Monday, October 5, 2015

219. Voice, twitter and barking

 ‘Voice’ means that trouble in a relationship is voiced, with the intent of solving it, in collaboration, in contrast with ‘exit’, where one engages in battle, or walks out, ending the relationship. Voice is crucial for trust, as I argued in this blog.

The notions of voice and exit derive from Albert Hirschman. In a paper at a recent conference on the philosophy of management[i], the question was raised what effects social media have on voice. Here I tap from that paper.

Voice should exercise restraint. Too much voice creates noise. Nothing is perfect and one should not complain about trivia. Voice should also be patient, allowing time for a response and for efforts for improvement.

In the past this took care of itself, given the transaction costs of setting up and conducting communication. Now, with social media, the costs and the threshold are low. It is easy to voice a complaint on Facebook or Twitter. At no cost it can be exercised impulsively and indiscriminately. There is no pause for reflection and restraint. This increases the volume and decreases  the quality of voice.

In Twitter, the limit of 144 signs blocks nuance.

Twitter also lacks the non-linguistic hints of gesture, eye contact, and demeanour that support interpretation, disambiguation and understanding, on the part of both the receiver and the sender. There is no direct feedback in the communication to restrain, modify or supplement the message.   

It is often also impatient, demanding instant response. Also, the target has to act before protest proliferates and escalates, in re-tweets, repeats, response, and additions.

But there is more. It seems that in this mode voice, if it can still be called that, is exercised not with a serious attempt at improvement, but as a means of attracting attention, seeking self-confirmation, self-expression, narcissism, venting emotions. A streak of hysteria enters.

In twitter, voice becomes barking. There may not even be  a clearly identifiable addressee, in a general, broadly cast, weakly specified protest, generalized resentment, thrown at the world at large. The smallest stirring in the undergrowth sets off one dog, and a host of other dogs furiously follow, salivating, trying to out-bark each other, not wanting to seem an underdog.

In consumer society, the sacrosanct consumer is exhorted to voice complaint, in interviews, surveys and opinion polls, and now on internet, not just as a right but almost as a duty to prevail.   

If there is an addressee of the barking, what is she/he to do, when an avalanche of diatribe erupts? To cope with it, computers are used, with standard responses, and intelligent software sifting through the bile for serious and fruitful bits of voice.

What can be done? There is software that builds in a pause for reflection on internet, or a prod to re-read one’s message, before sending, or that allows a target to respond before the tweet is broadcast. Will that help, or is it like trying to hush a barking dog? Can the dogs be muzzled without violating freedom of expression? Is there no exit?

[i] Isaac Waisberg & Ingrid Erickson, ‘Who is listening? The impact of technology on voice’, Philosophy of Management Conference, Oxford, 9-12 July, 2015.

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