Full disclosure: I’ve been working on minimizing my social media use for a long time now, and have whittled it down to just a few applications: Instagram, TikTok, and Discord, with the addition of iMessage for those I am close enough with to have my iCloud email or phone number. Twitter’s one of those things that I keep for the sheer fact that it’s supposedly professional in my field of interest. (It’s fandom. I need to keep up with fandom.)
Despite this shift in how I want to use social media, I forced myself back into patterns of social media usage to go about the below experiment.
This social experiment, though, was supposed to be a bit of a norm-breaching exercise.
For 3 days, always “mix” media–always respond to communication using a different medium of communication than the one that was used to contact you. For example: if you get a phone call, let it go to voicemail then SMS them. If you get an email, send a picture to their phone, etc. Respond to your Twitter @s in person.
As a socially anxious person and a terrible introvert, I chose this specific experiment as it was the safest option that would garner a reasonably exciting response. The other options didn’t really fit my lifestyle or communication style — there’s also something to be said about that, too.
Three days is a long time, but I keep a small circle of friends and don’t use my phone as often as one might think I use it. I ended up doing this experiment with two friends — we’ll refer to them as E & G, to protect their privacy. They are aware this was for a class experiment, but at the time, they did not know. After the fact, they are okay with me articulating their experiences online, but we have decided not to use screenshots of our correspondence. So, you’ll have to take my word for it.
To decide how to begin, I first took account of which social media platforms it wouldn’t be strange for folks to see me active on and settled on the following: my public Twitter account (@tharanisabrina), my personal (locked) Instagram account, the Facebook messenger app I keep around for that one relative that won’t iMessage you, Discord, and TikTok. I only used iMessage for E, a local friend. G is located in the US, so we don’t talk over iMessage (those darn Android users).
After I’d decided on the platforms to use in this experiment, I’ll explain my rationale for choosing two people and two people only — I’ve already set specific boundaries for my social media usage and accessibility. It’s genuinely only my best friends who talk to me during the day on these apps, aside from my immediate family, who aren’t on various social media apps that would generate some interesting responses. Other friends know to expect me around at a particular time of day, usually the evening. I speak to E and G daily, frequently, save for when I’m in lectures or studying.
For three days, I responded to each of their messages through alternate platforms.
My results were pretty standard across the three days — so first, I’ll show you what a conversation looked like and then get to some overall results.
Here’s what I did:
G: I get a “good morning” message on Discord, and I respond to it in a TikTok direct message. I see that G had sent me a handful of TikToks when I’d gone to bed the night before, and I send her a Tweet responding to a hilarious anime TikTok. She sends me another message on Discord, likely seeing I’m active but curious about why I’m quiet on Discord but messaging her on other platforms. I send a photo on Instagram via direct message of my desk and study set up, which she opens and “likes” but sends a “???” in response.
E: I wake up to my usual morning update text from E, who wakes up before I do and is decently into her workday by the time I’ve rolled out of bed and got my morning coffee. I respond on Facebook messenger and to her Instagram messages in a Twitter DM, a TikTok she sent me via iMessage. Initially, E seems confused but likely chalks it up to my introverted tendencies.
“You’re being weird!” AKA, I got caught.
G picked up on the weird behaviour very quickly — she was confused, often indirectly asking what I was doing in subtler ways, like “oh, you’re pretty active on Instagram today.” It wasn’t until halfway through day three that G asks outright why I didn’t just like the TikTok she sent me in the TikTok DM, instead electing to DM her on Discord with a reply that read “omg that NCT 127 TikTok 😍” to which I sent her a “🤷🏽♀️” as an answer, in a Twitter DM. At that point, she sounded a little frustrated, so the anxiety kicked in and had me settle on just pausing my responses until later that night when I could wrap up the experiment and let her know why I was spamming every social app I had her on.
Once I told G what I was doing, during a voice chat the following morning, she let out an exasperated sigh and said to me that it was really annoying keeping up conversations on so many apps and keep track of them, too.
E, on the other hand, was confused, but it was likely for a different reason. Though we don’t speak as constantly as G and I do, we have a habit of engaging in entirely separate conversations in each of our primary modes of communication: TikTok, iMessage, and Instagram. iMessage is always reserved for meaningful, day-to-day conversations — checking in on each other, ensuring we work through the burnout school and work might cause us. Instagram’s for the fandom content we consume and the random little chats about home decor, recipes, or whatever we’d shared. I noticed that E’s response to my behaviour was more a reflection of what she was comfortable doing — as she’s not a big fan of confrontation or addressing things head-on, she actually played along. When I told her that this was an experiment, she was relieved.
How I felt, though, was a whole other beast.
Not only was this just a bit strange for me, but it also had me thinking about why, other than for convenience, that we even communicate so much across so many platforms when we’re only talking to one or two people.
Along this line of thought, I considered how we use these social platforms in communicating with loved ones — what is my need to engage with the same people on all media in the first place? Why was it odd to G & E that I was switching up what conversations I have with them and on what platform those conversations occur? Why did they find the way I spoke and replied so…weird?
It was because of this investigation into how I engage with my friends on different apps that I considered that I was doing something akin to codeswitching, as we’ve read about in class in Jeffrey Lane’s The Digital Street. Though he speaks about audience segregation in his text, I think I can apply the concept in general here. Lane writes, “[b]y following a schedule, we know whom to be when and can cycle through multiple roles without constant dissonance. This natural separation of audiences allows us to present differently and to disclose different information to people in unique areas of our lives.” (63) Even though I’m speaking to the same people on multiple applications, I have ways of speaking and behaving on those different platforms. I’ll disclose here — if G is sending me TikTok edits of my favourite musician looking extremely attractive, a keysmash response (read: dkjfhdskjfhsdfh!!!) in a Twitter response to her would be very out of place for her, and would be a confusing interaction for my Twitter followers, no doubt. I deleted that tweet after the assignment was done — I do use my Twitter professionally, after all!
All in all, it was an interesting experiment to see how my friends responded to me “mixing media” when trying to communicate with them — especially with friends who are very used to engaging with me in a very specific way on the platforms we speak across.
What would I suggest for another experiment?
Something I noticed about the platforms that were outlined in the experiment were that they were apps or platforms I personally just didn’t use anymore, like Facebook or Snapchat. In discussing the assignments with E after the fact, she even told me: “I wouldn’t have even noticed if you unfriended me on Facebook!”
Nowadays, TikTok has become all the rage — and there are a ton of ways to engage with the content strangers make. A fun experiment could be utilizing the “stitch” or “duet” feature on TikTok, riffing off the unrelated comment thread experiment, to duet/stitch a video with someone else’s that has absolutely nothing to do with the original video, and gauge peoples’ responses to it, your views and likes, and what the comments might say about your content. Are you getting comments? Are people confused? That sort of thing.
Lane, Jeffrey. “Code Switching.” The Digital Street, Oxford University Press, 2018, 62–92.