The role of anonymity in discussing social anxiety online: A comparative platform analysis of Facebook and Reddit

On: October 24, 2017
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About Linda V.


   

We usually use social media to share photos or events, to see what our friends are up to, or to wish our colleagues a happy birthday. It is less common to use these platforms to share your insecurities, fears or anxieties. Nonetheless, there are social platforms, such as Reddit, where users do share their deepest thoughts online. The main focus of Reddit is to provide a platform where users can discuss a shared topic of interest. The social connection between the users is irrelevant on this platform. As Zuckerman states: “Reddit offers the possibility of introducing us to people outside our normal circles and creates a context for conversation” (n.p.). Moreover, Reddit users are able to keep their identity anonymous. Facebook also provides her users the opportunity to discuss sensitive topics together more privately, such as social anxiety, with the feature of private Facebook groups. Yet in these groups, users cannot maintain their anonymous identities because they have to use their personal Facebook accounts to join.

This study is based on these contrasting characteristics of the platforms, and focusses on the way they reform the discussion of sensitive topics online. After all, a nexus of the private and the public occurs when topics such as social anxiety are discussed within a public space (the Internet), which usually would take place in a closed environment. This research examines to what extent platforms and their characteristics shape social activity in terms of user-generated content. We will do so by researching the role of online anonymity on platforms that discuss the topic of social anxiety.

The academic debate of this paper revolves around how the interface of platforms have an impact on user behaviour with regard to the private atmosphere. The aim of the research project is to provide an analysis that shows the role of anonymity in online public platforms with regard to openness about sensitive topics – in our case social anxiety.

Context and relevance
When discussing to what extent online anonymity pertains to an expression of mental vulnerability, it is important to stress that this stands in relation to the development of one’s identity on certain platforms. Since we are comparing Reddit’s interface to Facebook’s interface, we examine the characteristics of both platforms through literature. We allocated Reddit as an environment where “communities built around semi-anonymous, real-time, written discourse” (Auerbach n.p.). There are possibilities to view image-based content on Reddit, but this does not undermine the anonymity of its users. Moreover, Reddit users do not have to create a personal profile to join the platform; therefore it is not possible to judge each other based on physical social cues (Giese n.p.).

Facebook can be characterized as a text-based platform that tries to construct a representation of an identity (Enli & Thumin n.p.), with the help of images and actions. The platform grammaticizes feelings, events and expressions, by allowing users to identify themselves through a large range of actions and modulations. However, this identity is expressed through Facebook’s language, leaving a big gap between accurate representation and representation through the platform. Nonetheless, Facebook is a medium that encourages self-representation on the level of socializing with a user’s network (Ibid.).

Studies on the role of anonymity in social environments are often approached from a psychological and sociological angle. However our study offers a different perspective by approaching the topic from a Media Studies perspective. Though social worlds shape digital assemblages such as platforms, these platforms can in turn become agents that act in and shape those worlds (Ruppert 10). In other words, users on platforms such as Reddit and Facebook do not only influence and steer each other, the platform itself can steer those users as well. From this point of view, a study from a Media Studies perspective that researches social phenomena on social platforms, offers a framework that could add a new dimension on aforementioned phenomena in relation to their social environment.

Methodology
This study answers the research question on how a platform’s usability – the option to interact anonymously – prospers an open character of discussions on mental illness, by conducting a comparative content analysis on Facebook and Reddit. These platforms are chosen based upon their contrasting interface and features, as discussed in the theoretical framework.

Our focus is a case study in which we examine a Facebook group and a SubReddit about social anxiety, which is selected based on popularity. With regard to Facebook, this is the highest ranked result on the search query “Social anxiety”. The SubReddit used is the moderated – and thus most used – group called /r/SocialAnxiety. On both platforms the seventy-five last added user posts have been analyzed. We examined the content on both platforms in order to create a categorization that expressed the types of textual and visual content that is posted on the platforms. The decision was then made to categorize the content in the following four groups: Asking for Help, Sharing Experiences, Positive Content and Relatable Images. The outcome of the analysis is shown in tables with percentages. We also measured the interaction on the posts by counting the amount of comments on each post. All mentioned categories have been chosen because they can be measured on both platforms, whereas other factors such as amount of users cannot (as Reddit does not allow this based on their interface).

