Taking liberties: why feeling closer on social media can lead to higher conflictuality

A short note on an apparent paradox highlighted by Ronald E. Anderson on the blog Compassionate Societies. While commenting on a recent PEW survey on the “tone of life” on social networking sites, the author points out two interesting facts :

1)  heavy social media users are prone to conflict (and, more generally, a lot of users experience negative interactions, physical fight and even end up breaking friendships because of online communication)…

2) ..yet overall people declare they feel closer to others, more compassionate and feeling good about themselves.

How can this contradiction be explained? According to the author “social networking is a mixed bag of good and bad”. I, for one, would like to suggest another way of interpreting these results: social media users are not hostile despite the fact they feel closer to one another. Rather, they are hostile because they feel closer. Closeness primarily comes to mean that users approach social media sites with higher expectations about friendship and togetherness. Social networking might thus imply adopting a social style characterized by a hypertrophied sense of intimacy, verging on liberty – like in the expression “taking liberties”: being too friendly in a way that shows a lack of respect to others.

Facebook “friending” rhetoric plays a part in this process, of course: by spreading an irenic vision of harmonious social life, any deviation from emotional proximity is perceived as a major break in the code of communication. In this sense, while interacting in the informal environment of social media, individuals not only fail to cultivate deference, but they even come to think of it as a transgression of an implicit social norm, as a manifestation of distance – or, worse, indifference – that compromises social cohesion and introduces an element of mistrust conducive to conflict.