Being social online leads to risky decisions

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou took a risk this week when he announced a referendum on the EU finance deal, which the rest of Europe thought was done and dusted. Greece and financial matters do not appear to be happy bedfellows at the moment. Indeed, a seemingly happy-go-lucky attitude to tax collection has not helped the Greek economy over the years. But it turns out, there but for the grace of any god you care to mention, we could all be in the same position.

Here’s what happens. When we are “all in it” together, when we all share a similar experience, we tend to believe that all those around us will help us out when things get tough. You might call this the Dunkirk Spirit; we all pull together when times are bad. So, over in Greece everyone knows they are financially doomed, but they all feel sure that when the chips are down, they’ll all help each other. Here in the UK, when the economy has not been what it might have been in recent years, business owners have shared stories of gloom, patted each other on the back and left one another with the feeling that they are “not alone”.

This is all nature’s way of protecting us. When we face adversity, we can overcome it more easily if we are supported, rather than having to face it alone. So we have in-built mechanisms for creating that support network in advance.

Now, though, it seems the protection mechanism inside our heads is not quite ready for the Internet age. New research shows we fail to distinguish online between real help and superficial support. The study reveals that we tend to get a feeling we are “all in it together” on certain websites because they have a seemingly social basis.

For instance, when we are logged in to Ebay, we feel we are amongst friends – other Ebayers – who know and understand the little world we inhabit. The research showed that the same feeling arises on other apparent “communities”. Of course they are not true social communities. When you walk in to your local supermarket do you feel “amongst friends”, people who will stop and help if a problem arises? Unlikely.

In the “real world” we know the difference between an ad-hoc community of people sharing a shopping trip and a real community, such as your local neighbours. Online, though, social tools give us the same feeling. We appear to think we are in a supportive community when we are just in a group of people logged into the same site. Hardly the same.

But because we think we are in a community, we take more risks. That’s because in the real world we do that. It’s possible because of the protective nature of a true community.

So, online, it seems we think we are in a community, when we are not, and then take risks which we would not do in a similar real world situation. If it all goes belly-up, unlike the Greek citizens, we’d get no support from our apparent community – it would evaporate.

What does this mean for you? It suggests thinking twice about your own online purchases; but it also means that your own website, your own business community could do with some “health warnings”, to let your customers know you are seeing things from their perspective and considering their decision making processes. In other words, don’t fool your website users into believing they have the support of a community when they do not.

Papandreou’s referendum will probably help cement the community feeling within Greece, allowing them to support each other if the economy collapses. Perhaps some web “communities” could learn a lesson from him – providing mechanisms which firm up the community itself, thereby helping people get more online support when problems arise. Are you listening Ebay, Google, and dozens of others…?

Being social online leads to risky decisions 1

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