Social Noise: What Is It, and Why Should We Care?

Social Noise: What Is It, and Why Should We Care?

Tara Zimmerman

As social media, online relationships, and perceived social expectations on platforms such as Facebook play a greater role in people’s lives, a new phenomenon has emerged: social noise. Social noise is the influence of personal and relational factors on information received, which can confuse, distort, or even change the intended message. Influenced by social noise, people are likely to moderate their response to information based on cues regarding what behavior is acceptable or desirable within their social network. This may be done consciously or unconsciously as individuals strive to present themselves in ways that increase their social capital. For example, this might be seen as liking or sharing information posted by a friend or family member as a show of support despite having no strong feelings toward the information itself. Similarly, someone might refrain from liking, sharing, or commenting on information they strongly agree with because they believe others in their social network would disapprove.

—Observable social media information behavior may not be an accurate reflection of an individual’s true thoughts and beliefs.—

This study reveals that social media users’ awareness of observation by others does impact their information behavior. Efforts to craft a personal reputation, build or maintain relationships, pursue important commitments, and manage conflict all influence the observable information behavior of social media users. As a result, observable social media information behavior may not be an accurate reflection of an individual’s true thoughts and beliefs. This is particularly interesting in light of the role social media plays in the spread of mis- and disinformation. It is possible that liking, sharing, and believing mis- and disinformation is influenced by social noise so that people are unwittingly participating in the spread of damaging falsehoods on social media.

I used an ethnographic approach to studying this type of information behavior on Facebook because I felt it was important to observe people’s behavior as well as ask them about their choices. Participants gave permission to be observed responding to three informational posts of their choice, followed by a short interview about their response. Based on observation notes, screen recordings, and interview transcripts, I reviewed the data using thematic analysis, alternating between inductive and deductive coding, which was based on early assumptions about important factors influencing social noise. I identified four constructs that underlie social noise: identity curation, cultural commitments, relationship management, and conflict management. 

  1. Identity curation emerged as the overarching consideration for people as they seek to project certain images and beliefs about themselves to others. Identity curation is observed in a user’s effort to craft their online persona, including the intentional filtering of online artifacts and information about themselves.
  2. Cultural commitments refers to a person’s understanding of their roles and responsibilities in society, along with their ability to affect change. This construct is observed when social media users, influenced by personal factors such as gender, sexual orientation, and ethnic background, exercise their social power to stimulate conversation, question social norms, and advocate for their beliefs. 
  3. Relationship management is a person’s desire to maintain or build community with individuals or groups with high social value, whether exclusively online or as a supplement to face-to-face relationships. This can be driven by the desire to be accepted by a particular group or to connect with one key individual.
  4. Conflict management is the level of social conflict a person is comfortable with and how they choose to handle those interactions. This construct is observed on social media as users determine how to respond to individuals or information with which they did not agree. 

After considering a particular piece of information in light of the four constructs, a person then decides how to react to the information. Social media users attempt to manage their self-presentation online while at the same time navigating their relationships with others by interacting with information in a way that is advantageous. This includes balancing relationships with others against their individual tolerance for engaging in conflict, which is many times centered around issues in which they are deeply invested (cultural commitments).

Social Noise Model
Social Noise Model

Awareness of persistent observation by members of one’s social network is the most unique feature of social media information behavior. This results in the phenomenon of Social Noise which impacts people’s information behavior whether they are aware of it or not. Identifying social noise as a factor in online information behavior demonstrates that personal and environmental considerations can cause people to adjust their information behavior on social media. The awareness of this influence is important for individual users as well as for businesses, organizations, and anyone studying social media.  Here are some examples:

  • Social noise can cause people to ignore or avoid information they believe could cause conflict or reflect badly on them. Conversely, social motivations can drive interaction with information that the person would not be interested in usually. 
  • Because one or more of the four constructs can affect information behavior, a person may respond to information on social media in ways that do not accurately reflect their true beliefs and opinions. 
  • Organizations, businesses, and researchers should be aware that information behavior observed on social media is not guaranteed to be an accurate representation of someone’s true beliefs and intentions.  This is related to social noise as well as our tendency to believe information is true by default until we have overwhelming evidence to the contrary.* 

Future research into social noise should include larger, more diverse populations and studies within certain information contexts, such as politics, health, and social justice information. Specific research is needed to understand how the four constructs interact with and influence one another and whether additional constructs may exist that contribute to Social Noise. My future research includes examining how social noise may influence serendipitous information encountering versus intentional information seeking. 

The recognition of social noise can be an important step toward information and media literacy as we begin to understand that many factors influence online information behavior. This is especially important considering the steep rise of misinformation and disinformation on social media. As individual users become aware of the unseen influences behind the liking and sharing of information on social media, they may become less likely to believe these falsehoods or pass them along to others. 

*Zimmerman, T., Njeri, M., Khader, M., Allen, J. (2022). Default to truth in information behavior: A proposed framework for understanding vulnerability to deceptive information.  Information and Learning Sciences, special issue on Teaching and Learning About Misinformation and Disinformation. 

The original article on which this essay is based is: Zimmerman, T. (2022). Social noise: The influence of observers on social media information behavior. Journal of Documentation. 

Cite this article in APA as: 
Zimmerman, T. (2022, February 24). Social noise: What is it, and why should we care? Information Matters, Vol. 2, Issue 2.

Tara Zimmerman

Dr. Tara Zimmerman is Computing Research Association CI2020 Fellow funded through the National Science Foundation and working at the University of Texas at Austin iSchool. She is continuing to develop her Social Noise framework in the context of misinformation and COVID-19, as well as working on projects through Good Systems, the UT Grand Challenge Initiative. Tara completed her PhD in Information Science at the University of North Texas where she focused on the qualitative study of social media information behavior.

One thought on “Social Noise: What Is It, and Why Should We Care?

  • I appreciate your studying and developing the Social Noise Framework, as it feeds into ‘Fake News’ where false information can be distributed and can mislead people into thinking a certain way. Consequently, social noise can lead the masses to panic if the information is not recognized or reflected on properly. In an era where social media is prevalent, social noise can influence the way we think, feel and act. Furthermore, since social noise is prevalent when we are not intentionally information-seeking it can cause a state of confusion if again, we are not aware. Digital Literacy will be of great importance and should be implemented in all schools to combat the social noise.

Comments are closed.