If joining an already-in-progress online conversation sometimes makes you feel about as awkward as an eighth grade boy at a Sadie Hawkins dance, you’re not alone.
According to a study in Social Psychology Quarterly entitled, “Making Way and Making Sense: Including Newcomers in Interaction,” there are a host of cues we subconsciously rely upon to help us negotiate conversations when we are face-to-face — cues that, ironically, are all but absent in online social engagements.
For instance, if two or more people are pre-present in a face-to-face conversation, and a new individual is added to the mix, once this new person is acknowledged, they are generally given one of two cues to tell them how to join in:
If the pre-present individuals want to bring the newcomer up to speed and invite them into the current conversation, they may say something like:
Hey, Sara! Good to see you. Greg and I were just talking about our plans for Labor Day weekend. What are you doing for the holiday?
On the other hand, if the pre-present individuals want to recognize the newcomer, but not include them in the current conversation (but rather start a new one), they may say something like:
Hey Sara! Good to see you. Greg and I were just catching while we waited. How goes things over at your office today?
In either case, according to the study, the pre-present individuals are in the driver’s seat and have a “conversational preserve – the right to have their circle protected from entrance and overhearing by others.” Because of this status, they get to determine how and when to “make way” and “make sense” for someone who wishes to join in.
In the social space though, negotiating the conversational preserve is trickier.
1. The lurker phenomenon.
In social networks, somewhat private conversations frequently occur in the public stream. That is, pre-present individuals may be maintaining a conversational preserve, but in front of an audience who is not actively joining the conversation, but is simply lurking to listen.
The fact that the conversation is being held in a public forum should be an indication that it is open to all, but that’s not always the case. For instance, if two people are chatting back and forth in Facebook about getting together for coffee, it’s unlikely that they’re doing so with the expectation that someone will pop in to the thread to declare that they’d like to come along too.
It is more often the case that the people having the conversation will behave as if they are talking unobserved, since no one is actively chiming in to prove otherwise. And their audience will continues to lurk and observe, because they feel like they should be given some sort of cue first to indicate that it’s okay to join in.
2. The not-present newcomer.
Another conversational oddity in the social space is the ability to reach past lurkers who are observing and/or waiting for a cue to talk and instead pull in someone entirely new to the preserve via a tag.
So, for instance, if two people are chatting back and forth in the public stream — and are likely being observed by others — rather than inviting their lurkers to participate by saying something like, “Hey everyone out there! What do you think of this idea?” the pre-present individuals may say, “Hey @[Name] what do you think of this idea?” and single out one person, in particular — a person who may not even be online at the time.
The specificity of the tag and the shout out further confuses the preserve. A cue has been extended, but it’s not an open invitation. Should this be taken as a sign that this conversation is still very much a private affair (only now it is among the pre-present and the newly invited guest) or does inviting in a guest mean that all are now invited in as well?
Since this phenomenon doesn’t ever occur in our offline conversations, no etiquette or protocol exists to help guide behavior when this occurs.
3. Social “back-turning.”
For the study in Social Psychology Quarterly, the author observed 244 face-to-face encounters as part of her research and noted that there were no instances where the pre-present individuals actively blocked entrance to the conversational preserve by a newcomer or rejected their participation outright.
This makes sense; literally turning your back on someone who wants to join your conversation is pretty junior high behavior. Even if a person who walks up to you and a friend at a cocktail party is someone you loathe, most of us will open our conversational preserve out of good manners and say a few words to them.
In the social web though, such niceties can be — and often are — overlooked. It’s not unusual to see someone contribute a thought or pose a question to a public conversation and have their contribution go unacknowledged.
Unlike our face-to-face conversations, online there is no way to know exactly when the conversation is over and the pre-present individuals have “left the building.” Thus, it is excusable for conversations to simply trickle off into thin air. This enables individuals to reject a newcomer/lurker’s request to participate without appearing that they have actively chosen to do so.
Clearly, when it comes to our newer forms of communication and engagement, existing sociological and psychological studies on our offline behavior don’t always translate to our online ones. Navigating the social web is a brave new world for conversation — awkwardness and all.