Insights from sociology about moderating online
In her recent blog post, Sue raised some interesting questions about the gaps in our knowledge about online discussion groups. Specifically:
- When people participate in online groups, are they presenting the ‘real them’, or are they projecting a persona?
- If participants are projecting a persona online, what skills do online moderators need in order to manage or see beyond that persona?
Sue looked at this linguistically, but I am more ‘sociologically attuned’ so I put my sociological hat on, looked at the relevant academic data, and - researchers to a fault! - realised we had some questions to answer.
The front and back stages
The sociologist Irving Goffman described the way people interact as if they were on a stage; we either act as if we are on the front stage or the backstage of a mental theatre. The front stage is where people create the image of themselves and their lives that they wish to put on public display. The backstage is out of sight - the area where we permit ourselves behaviour or attitudes that contradict the front stage performance. That front stage performance also takes account of different audiences.
The front stage/back stage metaphor implies that people may suppress what they say on the front stage because they can see the audience’s reactions. Seeing social cues makes the boundary between front stage and back stage visible and distinct. The play, after all, is for the audience.
In the paper that Sue talked about, Peter Totman suggests that online bulletin board groups can more easily allow for the breakdown of the barriers between front and backstage ('the online bulletin board ‘group’ environment may initially lead to controlled output but once differences emerge between the participants, there can be quick change of pace and things become heated more quickly than in equivalent face-to-face research').
Online, the boundary between front stage and back stage has become blurred. Online respondents can’t react to someone’s accent, or to the way someone is dressed. They can’t hate a haircut or hear an angry tone of voice. This suggests that online consumers would react less to other people than they do face to face, and therefore, focus more on the content, perhaps. More ‘authentic’ responses from backstage could emerge as a result.
So one question we need to answer is – what difference does it make that the online ‘audience’ is unknown, ie that respondents do not know who else is in the group, and cannot use visual or aural cues to guess?
Wanting opinions to count
A second interesting perspective is how engaged and empowered respondents might be to share their thoughts and feelings. This comment on a study by Pew Research is interesting.
“One of the striking things in these data is how purposeful people are as they become active with groups. Many enjoy the social dimensions of involvement, but what they really want is to have impact" 1
This raises the second question: whether those who respond in online groups are more likely to expect their opinions to carry weight in the group. Are they more or less confident of being heard, and does this affect their response?
How strong are the ties ….
Thirdly, there is no doubt that the online environment provides a different space for the exchange of ideas than does sitting in a group room. This is not surprising, since the modern social world is fundamentally different too. For many of us, location is no longer a boundary to social interaction. Nearly three quarters of Internet users use a social networking site and it is increasingly an area of social comfort.
In the past, sociologists have distinguished between strong and weak ties in creating social capital. Strong ties are formed when there is trust and shared meaning between individuals. In the context of the online experience, there is ongoing debate as to whether strong or weak ties are created.
What about face to face? In some ways, as researchers, we have touted the F2F group as an instantaneous replica of a social network, recruiting those with a few similar elements in their profile, be it age, socio-economic status, buying habits or response to a few attitudinal questions. We all know from experience that moderators then often have to work hard to foster a temporary sense of community amongst participants, to expose shared meaning and generate trust.
In conducting online groups, it sometimes seems to us as if the respondents slip more easily into being part of this temporary community – so our third question is, how do they themselves feel about it?
Because all of these questions are fascinating, and because finding some answers would help us to manage online groups in the best possible way, Sue and I have decided to do some research amongst those who have participated in our online groups, to look for answers.
Watch this space…..