Social Signals – Unrealistic expectations?


This is a thinking out loud post. I haven’t worked through all of this at all, and am curious to see where writing about it will take me, and whether I’ll get some interesting feedback to carry the conversation further.

As I read about ways to encourage participation in enterprise networks, one of the things I’ve heard a lot is that it is really important to encourage people. If they post and no one responds, people can get easily discouraged and decide that posting was a failed experiment. I have no reason to doubt that is true. I know that for a lot of people, it takes significant courage to post. Writing something and posting it in public can be pretty intimidating, and if no one seems to take notice, what is the point? I’ll go so far as to say I struggled with that before buying my domain and setting up this blog, and still think about it as I write new posts and watch the stats afterward. Fortunately for me, I’ve had good counsel that I can learn simply by the act of posting, and that’s keeping me going.

Back to the topic at hand – social signals. On the other hand, I also know there are a lot of people who read posts and don’t take the time to like or comment on them. For example, I know of some people who have read my blog posts here but have not clicked like or left comments. They have remarked on them elsewhere, and thankfully I know that. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, and I’m sure it goes on all the time. But it does make me wonder why we seem to have set up these false or unrealistic expectations around feedback. How did we get to a place where a lack of response is equivalent to (or possibly worse than) no feedback at all? And if we all seemingly value (crave?) feedback so much, why do so many of us shy away from offering it directly?

I suspect that for those of us that use it, Facebook sets up false expectations. We see that people who post there get all kinds of feedback, and perhaps we come to expect the same elsewhere. The fallacy of this, though, is that our work posts are rarely equivalent to what we’d post on Facebook, and the audiences we find elsewhere are of a much different composition.

Maybe it mostly comes down to the medium being new and norms not having been fully defined or accepted yet. We know that our family reunion cookout will be different from a cookout with friends, and different still from a cookout with work colleagues, and we’re OK with that; perhaps relieved for the differences. Maybe we just don’t yet have the collective experience to tell us that these same things are true in online discourse.


  1. Jeff Merrell · June 2, 2015

    This is really a great framing of this topic – as social signals. And how there are secondary social signals about our posts that we sometimes don’t pick up (people commenting on something we write about, but not on our blog or in some other place we see).

    Your point about (social) expectations in online environments is worth thinking more about (or researching).

    Let’s say that in f2f conversation, you say something really interesting to me. I repeat it to someone else. Maybe dozens of people. You have no way of knowing – unless someone else shares back with you that I am giving you props for some witty or smart comment. Does it bother you that you don’t hear back? For me, the answer is “no.” It’s a wonderful surprise if I say something, it gets repeated, and then later someone says to me “oh yes, so-and-so repeated what you said the other day…that was a cool thought.” But I don’t get too bothered if no one repeats what I said in conversation.

    Somehow our expectations are different online. Or they appear to be, for some. Maybe it IS because we’re learned to love that jolt of goodness when someone comments on a FB post, or likes it, or comments on a blog post. But is feedback an expectation? Or a gift? Really thinking out loud here with ya…Have no idea. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • tracymmaurer · June 2, 2015

      It feels a bit like we are reacting to online posts in a way similar to a performance. If we told a joke or sung a song or acted in a play and didn’t get a response, the lack of a signal is a signal in itself. In a conversation, less so. Maybe the difference is that in a conversation, you know exactly who you are talking to, and so you can anticipate a response even if one doesn’t come. And there is body language to fill in some of the gaps. Online, you have no idea who your audience is, and your only clue to what they are thinking is actual comments they make or other signals (likes, reposts, etc.). What do you think? Would that help explain the different behavior we exhibit?

      Liked by 1 person

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