On social media we stand divided

Tomorrow, 2.2 million Singaporeans will take to the polls and vote in the nation's most heavily contested General Elections since its independence.

Tomorrow, 2.2 million Singaporeans will take to the polls and vote in the nation's most heavily contested General Elections since its independence.

It's also the first to be held since the uprising of social media and true to expectations, the past fortnight has seen many fascinating exchanges--some rather heated--about candidates from the incumbent and opposition parties as well as the policies they stood for.

As political lines suddenly became strikingly visible on these social platforms, particularly Facebook, I felt sure some friendships no doubt would have been lost along the way. And indeed they have, as one of my Facebook friends revealed how she had "lost" a number of friends on her list and attributed it likely to her very vocal opinions about which political party she supported.

As online sentiments swung heavily toward the opposition, some also lamented feeling ostracized if they supported the incumbent and pressured to go with the flow in support of the opposition.

It's interesting to see how online social networks, as they grow and evolve, are starting to mirror more and more facets of real-world society and inherit issues that already exist in the physical realm--where minority groups commonly feel out of place, where we sometimes feel pressured to conform, and where all of us are inevitably pigeonholed into categories according to how we look, the size of our bank accounts and the belief systems--political, religious or otherwise--to which we subscribe.

On online platforms, such societal differences are further magnified and more pronounced.

Much like how friends would meet up over coffee or dinner and talk about their day, social media provides a platform where people gather to express and exchange their personal opinions about everyday issues.

But, unlike a discussion between friends in a cafe, when expressed on an online platform, opinions can spread pretty quickly and responses to those opinions will come just as fast. For some, this can be overwhelming.

In an interview with news.com.au this week, social media expert Soraya Darabi described the platform as becoming less social and observed how some were choosing to control their personalities online. "People are becoming much more cautious and much more professional online on social platforms because more people are listening," said Darabi, who in 2009 co-founded Foodspotting and was previously head of social media with The New York Times.

She recalled how she had just a handful of people following her MySpace profile when she was in college and felt freer to say whatever she wanted to say. "I kind of miss those days of complete and total freedom." Darabi acknowledged that her persona on Facebook is different from that on Twitter where she has a larger following and feels the need to be more professional on the microblogging site. "On Facebook it's a closed network of people I've met once in real life at least, so I tend to be a little looser," she said.

She added that employers are increasingly taking notice of content posted on Twitter and Facebook, and this further underscores the need for people to act professionally online. "We all have an internal gauge telling us what we think is appropriate and what's not," she said.

There've been times when I've seen updates from some of my Facebook friends--who are mostly people I've met through work--which touched on issues that, in the real physical world, would typically be recognized as common social taboos.

I'm pretty sure they do so without any ill intent, but I'd be interested to understand why they don't see the need to observe the same social behavior online as they usually do offline.

Should real-world social taboos and decorum not apply on social networks? Do social classes and categories no longer exist when we're online? If they don't, then why do some of us still reflect the same feelings of ostracism when our beliefs don't conform to the majority?

These are questions I've increasingly been contemplating since the emergence of social networks, and more so these past two weeks as I watch the interactions, and divisions, that have surfaced amid the heated election debates.

I think we're all still figuring out how to best manage our online and offline personalities, and while we do so, bloopers are bound to happen from time to time. And when we do slip up, we should take it as part of the learning process.

Darabi said: "We have to be cautious, but at the same time, we can't forget that these platforms were built for social purposes... I think it's important for everyone to take off their training wheels at the same time and make mistakes in unison. If we're all making them this year and last year and next, that's fine, because eventually it just means we'll all be a little bit more digitally savvy."


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