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Will enterprise social networking lock down opinions?


The various enterprise social network applications that are flooding the market are designed to foster a spirit of collaboration within the organizations in which they’re deployed.  Central to this collaboration is of course a culture whereby people feel confident and empowered to offer forth their opinion on a wide range of issues and topics, deploying their knowledge where it is best suited.

Suffice to say, the rise of social networks in the public sphere has been much swifter than that in the enterprise sphere, so are there any cross-over lessons that can be learnt?  One such may derive from a recent study conducted by researchers at Rutgers University and Pew.

They were looking specifically at the role social networks play in encouraging people to venture their opinions on various topics.  The findings suggest that rather than giving people a soapbox, they are actually encouraging them to keep their views to themselves, especially if they may prove somewhat controversial.  It’s something the researchers are referring to as the spiral of silence.

In other words, unless people are confident that their social network will agree with what they say, then they tend to refrain from saying it.

“People do not tend to be using social media for this type of important political discussion. And if anything, it may actually be removing conversation from the public sphere,” the researchers say.

The inspiration for the study came after the Edward Snowden/NSA leak story hit the headlines.  The theory was that this was exactly the kind of topic that would be widely discussed on social networks, being as it was both divisive yet hugely topical.  The findings however did not reflect this.

Indeed, it emerged that whereas 86% of respondents said they would be happy to discuss this topic in a face to face environment, just 42% said they would be happy to do so on either Facebook or Twitter.

The fascinating thing was that this reticence of the social network user was not limited to their social network.  The study found that active Facebook users were half as likely to bring up the Snowden case in a face to face conversation as a non-Facebook user.  Active Twitter users did even worse, proving 25% as likely to air their views in public than a non-Twitter user.

The only time this tended to change was when the social networkers were extremely confident that their network would support their point of view.  If they had this confidence, it prompted a doubling of their likelihood of contributing to online discussions.

So social networks, public ones at least, are not promoting the discussion of serious topics, and much less topics that may be in some way controversial.  The researchers suggest we may become overly sensitive to the range of views on a topic by using social networks.

“Because they use social media, they may know more about the depth of disagreement over the issue in their wide circle of contacts,” they say. “This might make them hesitant to speak up either online or offline for fear of starting an argument, offending or even losing a friend.”

They go on to conclude that strong social media usage may actually be shutting down debate, and causing society to polarize.

“A society where people aren’t able to share their opinions openly and gain from understanding alternative perspectives is a polarized society,” they conclude.

How can you avoid such a trap with your own enterprise social network?

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