The Oversharer (and Other Social Media Experiments)
What new norms are we evolving via the use of social media?
Way back in 1967 sociologist Harold Garfinkel proposed that the social world was filled with hidden rules for behavior that were so taken for granted it could be very difficult to notice them even if you tried to. To make this point he famously sent his college students home for spring break with an assignment: He asked them to “spend from fifteen minutes to an hour in their homes imagining that they were boarders and acting out this assumption” (p. 38). In short, they were to be polite to their families and note what happened.
It turns out that people aren’t polite to family.
As family norms were broken the result was often pandemonium. Unsuspecting family members quickly diagnosed their children as ill… or even insane. Speaking politely to your parents is so unusual that most families took it as cruel mockery, or as a kind of elaborate, unsuccessful joke. Students found the experience unaccountably stressful, given the apparently innocuous instructions. Garfinkel’s experiment is now widely known as “the lodger” or “the boarder.” He advocated this technique of de-familiarizing everyday life by challenging some unstated assumption as a way to discover the existence of hidden norms. He called it “breaching.”
What would Garfinkel’s breaching experiment look like if we designed it to investigate emerging norms in social media? In the class that I teach at the University of Illinois called Communication Technology and Society we set out to figure this out. Here is a sampling of some of the breaching experiments we designed and conducted. (Siddhartha Raja, Matthew Yapchaian, Dawn Nafus, and Ken Anderson contributed to this list.)
I’ll list the experiments here but not the results. Note that a few of them produced results we did not expect. Dear Internet: Can you think of any other social media norms to investigate with norm breaching experiments? This is like making your own failbook for the sake of science. All new Garfinkels welcomed.
Social Media Norm Breaching Experiments
- CHATTY FLICKR MARKUP: Sign up for an account and find users on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/) that you do not know. Try to start a conversation with them using the “add note” tool and the “add your comment” box to mark an image that they have uploaded. Try varying the kind of image you comment on from those that are very personal (wedding, kids birthdays, etc.) to those that are very impersonal (buildings, landscapes) and see how the reactions vary. Note that you may have to post a lot of notes and comments to get any reaction. You may have to try different and creative strategies to get people to respond to you. Describe the reactions.
- GCHAT STRANGER. If you have a gmail account already, use gchat to begin chat conversations with people that you don’t know (or don’t know very well). Vary the kinds of things you say to see if you can get them to start a chat conversation with you. Describe what kind of chat message will successfully get a stranger to chat with you on gchat. Remember to be polite and respectful at all times. Note: You may have to try to gchat A LOT before you get someone to respond to you. Do not keep trying the same people if they do not respond.
- WAY OFF TOPIC. On Facebook or a similar site that has threaded conversation (e.g., status updates with replies), over a period of three days leave a large number of comments that are all completely and obviously off-topic and not relevant to the thread. For this to work, there can be no relation between the reply and the topic at all; just start talking about something else. If you like, address some of them to the wrong person as well. Describe the results.
- FACEBOOK WALL INQUISITOR. On Facebook, friend five strangers — people you don’t know (maybe friends of friends). Once they accept your friend request, post a public comment to their wall introducing yourself and asking them about themselves. In your posts, do not refer to any friends that you have in common; just talk about yourself and ask them about themselves. Try to get information from them about themselves. (You must start this assignment before Monday for it to work!). Describe the responses.
- ONLY ONE MEDIUM. Choose one popular communication technology. Only use that technology for 3 days. (e.g. Use Facebook direct messages for ALL communication even when it is obviously inappropriate or impractical.) Describe the reactions.
- ALWAYS MIX MEDIA. For 3 days, always “mix” media–always respond to a communication using a different medium of communication than the one that was used to contact you. (example: if you get a phone call, let it go to voicemail then SMS them. If you get an email, send a picture to their phone, etc. Respond to your twitter @’s in person.) Describe the reactions.
- THE OVERSHARER. Pick either an acquaintance you don’t know that well or a parent. In a 24 hour period dramatically increase the amount of information you send this person using a text-based mobile communication technology that you know they can receive (likeIM on your phone, text/SMS, or e-mail on your phone/PDA). For example, you could communicate with them every time you do anything (“hi I am getting on the bus”, “arrived in class,” “class is boring,” “having lunch,” “talking with friend.”) Describe the reactions.
- LAPTOP ALTRUISM. In a public place, ask to borrow a stranger’s laptop “for a second” to check something and then spend an excessive amount of time using it to do things on Facebook. If you get no reaction or the overall experiment is very short, repeat the experiment with another person.