Self Expression Affordances: The Feedback We’re Able to Give Shapes How We Think

Defining the Problem

Interactivity that allows self-expression is a fundamental feature of the online information environment.

Sude, Pearson, and Knobloch-Westerwick (in press, Computers in Human Behavior) found that the mere act of up- versus down-voting an article impacted users’ political attitudes. Self-expression through voting strengthened users’ expressed attitudes, even if they did not read actual article content! Similar results have been found for sharing articles (see Johnson and colleague’s work).

Why? While mechanism was not tested directly in my study, drawing on Pingree’s Bidirectional Message Effects model and the Theory of Interactive Media Effects (TIME), my colleagues and I suspected that the act of self-expression would shift users’ focus from the content of the article. Instead of thinking about what others had to say, they would focus on their own thoughts and feelings.

This increased focus on the self, combined with self-expression behavior, would give users a sense of having clearly defined political attitudes. Rather than dwelling on nuance, or taking a balanced stance, they would remember their final decision to like or dislike, to up- or down-vote.

The act of voting on the article (the behavior) would in turn increase users’ commitment to those attitudes. Both clarity and commitment would translate to reporting a more extreme attitude.

Our predictions were supported.

Notably, people often voted without reading content at all! Further, the mere ability to vote made content less persuasive. When users could express themselves, they were not focused on what the articles’ authors had to say.

Strength of initial attitudes mattered. Users who had moderate attitudes on the political topic to begin with were more likely to read attitude-challenging content, up-vote it, and become even more moderate. Extremists, on the other hand, voted in line with their initial attitudes and became even more extreme.

Solving the Problem

The overall pattern of findings suggest that self-expression affordances should be carefully managed on social media sites. Popular online community host Lace on Race, for example, discourages any use of reaction buttons on her Facebook page, requesting that people leave thoughtful comments instead. Her goal is to increase the quality of intellectual, emotional, and social engagement around a contentious issue.

While encouraging deliberation is important, both academic research and personal experience suggest that the more contentious an issue is, the more deliberative quality may suffer. Simply put, when people are passionate, they have trouble overcoming their own internal biases, let alone treating people who disagree with them respectfully.

In these case, instead of encouraging commenting, UX designers could offer a self-expression tool. I recommend offering the option of publicly answering a survey question. The user could experience the reward that comes from self-expression but also be prompted towards greater thoughtfulness. These questions should appeal to head and heart, as well as prompting more careful attention to the content.

Questions could include:

“You could learn a lot from this [content] just by skimming through it, quickly”

“This [content] taught me new things.”

“This [content] made me more certain about my own views”

“This [content] helped me to understand other people think”

“This [content] helped me to appreciate how other people feel”

“This [content] was important”

“This [content] made me want to share information with others”

“This [content] made me want to become more politically active”

Appropriately designed, these survey-question style self-expression tools could help to create a more “normatively desirable” user. Of course, these should be legitimate survey questions, not ones designed to increase bias frequently employed in political fundraising.

Other ideas include experimenting with how you solicit open-ended feedback or offering rewards for certain types of feedback (e.g., Community Awards on Facebook communities). Badges could, through social reward and punishment, reinforce thoughtful behaviors and in turn help cultivate thoughtful publics.


Recent experiences shape our subjective social landscapes

Social Identity Cues

Social reward and social punishment shape our attitudes