Do social media stifle knowledge sharing?
Do online social media drive a “spiral of silence” which can stifle proper debate? It can, according to this techcrunch article, which points to this survey from Pew Research.
|Shhh by Catherine on Flickr
As shown below, social media are at the bottom of the list, and people are nearly 4 times less willing to share their thoughts openly online than they are round the dinner table.
|Image from this pew research article
Overall, the findings indicate that in the (government surveillance) case, social media did not provide new forums for those who might otherwise remain silent to express their opinions and debate issues. Further, if people thought their friends and followers in social media disagreed with them, they were less likely to say they would state their views on the story online and in other contexts, such as gatherings of friends, neighbors, or co-workers. This suggests a spiral of silence might spill over from online contexts to in-person contexts, though our data cannot definitively demonstrate this causation. .
Does this spiral of silence apply in workplace social media?
I have seen this happen in the work setting, as in the example below.
A new community of practice for project managers was launched in an organisation. Over a couple of months, activity started to pick up nicely in the community forum, with many people asking questions and receiving answers. However when we followed up with the originators of the questions, we found an interesting pattern had developed. The first answer to the question set the tone, and from that point the only people contributing to the thread were those who agreed with the first answer. Anyone who disagreed found a private offline way to contact the questioner, such as a phone call or a personal email.
We were able over time to resolve this behaviour through strong facilitation, and the community now works well in publicly exploring multiple views on all topics.
For those of us seeking to foster knowledge sharing within an organisation, the research study quoted above is very important. If we do not address this tendency towards a spiral of silence, our in-house social media will either create a new set of silos – silos divided by opinions rather than by geography or by organisational hierarchy (the “polarised crowds” mentioned above) – or people with contrary opinions will just drop out of the conversation.
The lessons to the Knowledge Manager are clear
To start with, we cannot afford plural communities of practice covering the same topic. There needs to be one community covering each main work topic, not two or more polarised ones.
Then within each topic, disagreement needs to be sought and explored, in service of finding the truth. This is part of the role of the community facilitator – the role of allowing a diversity of opinion, and promoting and facilitating the dialogue that allows this diversity to be explored and resolved.
Finally, for the really contentious topics, you need a face to face discussion, such as a Knowledge Exchange.
Tags: Archive, communities of practice, knowledge sharing, survey