07:40pm Sunday 20 October 2019

Social norms guide internet behaviour

“Most people think if you are not an engineer you have nothing to say about technology”, regrets social scientist Suvi Silfverberg, “I think it’s quite the opposite: as a technology user you have a lot to contribute.”

In her PhD thesis Silfverberg discusses how Facebook, Foursqare, LinkedIn and Last.fm user profiles relate to self and identity. She is collecting her data from interviews as well as from real-life and online focus groups.

“People keep their online profiles as products; information is manipulated in order to sell a self-chosen concept of themselves,” states Silfverberg. “But this is not it yet,” she continues. “Quite like cultural norms influence the way we speak, our internet behaviour is determined by norms, too. Some of these norms support what we do on the net, some restrict our behaviour.”

A female Facebook user might, for instance, avoid publishing an attractive photo of herself in a bikini because she expects criticism. A Last.fm user might feel forced to listen to a variety of music considered good taste just to mask his liking for a cheesy song. “As a consequence,” concludes Silfverberg, “we all start behaving similarly, which continuously re-enforces these norms.”

A set of unwritten social rules have developed for each social media platform. “Finns for example do not appreciate the sharing of too much content, or obviously tuning your profile to put yourself into a favourable light. This ‘pursuit of authenticity’ also applies to Last.fm where the user is expected to stay true to their taste and to really listen to the music they play on their computer”, summarizes Silfverberg.

“One objective of my work is to explain what these social network norms tell us about the Finnish culture, because our internet behaviour is strongly influenced by our culture, concludes Silfverberg.

Another aim of her research is to support the ethical and user-friendly development of social platforms. Silfverberg explains her work in Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT, “Humans have a natural need for self-expression, and online profiles are potential platforms for fulfilling this need. Still, software developers might not be aware of the social mechanisms of the net, for instance of the pressure that social norms put on platform users. Sensitivity of information is a big issue; and having social scientists work together with developers will create safer and more pleasant user experiences.”

Helsinki Institute for Information Technology HIIT »»


Text: Claudia Gorr
Photo: 123rf
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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