Research develops nuanced take on social media attitudes

A woman, bored with social media, looks at her phone with disinterest.

New model moves beyond two-dimensional like-dislike approaches for holistic views

What’s your relationship status with social media?

□   I love it.
□   I hate it.
□   It’s complicated!

Social media will always draw from a base of active users and face criticism from disengaged haters, but a considerable slice of Americans is engaged in a love-hate relationship with social networking sites. Social media “detoxes,” hiatuses from communities, and limited, frustrated re-engagement with platforms are so common that nearly everyone has known someone with a conflicted relationship with the social media world.

“What we are saying is that many users have both positive and negative orientations toward social media simultaneously,” the computer information systems department’s Hamed Qahri-Saremi said. “It’s not that a person is 100% positive or 100% negative. Most people have a mix of positive and negative perspectives.”

In “Responses to Ambivalence toward Social Networking Sites: A Typological Perspective,” Qahri-Saremi and his co-author explore how users deal with experiencing conflicting positive and negative orientations – a state of mind psychologists term ambivalence – when engaging with social media and how this is reflected in their patterns of use of social media. Their research, which was published in Information Systems Journal, finds that users adopt different coping strategies to help resolve or minimize ambivalence – and that those strategies ultimately steer their usage of the platforms.

The research is among the first to step away from the two-dimensional like-dislike spectrum that researchers have typically forced upon users when evaluating attitudes toward social networking sites.

Hamed Qahri-Saremi
Hamed Qahri-Saremi, Assistant Professor of Computer Information Systems

“Responses to Ambivalence toward Social Networking Sites: A Typological Perspective”
Hamed Qahri-Saremi, Ofir Turel1
Information Systems Journal

1 University of Melbourne, Australia

Resolving social media ambivalence

Attacking social media is pervasive off- and online, but social networking sites aren’t without their benefits. A bottomless stream of humorous memes and engaging videos provides many users with entertainment. It’s a great conduit for consumers to learn about new products and offers an unparalleled opportunity to connect people who share interests. Similarly, the dark sides of social media – the negativity, egomania, concerns about privacy and security, and addictive nature of platforms – are also well documented in popular culture and academic research.

Qahri-Saremi’s research is among the first to examine how users behave when weighing positives and negatives of social media. By examining the strength of both negative and positive orientations toward social networking sites, the research draws on a complex push-pull as users struggle with those disparate feelings.

“You’re being torn between these two sides,” Qahri-Saremi explains. “Ambivalence is a particular state of mind, like inconsistency. You experience cognitive and emotional inconsistency. People do not like those sorts of inconsistencies because even small levels of them can be uncomfortable and disorienting. Therefore, we always try to do something to resolve it.”

How they resolve that tension, Qahri-Saremi’s research finds, is driven by the relative strength of their positive and negative orientations toward social media platforms. Those without strong orientations, either way, experience an attitude Qahri-Saremi classifies as ambivalence avoidance. These users pull back from engaging with social media, often consciously choosing to minimize ambivalence by reducing their exposure to the platforms.

“They may choose to neglect social media,” Qahri-Saremi said, “because when you neglect it, you are essentially neglecting the object of ambivalence, trying to make it less of an important thing, which can weaken the experience of ambivalence.”

Many users have strong feelings toward the platform, however, and develop broader approaches than minimizing their exposure to social media. Two behaviors, negative and positive response amplification, are exhibited by those who express either strong positive or strong negative orientations toward the platforms and weak opposing orientations. These users typically rationalize their strong views on the platform while trivializing the opposite viewpoints. For example, users experiencing positive response amplification might focus on social media’s ability to help them stay connected with distant friends and family while downplaying its addictive qualities and privacy issues. Negative response amplification works the same way, though users focus on negative aspects while overlooking positive ones.

Just like all other viewpoints, attitudes toward social media aren’t always polarized between strongly positive or negative extremes. Some users hold moderate positive and negative opinions of social media platforms. These users, who Qahri-Saremi classifies as making concessions, strive to develop a healthy approach to social media usage.

“They try to compromise in the sense that they try to use social media because there are some positive things about it, but they also try to control the use in different ways due to the negative aspects of social media,” he explained. “Among students, for example, this is common. Either they have a time limit or limit it to some days of the week or control things that they post and things that they do not post on social media. They have a rule-based distancing structure for themselves.”

Finally, users with simultaneously strong positive and negative attitudes toward platforms are characterized as practicing holism toward the platforms. While openly acknowledging both the positive and negative aspects of platforms, these users attempt to accommodate both positive and negative aspects of usage by getting innovative about how they use the system and for what purpose.

Reinvigorating the social media platforms?

Qahri-Saremi drew his conclusions through a two-wave survey of students, with questions sent two weeks apart. Of 392 students who completed both surveys, 370 demonstrated some level of ambivalence. After analyzing the results and placing it inside a framework of existing psychological research on ambivalence, the research identified one or two behaviors associated with each category of ambivalence.

The large number of students whose responses displayed some level of ambivalence confirmed conventionally held wisdom that many social media users aren’t entirely satisfied with the platforms.

“These confirm our expectation that a large majority of the users are actually ambivalent at different levels, and some of them might be very ambivalent,” Qahri-Saremi said. “You know how good social media is. You get connected, especially during COVID and so on, and yet everybody has some level of concern for their privacy and security issues that happen on social media.”

Users struggling with ambivalence typically become less involved with the platform. Sometimes, they log in and “lurk,” choosing just to consume content and not comment or generate their own material. Other times, algorithms feed them content that isn’t of interest, and they log out quickly. Either passive approach is not the behavior that social media networking platforms hope to foster in their users.

By identifying these behaviors and understanding that users adopt them to decrease ambivalence toward the platforms, Qahri-Saremi said social media platforms could make changes that keep users on board by reducing some of the negative aspects of their products. For example, being more upfront about privacy and data policies or fine-tuning algorithms to provide more relevant and valid content to users could help social media platforms maintain their user bases as they age.

“As long as the negative aspects are there, people can feel ambivalent,” he said. “That can make them unpredictable. They can choose to neglect. They can also choose to sort of terminate. You don’t expect users to terminate because they have been loving it. But yes, complete termination is one of the responses to the ambivalence that we observe in our data.”

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