Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Are Online Recommendations a Form of Digital Peer Pressure?

Facebook's reminder that the new profile is here.

It started with Twitter's move to the version. The message that would appear on the top of the screen went something to the effect of "Psst, there's a new version of Twitter available. Why not try a sneak peek?" It was a bit coercive, but I clicked and tried my sneak peek. I also promptly opted to switch back. Similarly Facebook tried to entice me to try the new profile. I took a look at the preview and decided I would wait for the mandatory change. It seems that I have been resistant for longer than anticipated because the messages by both of these services has become a bit more direct. On Twitter, the message at the top of the screen informs me matter-of-factly that "You're using an older version of Twitter that won't be around much longer. Switch to the New Twitter!" Facebook is using a slightly different tactic as you can see from the image above: the application wants me to know that I'm trailing behind 99 of my connections in delaying the move to a newer version. In both cases, the message is clear, I'm lagging behind in adopting the latest digital tools.

These helpful messages are supposed to give me time to acclimate to coming changes, but they are also a way for these applications to mobilize the power of recommendations. We've fallen into the habit of sharing, and noting what others share as well—one outcome of the trusted online network is that actions are instantly accessible and can be mobilized into a substantial presence quickly. With the quantity of information and products available today our networks can act as handy vetting outlets, with preference given to recommendations offered by those within the first tier of connections (trusted friends and family). I'm definitely more likely to read linked items from this group—especially on Twitter where the constant flow of information can be noisy and tiring.

But when combined, these recommendations amount to a form of peer pressure. This is my network after all and I definitely want to be in tune with its general mood—these applications helpfully remind me of that fact. It doesn't matter that I've tried the new Twitter and decided that I didn't really care for it. My personal preference doesn't matter. Why would it? I've handed enough information over to Facebook for it to really make these sorts of decisions for me. Can ninety-nine other people really be wrong? Clearly whatever misgivings may have caused me to drag my feet are unfounded—the masses have spoken. This is the digital equivalent of being offered a joint by the cool kids. Do you say no and continue to languish in the corner, left out of whatever new features they're enjoying online, and become one of those technologically unsavvy people? Or do you take a pull and acclimate yourself to the changes that are going to come anyway, and claim your place among those moving forward? Sure, we're told to resist peer pressure but in a digitally-oriented space in a digitally-oriented world, perhaps this suggestion does more harm than good.

Is there is a certain status to be obtained by joining the ranks of the recommenders? Perhaps, depending on your social capital. The power of the recommendation is the way it ripples through the network, collecting members and gaining momentum. The network adopts the recommendation—in this case, a move to a newer platform version—and normalizes it. Before long, does holding out translate into network subversion? Either adopt the changes or find that your network is locked to you.

Choices, choices. Well, we don't necessarily have to inhale, right?

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