Monday, January 11, 2010

Playing Follow the Leader on Facebook (Updated)

Since it is freezing here in the Northeastern United States, I'm afraid my neighborhood explorations are on hold. Luckily, I have no shortage of material to talk about—after all, there are opportunities for anthropological discussion all around us, all the time, right? Last Thursday a new meme swept through the popular social networking website Facebook, asking females to post the color of their bra, giving us a good opportunity to investigate social pressure in digital media.

It began with many female users logged into Facebook to find the following message waiting in their inbox:
"We are playing a game.... silly, but fun! Write the color of your bra as your status, just the color, nothing else!! Copy this and pass it on to all girls/Females..... NO MEN!! This will be fun to see how it spreads, and we are leaving the men wondering why all females just have a color as their status!! Let's have fun!! supporting breast cancer xoxo"
And spread it did. Many females chose to respond, transforming Facebook into a colorful boudoir: beige, polka dot, pink, cobalt, black, red—statuses were relegated to nothing more than a hue. It didn't take the guys too long to figure out what was going on here, and a few chimed in with commentary of their own by posting colors or pro-bra sentiments. Not every female seemed to respond to the above message: A few publicly questioned how sharing their bra color would support breast cancer research. (I'm going out on a limb here and assuming that the intent of the message wasn't to support breast cancer itself, but rather the mission to find a cure.) And some just didn't respond at all. But this post isn't about the truth of the meme's message. I'm particularly interested in the female members who appeared to be on the fence about sharing this information, but chose to do so anyway.

One member indicated that she thought the meme was ridiculous and refused to share her information. Another member agreed with this original post by clicking the "like" button, but posted her color anyway on her own page with a followup indicating that she couldn't avoid it (i.e., participating in spreading the meme). Social pressure is alive and well in digital media. When a message such as the above arrives in a member's inbox, the decision to respond appears to be influenced by the state of the recipient's relationship to the sender. If the sender is a close friend, or if there is reason to think that the sender expects the recipient to participate, the recipient will respond. In other words, the recipient responds because she feels she must: Failure to respond to these types of requests over time may mean that the recipient becomes less of a primary connection. This could reduce contact between parties and eventually result in the purging of this individual from the network, or at the very least, a reduction of the individual to the edges of the connected group. Responding to these memes is a form of network preservation in this digital age. As a recipient, members choose to respond to affirm their place in the network—because it's important to show the sender that they are responsive to her requests.

For those who chose to speak out against the meme, even as they did so, they appeared to try to minimize network repercussions: they did not call out the sender or particular meme participants, and they gave specific reasons for not participating themselves so that their denouncement of the meme would not affect their placement in the network. But with these disclaimers in place, at least one member noted publicly that she would not get details about subsequent meme events. Still others chose not to respond at all—no commentary about the meme and no color listed. This may seem the safest course, but both groups could see their place in their network slide over time with this form of response.

These types of social media events can help us understand how the dynamics of digital network change with regard to member participation. Specifically, work in this area can help explain the spread of loneliness in digital social networks—does participation in these types of event help mitigate loneliness? But it also provides physical evidence of our need to belong. The majority of people aren't going to commit acts that may alienate them from the group. At the end of the day, people still want to follow the herd.

Update 01/13/10: Here is a link to some background info on the meme from the WSJ.

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