Last time I talked about the differences between explicit and implicit feedback, how implicit feedback is missing from the virtual world, and the resulting difficulties with feedback online.
Lacking the unconscious stream of emotional information that we receive automatically from other people face-to-face, online communication and feedback are much less robust, much less compelling, and indeed much less interesting than face-to-face feedback. But they still can sting.
Why does online feedback hurt so much? We humans are social beings; put us face-to-face, and we share mirror neurons that allow us to match each other’s emotions unconsciously and immediately. We leak emotions to each other. We anticipate and mirror each other’s movements when we’re in sympathy or agreement with one another—when we’re on the same side. And we can mirror each other’s brain activity when we’re engaged in storytelling and listening—both halves of the communication conundrum.
All of that leaking and sharing creates trust, intimacy, and connection. It creates receptivity and interest in the other person’s point of view.
We want to achieve this state of human communion; it’s a mistake to think that most humans prefer the solitary life that so much of modern virtual life imposes on us. We are most comfortable when we’re connected, sharing strong emotions and stories, and led by a strong, charismatic leader who is keeping us safe and together.
The virtual world, in contrast, is much less engaging. We humans are much less enrolled in most aspects of this world because they lack the emotional information we crave. Negative virtual feedback hurts because, lacking emotional context, it feels unexpected.
Beyond trust or the lack of it, another demand has arisen concomitantly in the virtual face-to-face mix we live in today: authenticity. We live in an era when the demand for authenticity trumps a number of qualities that society used to deem more important. Authenticity has always had a measure of importance, but its stock has risen and fallen depending on the times. Right now, it beats out excellence, coolness, and artifice; to jump to the top of the charts or the best-seller list, you have to be ready to open up.
The demand for authenticity makes you more vulnerable to (and more exposed to) feedback. And online feedback is far more often of the trolling kind. The result is the naming and shaming, the Twitter wars, the instant celebrities whose lives are just as instantly ruined by hate-filled outpourings of online denizens who pounce virtually on those who put themselves out there.
And thus we become febrile inhabitants of a world that is deeply reflective of the ironies of our times: we crave feedback, and yet we fear it. It is both wonderful and soul-killing. We are insecure and immune. We have celebrities and politicians who are more loved and more hated than ever before.
We crave recognition and fear it at the same time. We are polarized. We are tribal. We are addicted to the feedback—the recognition, the likes, the retweets, the confirmation of the virtual world—and are terrified that it will turn on us and destroy us.
Trust in the virtual world is not only fragile, but also a weapon. And yet we need to trust, because we are one click away from identity theft, or trolling, or worse: oblivion.
This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Can You Hear Me?, due out from Harvard in October. You can pre-order it below.