Social intelligence – and what’s missing in online interactions on social media

Social intelligence is the ability to navigate complex social relationships and environments – something key to being a successful community manager or facilitator. However, on reading recently about some of the components of social intelligence proposed by Dan Goleman it struck me how poorly we optimise for many of them on social media.

Goleman proposes that there are two broad categories of skills that comprise social intelligence – those of social awareness and those of social facility. Social awareness includes paying attention to others so that we develop empathy, attunement and cognition, whereas social facility is about how we regulate our own interactions with others – including how we present ourselves and exert influence.

Could some of the problems that we’re seeing with anti-social behaviour online be attributed to two related issues? 1) Platforms being better optimised for social facility traits and 2) Technical limitations that seriously restrict social awareness online. I unpack these ideas in this post.

Nerd, dork, geek or dweeb? Where do you sit in the Venn diagram?
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Goleman’s components of social intelligence

(Definitions from the Appendix of “Fearless at Work” by Michael Carroll)

Dan Goleman, a psychologist and author has written books about Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Social Intelligence and their role in business leadership. He describes social intelligence as having two broad components – social awareness and social facility – each of which is comprised of four specific traits:

A) Social awareness

  • Primal Empathy: “feeling with others; sensing nonverbal emotional cues”
  • Attunement: “listening with full receptivity – a full, sustained presence that facilitates rapport; attuning to a person”
  • Empathic Accuracy: “understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions”
  • Social Cognition: “knowing how the social world works; knowing what is expected in any social situation”

B) Social facility

  • Synchrony: “interacting smoothly at the nonverbal level”
  • Self-presentation: “presenting oneself effectively; the ability to control and mask expression of emotions”
  • Influence: “shaping the outcomes of social interactions”
  • Concern: “caring about others’ needs and acting accordingly”

What’s missing online?

If you think about online social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and reddit, some of the components of social intelligence are easier to observe than others. For example, the social awareness traits such as primal empathy, empathic accuracy and attunement are often lacking online.

Let’s consider attunement in more detail. Goleman’s definition of attunement involves the development of rapport with another thanks to a sustained period of listening to that other person. One example where rapport may develop online is the sharing of hashtags on Twitter where jokes may become a meme over a short period of time, or where a live event such as a political debate, TV show or sports event can create a short-lived sense of belonging. But it’s a very fleeting attunement – it’s not really a sustained period of deep listening. Plus this momentary attunement may be about a one-off interaction on a fairly superficial (character-limited) level with a complete stranger, possibly someone you never interact with again.

Social success online – and performative behaviour

By contrast, online social networks are well suited for people who are skilled in self-presentation and influence with a dose of social cognition. Those who understand the “rules” of online social spaces such as current memes or appropriate styles of communication for the platform can become individually popular or “Tweet/Insta/etc -famous”. Those who are successful online often create and distribute a curated identity alongside their primary content – in a similar way to celebrities.

Yet these social activities are mostly ego-focused – they don’t involve much two-way dialogue or intention to understand another on an emotional level. Looking back at Goleman’s list, do you use more social facility traits than social awareness skills to be successful online?

Extending the idea that social activities online can be overly-indexed for social facility, it’s worth noting how some social posts are now being described as “performative”. (However, this description misses the point that if we are at all skilled in self-presentation then we’re “performing” on some level all the time.)

Maybe what we really mean is that if someone engages in behaviour that appears to be about self-presentation and we lack social cues or any additional context about the person’s behaviour it can feel like a one-way performance because we can’t develop true empathy or deep dialogue with the presenter. This is one reason why offline interactions with the person can become important for the relationship to develop.

How much does synchrony matter?

So, if we don’t see the full range of social intelligence characteristics online, how much is this being influence by affordances of the current technologies? It seems likely that the lack of synchronous interactions on many of the original social networking sites might contribute to the challenges of acting with full social intelligence. The early iterations of online tools tend to be asynchronous or only fleetingly synchronous if you catch others online at the same time. In situations where it can be near-synchronous, such as Twitter or Slack, we increasingly rely on props such as emojis, animated GIFs and even video snippets to augment text and communicate deeper meaning. Perhaps tools such as Slack are so popular in part due to the synchronous nature and the easy integration of these additional cues, creating a more emotionally resonant experience where we feel connected to those we’re sharing the space with?

Navigating with awareness

So, given that not all tools are synchronous, nor allow us to explore social awareness, are we doomed never to enjoy true socially intelligent connection with others in online spaces? Not so fast, I say! Our online tools are still rapidly evolving, even as we’re learning and experimenting with engagement on them. And while we may see performative aspects of behaviour in some instances, this doesn’t have to be the only behaviour online. The constant addition of new features such as live chat, video, emojis and more create new possibilities for how users choose to communicate.

But maybe in the meantime, as a social intelligence experiment, next time you login to a social network take a look at the interactions you’re seeing and ask which items on Goleman’s list are on display.


Additional reading

  • This post describes how one rOpenSci member analysed the use of emojis in their Slack channel
  • This post describes some tips (and challenges!) for online communication

Thanks to Stefanie Butland for exploring these two with me.


2 thoughts on “Social intelligence – and what’s missing in online interactions on social media

  1. Pingback: URLs of wisdom – resilience and self-care edition – August 2017 – Social in silico

  2. Pingback: 2017 on Social in silico – Social in silico

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