Online Communication & Social Hierarchy

There are a plethora of ways to communicate online, both with people you know, and people you’ve never met. But something the makers of these tools fail to mould to, is the social hierarchy and human structures in which they are used. There are three examples that come to mind.

Instant Messaging

Since the days of COVID, every white collar organisation is using Microsoft Teams, Slack or Google Chat to facilitate communication within the organisation. Gone are the days when you had to walk to somebody’s desk, set up a meeting with them, or craft a thoughtful email to communicate your need to them. Now, you can just type “Hey” and are supposed to have the other party’s full attention. Which is not how human communities have ever interacted.

Imagine the scenario of an executive of a large company. This company may have a competitive career ladder, and everyone who wants a promotion wants the “visibility” of the executive. Since there’s no friction to contacting her, every person can just send her a message so that they can be at the “top of her mind” in the month leading to their performance review. And 100s of people may do this. Which would be a waste of her time.

Or consider the case where one team requires something from another team. Within Team A, members may decide that constant communication is acceptable, and fulfil their priorities through the sporadic buzzing of chat notifications. Now when communicating to Team B, who have their own priorities, your chat message suddenly has to be a new priority in their world requiring immediate attention. This has completely ignored the social division of teams, and created an inefficient scenario where a team’s attention is beholden to external distractions brought about by the instant messaging tool.

The Comments Section

Platforms like YouTube have provided the world an endless supply of entertainment suited to an individual’s particular preference from a manifold selection of creators. On top of this, the comments section has given viewers a sense of community, having the pleasure of hearing others’ thoughts on what you’re watching, without the burden of actually knowing them and having to change from your torn pyjamas to watch it with them.

But the comments section has also resulted in many ignoring social protocol. There’s a popular South African female YouTuber who was having an interview with a guest. The YouTuber has branded herself as a Christian, though the content of her channel is not necessarily religious. On this particular video, one of those who posted a comment said something along the lines of “A Christian should not be wearing something that short”, referring to the shorts she was wearing during the interview.

If this was an in-person event with a raised platform and an audience, when the time for audience comments and questions come up, such a comment would never be made. And if it was made, the appropriate social censure would ensue. Yet, the online nature of YouTube completely masks the fact that you are a guest on someone else’s platform who deserves the necessary honour.


When Uber first came out, it was celebrated as necessarily disruptive. It bypassed all the social structures in the territories it operated in. It was not beholden to the taxi associations and its rules, providing a way for the consumer of the service to directly access the service provider, with the “invisible” facilitation of the Uber company.

Two weeks ago, I urgently needed to travel about 2.5km by Uber as my car was in for repairs. I set the destination, and nobody responded. I tried Bolt and nobody responded. After a while of waiting, I eventually walked. When getting to the destination, I found Uber drivers nearby and asked them why they don’t accept short trips. They said “R40 is too little money. It’s just not worth it”.

In that moment, I wouldn’t have minded paying whatever price they had set it at. In fact, I used the same driver to take me back home and just paid the price he wanted directly. If the platform didn’t bypass the social institution of a taxi or cab association, they would be able to collectively set their own prices for trips, and consumers like me wouldn’t be left standing. But because the local social structure has been ignored, everyone is worse off.

Everyone has worked in an organisation where concepts are referred to, not by their business name, but the name the IT systems refer to them as. The technology that we use has this pervasive influence on the context that it operates in, shaping the organisation or society in the shape of the technology. The cultural context in which these technologies are made have a way of en-culturing the communities in which they are used, moulding the users into the image of the creators and their society.

It would be wise to think about how we use the technology before fully embracing it.

Cover Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash