Does Facebook make people more polite?

For those of us who are cheerily hostile to Facebook, it might seem counter-intuitive to associate the platform with people being relatively civil to each other. However this research being conducted at the University of Kent, reported on the Democratic Audit blog, suggests that the identification and accountability which are intrinsic to the platform tend to engender civil interaction between users of the site.

One notable platform which makes its users accountable for the comments they make and the content they produce, presumably making them less likely to behave in an uncivil manner, is Facebook. The biggest online social network site with over 1.15 billion active monthly users, Facebook requires users to construct a public or semi-public (restricted) personality profile – using their real-name – through which they can traverse the site, engage in its many social functions, and connect with other users to form social networks. Users are encouraged to maintain relatively open and identifiable profiles that include photos, educational affiliations, religious and political preferences, birthdays, and hobbies. Profiles also contains a public space where other users have the chance to leave messages, post links, and connect with one another. Moreover, Facebook users are automatically notified via the news-feed function when other members of their network produce content. Thus, Facebook users are both identified with and accountable for their behaviour. Research currently underway at the University of Kent suggests that the increased sense of accountability that Facebook users experience may go some way towards improving the quality of online discussion by reducing the occurrence of uncivil communicative behaviour. Having analysed the content of comments left by readers of the Washington Post online, the study compared the occurrence of uncivil and impolite remarks in comments left on the Washington Post website, with comments left in response to the same articles posted on the Washington Post Facebook page. Uncivil remarks – that is, those which threatened the traditions of democracy and the rights of others, as well as those which included the use of stereotypical language, were significantly more likely to occur in comments left on the website version of the Washington Post where users were able to remain anonymous and unaccountable for their comments.

The question of how the particular characteristics of specific platforms encourage some forms of behaviour and discourage others is a fascinating one. Have you ever made the mistake of browsing Youtube comments?

Categories: Digital Sociology

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