Social media as a machinery of dispute amplification

In TroubleMakers, Leslie Berlin summarises the notion of Class 1 and Class 2 disputes propounded by Bob Taylor, founder and manager of Xerox PARC’s famous Computer Science Laboratory. Part of his renowned capacity to build community within the lab involved turning what might have been destructive disputes into constructive ones. On pg 105 Berlin explains how:

Taylor distinguished between what he called “Class 1 and Class 2 disputes.” In the first, the two sides are so estranged that they cannot even hear, much less understand, what the other is saying. In Class 2 disputes, the two sides disagree but understand each other. Taylor’s goal was to move all Class 1 disagreements to Class 2, even if resolution was not possible.

What would this look like on social media? I can conceive of particular instances where thoughtful interventions, with the right timing, might succeed in shifting disagreements from Class 1 to Class 2. Having said this, I struggle to think of any concrete examples but perhaps these are events likely to fly beneath the radar unless you are party to them yourself. Nonetheless, any instance I can imagine seems intensely particularistic, rather than representing a general category. I can imagine Taylor being able to offer general strategies, as well as specific tactics through which one might seek to shift Class 1 disputes into Class 2 disputes. We could also imagine generalisations about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible. But I struggle to imagine any comparable strategy or tactics for disputes which occur through social media, as opposed to situational responses which might contingently work. Furthermore, I find it difficult to imagine how we might build up a body of knowledge about the conditions under which such a shift is likely to be possible because the dynamics are liable to be so specific to the interaction between the parties.

Am I being too bleak? This certainly seems like a gloomy conclusion to draw. But in a context like the lab, it’s possible to make all sorts of assumptions which would obviously be mistaken on social media, concerning factors such as the motivations of parties and their description of the situation. Social media has the propensity to throw people together, with the most minimal relation between them, inciting interaction in the absence of many of the cues which ensure orderly conduct in everyday life. Not only are Class 1 disputes likely on social media, a potential shift to Class 2 disputes becomes less likely with time because continued interaction multiplies the possibility for interpretive failure. The dialogue becomes self-referential, as internal cues come to substitute for the external stabilising influence that would often kick in were the same interaction to unfold in an offline setting.

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