SINGAPORE: An acquaintance of mine recently told me about his experience with his online neighbourhood chat group.
He was only two days into joining this community on WhatsApp when a frantic neighbour started accusing others in the chat group of stealing her plants and threatened to call the police on them.
The next day there was another storm in the chat group when another member took offence at the neighbourhood committee chairperson sending notice of a regular online chat session with the local Member of Parliament.
His grievance: This chat should be apolitical. After being reprimanded by other members for over-reacting and not understanding the intent of the message, he exited the group in a huff.
Such stories – bad and good - are not uncommon these days. In recent years, there has been a growing number of Instant Messaging (IM) groups within residential communities – whether on WhatsApp, Telegram or Facebook Messenger, among others.
These groups are not limited to high-density residential communities in HDB and private condominium estates but are found in landed estates as well.
IM groups enable people to get to know their neighbours better beyond a nod of the head and a “hello” in the elevator.
For instance, a group of Punggol residents, who first came together to save on shipping costs for overseas purchases, eventually started meeting for meals, with kids and the elderly in tow. In Boon Lay, some residents have organised gatherings for bird enthusiasts in the estate.
These chat groups bring residents with similar interests together – to brainstorm ideas for reducing waste or saving costs in the estate, for example.
In doing so, they have also become a way for people to participate in community life. Some members of these groups attest to how such chat groups bring back the kampung spirit. Members become more involved in the community’s welfare, even flagging suspicious activity or faulty public amenities to one another.
Research on the impact of online communities goes back to pre-social media days and show that interactions among like-minded people have several benefits. Proponents of online communities such as Howard Rheingold talked about a new kind of social organisation — one that is based on free expression, a non-hierarchical structure, many-to-many access and volunteer effort.
People gather online and participate in communal activities such as exchanging information, offering advice and providing assistance to one another.
However, as with all group interactions, neighbourhood chat groups have their pitfalls and pains. Neighbours sometimes bicker online over communal matters - shoe spreading in the common corridor and dog poop in walkways, for example. And a loquacious few spam chat groups with irrelevant information and fake news.
I have heard that, during the circuit breaker, some residents who flouted social distancing rules were named and shamed in their community IM groups, creating discord.
This damage to affective ties in a chat group can spill over to the real world and disrupt relationships between neighbours.
So, while digital platforms such as IM apps can bring communities together, the opposite can also be true. Measures are needed, therefore, to ensure these groups work effectively, without harming the social fabric of the neighbourhood.
These measures should take into account three fundamental features of computer-mediated communication – the social psychology of media use, its frictionless nature and the importance of moderation.
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY OF MEDIA USE
Ever wondered why people online always seem livelier, more spontaneous and have more to say than their real selves?
Asynchronicity and seeming invisibility are key features of the online medium. They exert a disinhibitive effect and encourage excessive responses. This means we end up saying a lot more online than we would face-to-face with another person.
When we communicate online, we also lack the social cues that we are accustomed to receiving in the real world. Online communication is characterised by economic expressions, abbreviations and emoticons.
In the real world, we read facial expressions, body language, change in pitch and tone. A raise of an eyebrow or a shift of the eyes can clue us into how people are responding to our repartee, prompting us to change the direction of the conversation, clarify our intentions or even apologise before further damage is done.
So, before jumping into a conversation or posting a comment in a chat, we should pause and ask if we would say the same thing in person. We would all benefit from recognising the social psychological forces at play whenever we engage in online communication.
FRICTIONLESS NATURE OF MEDIA USE
The term “frictionless” gained widespread notoriety after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg used it to describe changes to the platform’s technical infrastructure.
A frictionless experience is one that enables users to interact with content and with one another with minimal effort. In such an environment, immediate reactions are given greater premium over reflection.
In the past, sharing things online required a lot more effort. Before clicking the “send” button, we had to first copy the URL or an entire chunk of text, open up an email or a message box, and then paste the URL or text.
Today, the “forward” and “share” options make information-sharing a breeze, and this lack of “friction’’ is a key contributor to the spread of undesirable content, such as hate speech and false information.
Such seemingly “thought-less” behaviour can have its pitfalls as we may inadvertently forward messages that may offend or alienate others for the composition of such neighbourhood groups are rarely homogenous.
Research, such as the one published by Natalie Dixon of Goldsmiths College in 2017, shows that while neighbours join such groups for security and neighbourliness, it can often be a double-edged sword. “A WhatsApp group chat offers a sense of rootedness among the flows of people and things in a neighbourhood.
This sense can be understood to hold, even stabilise, a community through feelings of collective presence and being in this together.”
She added that this very process can however also alienate others.
It is no wonder that the likes of Instagram and Twitter are beginning to recognise the pitfalls of frictionless environments.
Late last year, leveraging on artificial intelligence to detect bullying on its platform, Instagram rolled out in selected countries a hate-speech filter that warns users of the potential offensiveness of their content before they post.
And in June this year, Twitter said it will begin testing a new feature that will prompt users to think before they tweet articles that they have not read to “promote informed discussion”.
To introduce friction in neighbourhood chat groups, bots can be used to send reminders and mini interventions to users to prompt reflection and suppress their instinct to respond immediately.
For instance, Telegram users who start chats and channels can either develop their own bots or consider options, some of which are free, from a growing market of bot developers.
MODERATION IS KEY
In addition to leveraging technical tools to increase friction, the third integral ingredient for civil group communication is moderation. In a face-to-face group chat, an individual, either designated or self-designated, plays the role of a moderator. This person ensures everyone has a say, minimises domination by any individuals or groups, and upholds decorum.
In the context of neighbourhood chat groups, it is usually easier to start than sustain online communities. Usually, there are no ground rules when a community chat group is started, simply because they tend to be intimate groups of a few people.
However, these groups can grow quickly in size. So, ground rules should be set up early and moderators appointed. Moderators should be active and consistent in ensuring compliance with the desired etiquette, deal with problematic users, and intervene when discussions get heated.
What could also work is when all members assume the responsibility for protecting the space and making it safe for all.
Moving ahead, one thing is clear. In order for people to reap the benefits of an instant community in a neighbourhood chat group, time and effort are needed to ensure an inclusive space for all, just as in the real world.
Carol Soon is Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Society & Culture department at the Institute of Policy Studies. She is also Vice Chair of the Media Literacy Council and Principal Investigator at the NUS Centre for Trusted Internet and Community.