The four categories are ranged on expressing sensitivity, to determine which platform contains the most sensitive content regarding the issue of social anxiety. Asking for Help is rated as expressing the most sensitivity, as this category shows emergence of action combined with personal experiences, which is a vulnerable position for the user posting their call for help. Sharing Experiences is the topic which comes second in narrating sensitivity, as these personal experiences also imply a vulnerable exposure of a user’s personal issue. Positive Content is categorized as expressing the least sensitive, after Relatable Images, as Positive Content does not revolve around expressing vulnerability but is posted to prosper motivation and hope. Relatable Images is located in between, since it may involve personal expressions, but also covers funny visual content that is used to enhance the feeling of ‘not being alone’. Next to that, it may reveal something about the use of images and how this is linked to the platform’s features. Measuring comments allows us to analyse the amount of interaction that is involved in certain topics.

By performing the above, we are ‘cooking’ our data, by putting subjective weight on the data that we analyze. As stated by Gitelman, data is never completely raw (2); they have to be generated to become data that entails an interpretative base (3). Thus, by interpreting the data we acquired and analyzed, our data becomes useful to show how features of the platform affect the content.

Despite the open character of both platforms, we are aware of the sensitivity of the subject of choice – social anxiety. This acquires to keep in mind the ethical aspect of this study. Furthermore, the key element in this study is the anonymity on the platforms. Therefore, the privacy of the users on Reddit and Facebook will be ensured. To protect their anonymity we have generalised the user-generated content, meaning no individual quotes or statements will be mentioned in this study. In order to make generalizing statements about the content on both platforms, it is crucial to analyze individual-generated content.

Analysis
In order to make a comparison, we converted the seventy-five posts per platform into percentages (table 1).

Post Categories: Asking for Help Sharing Experiences Relatable Images Positive Content
Facebook 20% 48% 12% 20%
Reddit 26,7% 62,7% 5,3% 5,3%

Table 1: content analysis

To determine what kind of post stimulates the most interaction, we calculated the average amount of comments per category (table 2).

Post Categories: Asking
for Help
Sharing Experiences Relatable Images Positive Content Total
Average amount of comments per Facebook post 6,3 7,8 13 8,8 35,9
Average amount of comments per Reddit post 4,1 3,97 5,5 6,25 19,82

Table 2: Average amount of comments

Facebook
The content analysis of Facebook shows most user-generated content belongs to the category Sharing Experiences (48%). These shared experiences mostly contain stories about overcoming fears or stories regarding the causes and effects of a user’s social anxiety. The category Relatable Images has the least added content (12%). However, table 2 shows the highest average amount of comments per post belonged to the category Relatable Images. Thus, the Facebook user is more likely to post an experience herself, but tends to comment quicker on visual posts that are relatable. Furthermore, the Sharing Experience category is being used as a public diary for the user to share what is on his/her mind, instead of asking for other users’ opinions. The same percentage came out of the analysis for the categories Asking for Help and Positive Content in table 1. However, table 2 shows the average amount of comments on Positive Content is higher than on Asking for Help. The category Positive Content mostly contained pictures of nature and pets. Thus, a picture of a user’s pet generates more interaction than a call for help. Furthermore, the category Relatable Images has the highest average amount of comments, followed by the Positive Content category. This shows that visual content on Facebook allows for more interaction. However, we have to take into account that this higher level of interaction could be affected by Facebook’s algorithms, as these algorithms are determining the ordering and visibility of the posts on a user’s timeline.

Reddit
The content analysis on the SubReddit shows that most of the analysed posts concerned the category Sharing Experiences (62,7%). These posts also generated the most interaction with other users even though no specific questions were asked. In general, the comments on these posts comprise more personal experiences of the other users regarding the same topic. Sharing Experiences thus triggers sharing more experiences. Only few SubReddit-posts were related to Positive Content and Relatable Images. This can be explained by the fact that Reddit is more frequently being utilized for textual output.

