Online Friendships: The Problem of Feedback

Social media is a great enabler of friendships, particularly for people who for whatever reason cannot interact with other people in person. Where social media falls down is that it can lack feedback. When talking in the physical world humans acknowledge each other in various subtle ways. Sometimes it may not be a complex reply but may just be a look or a nod, a facial expression, or perhaps an audible acknowledgement like “mmmm”, “uh huh” or “oh” or some other noise.

The trouble is we mostly don’t do that when it comes to tweets and comments.

Social media can be used in lots of different ways but what many people post is a mix of news and links alongside personal updates of situations and feelings. People who are reading will see both and will often share what interests them or comment on it. When it comes to more personal updates though, they won’t necessarily reply but they would miss those things if they were not there. The personal updates shape our perception of a person and can increase feelings of connection to that person. Very often though, there is no suitable way to reply. There’s nothing that can easily be said, or we don’t feel the need for a full sentence in reply but have no way to nod our acknowledgement. We read and absorb but say nothing in return.

This leads to a big problem: we can feel ignored because people only interact when we post something funny / awful / outrageous and they seem to skip over the personal stuff. Friendships through social media are real and meaningful, frequently more so than acquaintances in the physical world, and yet they lack a huge chunk of feedback that makes us feel validated as a person.

The “Like” or “Favourite” button has become a proxy for acknowledgement in some cases but that doesn’t work when the situation is negative. A button for “I’ve seen this” or “Dislike” might help but even that wouldn’t solve the problem because social media is more broadcast than one-to-one conversation. It’s like saying something aloud to no-one in particular in a room with hundreds of people in. There’s no telling how many people would see an update and how many of those can stop to acknowledge each one. It would be impossible for someone following more than a few hundred people on Twitter, for example.

There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to this problem but it is something that we need to work out as more and more of our lives take place through the abstraction of screen and keyboard.

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

2 thoughts on “Online Friendships: The Problem of Feedback”

  1. Excellent post. I’ve struggled with the complexities of online interaction, which has sometimes lost me friends. I’ve tried to learn from these experiences, and I take a slightly different approach now. Thank you for bringing up this topic.

  2. I totally agree with you, especially when you say online friends can sometimes be more ‘real’ than those in real life. I know that in the past couple of years I would have fallen apart without the support of mine (many of whom are on the other side of the world), whilst going through life-changing personal health problems, the death of my mother to cancer, and the breakdown of a decades-long relationship (my real life ‘friends’ barely blinking in many cases, let alone offering support).
    On open comments (FB walls etc) I tend to utilise the smilies or a short comment as acknowledgement when I can’t offer more, or a way of punctuating almost, when the nuance of speech may not transfer to type, but even they can end up looking twee, or ‘automatic’ when over used. The problem does lessen when in chat situations, rather than posting … for me at least, as I only chat with those I’ve come to truly know and trust, and we do have a shorthand of ‘mhmm’,’oh’ ‘hug’ etc that has developed over time.

Comments are closed.