagues found that people were more satisfied with their personal and emotional Facebook posts when they got more replies, confirming that we’re happier with our social media experience when we get responses. The facts that we want attention, and that outrage and other intense emotions are a reliable way to get it leads to a feedback loop shaping behavior. Over time, people will naturally tend towards posting strong political opinions that resonate with their friend group.

Longer-term, this period of intense social media use could change relationships because relationships have histories. They are built up over time, and they can be hurt or broken through disagreements. Repeated emotional, political posts can alienate our friends with differing beliefs. These friends may start to see us in a different light, and there will not be as many opportunities to strengthen and mend relationships in friendly face-to-face conversations about what you did over the weekend.

Further, there aren’t good mechanisms for gently tempering a friend’s opinion. In a conversation, a small frown or a decision to change the subject can let someone know you don’t completely agree without opening it up as a major issue. Online there is no subtle disapproval: You either open up an issue—which can often be perceived as hostile—or you ignore it—which can be interpreted as implicit approval. Without this feedback, we may not be aware that friends or colleagues are subtly annoyed or put off by our posts. Their opinions might be that a brief post with an emotional slogan is too simplistic, and that even if they might agree with some kernel of the idea you’re expressing, they don’t want to sign on for the extreme position. Their opinions of you might change, too, without you noticing. They never said anything, but slowly they started to see you as more biased and a less reliable source of information. That could influence whether they trust your opinion on other matters.

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Another six months of socializing primarily online could lead to communicating the same things to people who think the same way.
Source: Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

The more deeply troubling implication is that our entire social networks—all the online connections we have with other people—will get shifted over time towards those who most agree with us. We start posting “normal” conversation topics, but we find they don’t elicit much of a reaction from our “friends.” We post one or two political articles that make cautious, well-reported statements about an issue, but nevertheless come down slightly to the right or to the left. These get positive engagement from people who agree. Perceiving more engagement and mostly positive responses to this content, we post more political content, with a bit more bias. Further positive engagement turns into a feedback loop where we slowly end up incentivized to post full-throated partisan content supporting our new online identity. Friends who only mildly disagreed pull away from us, and new friends who are even more partisan are drawn to and encourage us. This is a process that already happens on social media, and heavy use of these networks by more people could just accelerate the trend.

So what happens after another six months of heavy online socialization? We all become a bit more ok with posting extreme political content, and our friends all become a bit less different from each. We lose track of who doesn’t feel strongly about an issue, or the people who want a reasonable centrist position. And our society forgets a little more about how to work together.