The Asking for Help category (26,7%) contains two kinds of posts: some of these are requests for help addressing specific situations, such as tips for attending social events or how to eliminate negative thoughts. Other posts are often incorporating a personal experience in their request for help or advice. The analysis shows that most users are looking for recognition or ‘inspiration’ by sharing their experiences and asking for others’ experiences on those topics in order to help them. By adding their own experiences or concerns to their ask for help, users are very open and vulnerable in their communication.

Asking for Help Sharing Experiences Positive Content Relatable Images
Average percentage of comments per category on Reddit 20,7% 20,1% 31,5% 27,7%
Average percentage of comments per category on Facebook 17,6% 21,7% 24,5% 36,2%

Table 3: average percentage of comments, comparing Reddit to Facebook

Table 3 shows that on both platforms, more interaction is generated on Positive Content and Relatable Images, than it is on Asking for Help or Sharing Experiences. From this, one may conclude that these less sensitive categories prosper more interaction than the sensitive ones.

Conclusion
The comparison of Facebook to Reddit’s characteristics through literature gave us insight into the role of anonymity on online public platforms. By analyzing content with regard to openness on social anxiety, we examined how certain platform characteristics affected the way and amount of users asking for help, sharing experiences, posting positive content or relatable images. When looking at the different tables, it becomes clear that users ask more for help and share more experiences on Reddit in contrast to Facebook. In general, the Facebook user does post about experiences, but it is more likely that users engage with each other in commenting on posts with relatable images or positive content, rather than in posts about personal experiences. Contrastingly, our content analysis on the SubReddit showed that most of the users’ posts were about sharing their experiences, and those posts got relatively more comments in return.

The above implies a relatively more open character of topics discussed on the SubReddit on social anxiety compared to the Facebook group about social anxiety. The anonymous text-based character of the SubReddit /r/SocialAnxiety enables users to talk more openly about their social anxiety in contrast to the private Facebook group Social anxiety. In other words, the platform’s character has an impact on the user-generated content and may prosper sensitive topics to be discussed more openly. This complies with Ruppert’s statement regarding the shaping of social worlds: not only are platforms shaped by social worlds (the discussion of sensitive topics: social anxiety), the social worlds are also shaped by the platforms (the ability to operate with or without an anonymous identity in a public space). This postulate is also reflected in the fact that the categories Positive Content and Relatable Images regarding the Facebook group have the most interaction, as this content was mostly visually oriented, which complies with Facebook’s platform characteristics being more visual.

So, in trying to say something about the prosperity of openness in public platforms as Reddit and Facebook, we conclude that the platform determines the way user engage and the way users interact. Both platforms shape an open platform for sensitive topics as social anxiety, but a user’s activity and the character of its content is partly determined by the platform. All in all, we may conclude that in our case study the platforms play a role in shaping social activity with regard to social anxiety. Consequently, this proposes further research on how these kind of groups may be engineered in the future, considering the influence of the platform’s activity regarding sensitive topics.

Word count
2175

References
Auerbach, David. “Triple Canopy – Anonymity as Culture: Treatise by David Auerbach.” Triple Canopy. 2 October 2017. <https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/legacy/final/anonymity_as_culture__treatise>.

Enli, Gunn, and Nancy Thumim. “Socializing and Self-Representation Online: Exploring Facebook.” OBS – Observatorio, vol. 6, Jan. 2012, 87–105.

Giese, Mark. “Self without Body: Texual Self-Representation in an Electronic Community.” First Monday, vol. 3, no. 4, April 1998.

Ruppert, Evelyn, et al. “Reassembling Social Science Methods: The Challenge of Digital Devices.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 30, no. 4, 2013, 22–46.

Zuckerman, Ethan. “Reddit: A Pre-Facebook Community in a Post-Facebook World.” The Atlantic, July 2013. The Atlantic. <https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/07/reddit-a-pre-facebook-community-in-a-post-facebook-world/277583/>.

https://www.zotero.org/groups/1787303/facebook_vs._reddit_communities/items

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