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I argued in this dissertation that because Twitter and Facebook do not have the same affordances that people may express minority viewpoints on these platforms in differing ways. The affordances I considered were friend networks on each platform, visibility, and identifiability. I argued that on Twitter people may feel more free to express minority viewpoints because Twitter networks tend to be made up of strangers or weak-tie acquaintance; therefore, people would not fear losing these relationships if they expressed a divergent opinion to the same extent as they would on Facebook, where people engage with real-life friends or stronger ties, such as family members.
Similarly, I argued the posts on Facebook are more visible because the platform automatically notified people’s friend networks about a post, while Twitter’s notification system is less prominent. As a result, people would be more afraid to express a differing viewpoint on Facebook where real friends might see than on Twitter in the midst of strangers and weak-tie acquaintances. Finally, I argued that Facebook requires more visibility of people’s identity by requiring a real name and encouraging inclusion of multiple details about a person in their profile, while Twitter allows fake names and does not provide room for many details about a person. This lessened identifiability on Twitter, I argued, would make people more free to express minority viewpoints because they would not worry about offending real friends because they can distance their Twitter profile from their real self. My findings support this contention. I found that people were more willing to express controversial opinions that they believed were in the minority on Twitter than on Facebook. I also found users also tend to use opinion expression avoidance strategies more often on Facebook versus Twitter when the majority of their network does not agree with them. This offers important new knowledge about how affordances operate on various social media platforms. These findings suggest that even if people are not consciously thinking about the differences in affordances, these affordances influence how they express opinions on these platforms.
Norman (1990) argued that, “affordances provide strong clues to the operation of things” (p. 9). Similarly, Gibson (1982) stated that affordances might constrain or encourage certain actions. My findings strongly support this contention. My findings showed that when the same people are asked whether they would express a controversial minority viewpoint on Twitter and on Facebook, they reported being more constrained on Facebook. This suggested that it is the affordances of these two platforms that may lead to differences, not the fact that different people may be drawn to use Twitter than to use Facebook. Thus, this suggested that the differences in people’s opinion discussion behaviors are not just a function of what platform they choose to use.
Rather, this study provided early evidence that it is the affordances of each platform that may lead people to change their behaviors when they interact on one versus the other. This begins to answer a question left unresolved by earlier research, which also found that people differed in how they communicated on Twitter versus Facebook. However, that study did not clarify whether different people are drawn to Twitter than to Facebook and that is why opinion discussion behaviors may differ or because the same people would express opinions differently. Furthermore, my findings demonstrated that it is possible that people may be concerned more with agreement on a controversial issue with certain people rather than rest of their network on social media websites. For example, the majority of people’s networks may agree with them on a controversial topic but if their key strong ties disagree with them then they may not want to express their opinion on that network since their visibility and identifiability high and they may not want to upset their key ties. In other words, the affordances of friend network, visibility, and identifiability work together to create a climate on Twitter where people may be freer to express controversial minority opinions because they feel less visible and identifiable, and they are less worried about offending their weak-tie relationships or strangers, so they feel emboldened. Given that picture above, a main theoretical contribution of this work is to suggest that a favorable opinion climate alone is not enough to explain people’s willingness to express opinions on a controversial issue on social media platforms. Depending on the affordances each platform, people may not want to express their opinions if they feel more identifiable, more visible, or if they are interacting mainly with strong-ties friends and relatives.
The concept of homophily is helpful in understanding my findings. Some studies suggest that people tend to talk about controversial issues with their homogenous networks or close ties (Marsden, 1987) and users are likely to have homogenous network on Facebook (Lönnqvist & Itkonen, 2015). On the other hand, the results of this dissertation suggested that people tend to avoid discussing controversial issues on homophilic Facebook, and they are more likely to discuss these issues on more heterogenous Twitter. Another explanation of these results could be that high visibility and identifiability might increase people’s awareness of opinion diversity within users’ networks on Facebook. Thus, even though users are most likely to have homophilic networks on Facebook, increased awareness of diverse opinions might lower their perceived homophily and increase ambivalence toward a controversial discussion on Facebook. Thus, this increased awareness may explain why users censor themselves and prefer not talk about controversial issues on Facebook. This study also supported the idea that visibility and identifiability may influence users’ opinion expression behaviors on social media websites. The result showed that people tend to express their opinion on Twitter where visibility and identifiability are low versus Facebook where these two affordances are high.
Gaver (1996) speculated that affordances may influence social interaction between people. The results suggested that while users on Twitter tend to express their opinions on a controversial issue, they tend to use avoidance strategies on Facebook and avoid from interacting with their network on a controversial issue. Thus, it can be concluded that social media affordances do not only influence individual actions but also they may have an impact on social interactions on social media websites. The results also suggested that users may feel less accountable for their actions when their visibility and identifiability are low. People feel less accountable for their actions anonymous environments, and, as a result, they tend to discuss controversial issues in these kinds of environments.
Even though Twitter is not fully an anonymous space, users may perceive less visibility and identifiability on Twitter and, thus, feel more anonymous. As a result, users may participate in discussions – and eschew opinion expression avoidance strategies — more on Twitter than on Facebook where visibility and identifiability greater. A recent study suggested that high visibility and identifiability on online environments can increase information flow among different audiences. As a result, users may see more diverse opinions and this intensify political discussions on these platforms. However, contrary to this finding, the results of this dissertation suggests high visibility and identifiability may impeded people from discussing controversial issues when they feel their opinion is not supported by the majority. It is possible that high visibility and identifiability on Facebook add greater accountability in people’s actions. Thus, these affordances may prevent users from directly expressing their opinions instead leading them to use avoidance strategies.
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