Why social software might destroy us all

I’ve had an interesting email dialogue with my friend Rob Paterson today, extending from a post of Rob’s weblog in which he wrote, in part “I think and write about war because I think that it is part of who we are - it is an unavoidable part of being human.”

I took exception to that comment: I believe that we are all essentially good, and that war is a temporary aberration that we can eventually overcome. I realize that this puts me at odds both with reality, and with Accepted Religious Doctrine, but I simply couldn’t survive if I had to feel that conflict will win out.

Our dialogue led in several directions, and at one point I wondered aloud whether the Internet and “social software” might play some role in “bringing us all together:”

In other words, is the Internet, and the social networks that increasingly overlay it, the bringing to life of the old Coca-Cola commercial (“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love…”) and inasmuch as that is true, does it hold any promise in helping to mitigate or eliminate the brutality (i.e. it’s harder to shoot someone if they’re your Facebook friend).

Thinking about this some more, and with some additional push-back from Rob, I’ve realized that there’s a problem with this plan, and it is this:

The social software rhetoric is all about connecting with like-minded people. So whereas in the old world you were forced to hang out with the two other Mongolian comics fans in your small town, the Internet lets you connect with the thousands of others out there in the rest of the world, geography be damned.

Don’t like the girls in Smallville? The Internet is moist with the possibilities of the girls of Capital City. Miss the folks from the Old Country? You’ll find a Google Group full of them.

This is, almost universally, talked about as a Good Thing.

And if you’re a Goth in Nail Pond I’d have a hard time convincing you otherwise.

But here’s the thing: so much of what ails the world right now (and perhaps forever) has to do with our inability to connect with non-like-minded people. Whether the lines in the sand are religious, political, ethnic or otherwise, Rob’s state of “permanent war” is fed by conflict between people who aren’t drinking from the same Coca-Cola.

In other words, it might be hard to shoot someone if they’re your Facebook friend. But it’s unlikely that the person you’re keen on shooting is your Facebook friend because Facebook serves simply to reinforce old loyalties. It’s easy to befriend someone your brother went to school with; it’s unlikely you’ll befriend someone from the other side of the world with a worldview that’s completely in conflict with yours.

One of the great things about geography, at least some of the time, is that it often places us in situations where we have to learn how to live in harmony with a whole range of people. You want to praise God on Sundays while your neighbour wants to listen to Motorhead. I like french fries, you like gulab jaman. You raise goats, I play chess. You’re Catholic, I’m not. Learning to live, and thrive, with the thousand little incompatibilities we share with our neighbours and fellow citizens builds up “social dissonance muscles” and leaves us with skills that allow us to, at the very least, tolerate difference.

I’m wondering if the more we jump into the online orgies of the like-minded, the more time we spend exclusively with people who share our passions, the weaker these muscles are going to become.

Is it possible to create technology tools that work in the opposite direction, tools that somehow exercise our skills at mitigating conflict by exposing us, in some real and honest way, to people with whom we might otherwise never communicate? I’m thinking of a sort of Bizarro Facebook where our social network is made up of the least likely people we’d otherwise connect with.

Even as I write this it seems absurd, if only because it would probably be painful for most people. But it seems to me that the more we seek solace among the coalitions of the like-minded, the more Rob’s permanent war becomes likely.