Is social media making me meaner?

I was chatting with a colleague earlier today and he asked for my input on something he had recently heard. Basically, he suggested that social media is making the population snarkier. The reasoning goes a little like this:

(1) If we assume that the reason most people post status updates, comments, Tweets, etc. is to get attention, and

(2) If we assume that snarkiness is more likely to get attention than otherwise banal posts, then

(3) Logically, people should be increasing the snarkiness of their postings.

Since I am rather obsessed with observing these media outlets, my friend asked if I had noticed this. And I had to really think about it. The logic does have a degree of face validity. It makes me think of Generation Me, a book I bought a year or two ago that I still haven’t read (I’ve been busy!). The book looks at people born after about 1970: a generation of people who are more self-absorbed and have less respect for others than their forebears. For the me generation, it often is about “me, me, me,” and social media support the projection–and sometimes shouting–of that individual’s identity throughout the world.

Look at Twitter. I will admit I am an avid user, and I use it for a variety of purposes, from keeping in touch with friends to posting news links to venting frustration (in 140 characters or less!). But if we break Twitter down to its most basic question–What are you doing?–it perpetuates the idea of me! Me! ME! The same can be said of Facebook status updates, which can be updated innumerable times a day if one so chooses.

But moving back to the question at hand, I have a hard time believing that social media are reshaping users’ identity in such a way as to make them snarkier, meaner, or posting solely to get attention. Obviously, these sites let users play with identity in a way that is more difficult–or even impossible–in an offline interaction. But why be mean to a friend on these sites when they know where you live? With Facebook at least, a key difference in these interactions from more anonymous sites is that the vast majority of Facebook “friends” constitute pre-existing offline relationships (see Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007 for empirical support).

We can also look to other forms of media as introducing snarkiness into our daily lives. The two examples that pop to mind immediately as homes of snarky content are someecards and lolcats. So then, the question becomes: are sites like these a response to increasing snarkiness or are they making snarkiness more acceptable? Or both?

For me, the most basic question I come to is, Is snarkiness even a problem? I am about as snarky as a person can be, but I generally constrain my snarkiness in such a way as to make it clear that it is a part of my sense of humor and not a comment to be taken seriously. I also find myself evaluating my relationship to the individual before commenting on a photo or status update or responding to a tweet, and the snarkiness only comes out when I know the person will appreciate (or at least understand) the joke. But do I do it to draw attention to myself? Without probing too deeply into my subconscious, I would say not really.

So while I think this rationale for posting is feasible, at this time I don’t think it is necessarily the case. As ubiquitous as they are, SNSs still have something of that new car smell for many users, who still get excited when they find an old friend or when someone posts a picture from back in the day. People are genuinely interested in the conversation and interaction, much more so than getting their 596 friends to notice them. While I hate the saying, “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” it is true for many people. Then there are people like myself and several of my friends, who gauge the closer of our relationships by how deeply we can insult each other (it’s harmless fun, I swear!).

Regardless, I think I’ll be taking a closer look at my Live Feed over the next week to see if any patterns of postings jump out to support this idea.


3 thoughts on “Is social media making me meaner?

  1. The first thing that comes to mind, for me, is that the architecture of the particular social media site has a huge impact on how these sorts of things play out.

    Facebook is all about relationships, sharing information freely, and organizing groups and events, so it isn’t horribly snarky. You get attention by building friendships, not being a jerk.

    Twitter is about unidirectional “follows”. Tweeters are more concerned with whether the people they are following give them valuable information, and with ensuring that they are giving valuable information to their own followers (who are not necessarily the same people). If someone gets too snarky, they’ll just lose followers, so I haven’t found twitter to be too snarky.

    YouTube, on the other hand, is out of control. I saw a tweet today describing YouTube comments as “the most racist place on earth” (link: The architecture of YouTube is geared entirely towards getting attention – views, comments, stars, etc. The social aspect of the site is just a vehicle to get more traffic, and most of the comments occur on the most popular videos in a way that emulates mass media more than social media. As a result, the comments are so snarky (or flat out offensive) that I can’t even be bothered to read them.

  2. I just got called “evil” and “as crazy as a right wing nut job” on FB when I posted some objections to Obama’s policies on a friend’s post about Ron Paul. My friend wasn’t mean; her friends jumped on me. The personal quality of the comments is what gets me. Not “I disagree that Obama’s policies are as bad as you say,” but “you are evil.” I don’t think this happens a lot, but enough that when this happens I sort of feel like giving up FB altogether. Usually I just block the person so I never have to see their comments again.

    • How interesting that you say this, as this is one of the focuses of my current research at MSU. We’re really interested in the interactions between people who are not friends on sites like FB.

      A possible reason for your experience. While SNSs are not anonymous, I’m guessing the people who are calling you these things are not people who you may run into at a party. Of course, the potential issue here is that you may be dragging your mutual friend in a fight, which isn’t fair to them. I feel like this is what keeps most people civil in interactions such as yours; however, it is obvious that is not always the case. Depending on the relationship between your mutual friend and you (and the people who called you evil), this could have a negative effect on one or more relationship dyads. Alternatively, people can do what you done and just block the person.

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