Arguably the best thing about the wave of social media tools finding their way into the learning space is that learners are finally able to connect and communicate with one another about their experiences. Whether it is commenting on a piece of content or answering questions about a class they took, bringing learners together is the hallmark of a truly social learning environment.
Our own research validates the effectiveness of letting learners learn from each other. Nearly two-thirds of companies say that discussion forums are highly effective for learning. Learner comments and learner-generated videos are also seen as effective.
However, it turns out there may be a dark side to all of this. The interesting thing about social media in general is that it can expose unique quirks in human behavior that may not have been readily apparent otherwise, leading to unintended consequences.
While the conventional wisdom is that these interactions provide motivation, demotivation also exists in social interactions. A study out of Stanford University found that negative social feedback has a profound effect on how people behave in these forums. The study found that if a piece of user-contributed content is evaluated negatively, that user actually ends up contributing increasingly more, increasingly lower quality content. They also become more likely to evaluate other users and content negatively, exacerbating the cycle.
Unfortunately, positive feedback does not have a similar effect. Users who are positively evaluated do not contribute more, nor does the quality of their posts improve. And those who receive no feedback simply give up and leave. This study truly illustrates the power of negative feedback.
Negativity and demotivation aren’t constrained to social media, either. We see it in the areas of gamification and leaderboards. Organizations have been trying to attach achievements and rewards to learning to motivate learners for some time. The advent of social platforms has only accelerated this practice, with people able to log in and track everyone’s progress and track the leaderboard.
In many cases the leaderboard does two things. First, it does just what it was intended to do: it lights a fire under motivated learners who want to get the most points and sit on top of the pile. On the other end of the spectrum, however, it taps into a diametrically opposed character trait in many people. For them, once it becomes clear they will not be in the top five, or even top 10, they give up. The leaderboard now effectively demotivates a portion of the learning audience, even though those people may be just as apt and competent as the rest of the group. Not everyone can be number one (or even above average).
What all of this means for the learning function is that as we move to a more socially connected learning environment, we have to ensure we treat it as a living, breathing ecosystem. These connections can be powerful, but care should be taken to keep things moving in the right direction. We can’t simply flip the social switch into the on position and walk away.