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Social Media: I Don't Do Small Talk.

Posted by Jon Stahl at Feb 11, 2010 |
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When you're first dipping your toes into the shallow, rolling sea of social media tools, one of the first things you're likely to notice is that there seems to be an awful lot of "chatter" and "noise." People talking about "trivial" things, right out there in public.

Social Media: I Don't Do Small Talk.

Photo by Joachim S. Müller

When you're first dipping your toes into the shallow, rolling sea of social media tools, one of the first things you're likely to notice is that there seems to be an awful lot of "chatter" and "noise."  People talking about "trivial" things, right out there in public. Compared with the relatively sedate ponds of email, the web, and even blog comment threads, this can be quite a shock. Many of the new social media users we talk to -- executive directors, campaign directors and lobbyists -- tell us that this is one of the most confusing, uncomfortable aspects of social media.

We understand.

But rather than run away screaming in horror, please allow us to demystify. You're seeing "phatic communication" in action.

What-ic communication??!?!

Phatic communication. Better known as "small talk," Wikipedia tells us that the term was originally coined in the early 1900s by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski.

Some examples:

Hello. How are you?

I’m fine. How are you?

Great weather we're having, eh?

Have a nice day.

You’re welcome.

What's up?

Phatic communication isn't meaningless or pointless. Far from it!  Phatic communication encompasses the many verbal and non-verbal gestures we make in order to open channels of communication, build or maintain relationships or start/end conversations. Social grooming, in other words.

OK, so phatic communication is a normal part of human speech -- so normal that you're often not even aware that you're doing it.  But the reason many of us recoil from the "chatter" on social networks is that we're just not that used to engaging in phatic communication over the internet. Not yet anyway. Why? Because social media like Facebook and Twitter are among the first mainstream internet tools that were explicitly designed to support phatic gestures.  Think about it -- "friending," "liking," "retweeting," "poking" -- it's a far cry from writing emails and reading web pages and posting blog comments!

We know, we know -- you aren't a fan of small talk, friending your third-grade girlfriend seems weird, and poking someone seems vaguely obscene (these kids today!) But think of it this way: every one of those fans or followers is an actual person and would love a little hello from you, another real live person. Open the channels and dive in. We're not saying that you should put all your energy into phatic communication (if all you ever make is small talk, you'll never get to the important parts of the conversation). Phatic communication is the key to building strong person-to-person relationships.

Have a nice day.

Thanks, Flickr user Joachim S. Müller!

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Phatic communication

Posted by alan at Jun 07, 2010 10:30 PM
Having studied phatic communication for some time, I was well aware that it is the ground of being that sets the infrastructure of social media. However, I don't know if social media are (is) a good channel for phatic communication for so much of it operates on the vocal (rather than verbal) level, i.e., tone of voice, emotion, mood, personality, attitude, etc., all important signs of how to 'read' a person. With typed words, we have a very barren medium. Even video isn't particularly good at conveying phatic communication because it's so easy to fake. Just watch a politician at work.

phatic social media

Posted by Vince at Sep 01, 2010 08:09 AM
Please forgive the shameless plug, but i have written an article on this very topic if you are interested in researching this topic further:

Miller, V.(2008) New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 14, No. 4, 387-400.

Best wishes,
vince