Thursday, September 17, 2015

The spiral of silence - not just an online issue

Spiral staircase by aotaro, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by aotaro on Flickr

Social media should enable greater communication and discussion and the opportunity to interact with people we would seldom if ever be able to meet in person. In many respects these aims have been met but I get the feeling that the communication aspect is stagnating and that instead of real discussion we are retreating into cosy echo-chambers or simply exchanging pleasantries, selfies, cats and endless quotations. We naturally surround ourselves with friends who have very similar views as ourselves and so any discussions that do occur tend to be mostly mutual confirmation of shared values. In more public communities most people prefer to play safe and stick to non-controversial issues often in fear of provoking responses from net trolls.

The absence of genuine discussion is reflected in a study from last year by Pew Research Center, Social Media and the ‘Spiral of Silence’, that showed how reluctant people are to discuss potentially controversial issues on social media.

A major insight into human behavior from pre-internet era studies of communication is the tendency of people not to speak up about policy issues in public—or among their family, friends, and work colleagues—when they believe their own point of view is not widely shared. This tendency is called the “spiral of silence.”

The study showed that people were much more guarded in sharing their opinions on Facebook and Twitter than when discussing in face-to-face groups of friends and family. No surprise really. Did we really expect people to be more open online?  I suspect it is not simply a physical/virtual issue since we tend not to make controversial statements at face-to-face meetings involving large groups of people we don't know so well. Social media are the digital equivalent of sitting in a crowded room and in both spaces you generally focus on small talk and safe subjects. We only discuss complex or controversial issues in small groups where all have similar opinions and the risk of serious conflict is low.

In education this has relevance for our expectations of student involvement in online discussion forums or large classroom sessions. To get any meaningful discussion you need to break up the crowd into smaller groups and focus at first on establishing a comfortable and supportive atmosphere. This reminds me of Gilly Salmon's five stage model for online learning which emphasises the online socialisation phase as the key to deeper engagement. This process generally takes time and effort but only when the members feel at ease and safe with each other will they begin to explore more uncomfortable issues and risk any kind of conflict. I think we are often too impatient with online students, expecting them to open up too quickly and not allowing the groups to settle before introducing more complex tasks. Simple socialisation activities should not be underestimated and the first weeks of the course should focus on team-building. If that magical group feeling can be established the real work can then begin. Without it the spiral of silence kicks in.  

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