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.


Nathan's picture
Nathan on December 29, 2007 - 06:49 Permalink

We’ve got a domain for you: punchinthefacebook.com. Yes, we (silverorange) actually do own that domain but I don’t remember why.

oliver's picture
oliver on December 29, 2007 - 10:52 Permalink

Is it possible to create technology tools that work in the opposite direction…?”

You might also want to ask whether there’s a business model and a marketing scheme. It sounds like we’re talking about a company with a technology that profits from people seeking out something that stresses and stretches them. People need to believe there’s a payoff, or a cost to not doing this ostensibly unnecessary work.

Incidentally, besides geography, traditionally we’ve also had family obligations forcing us to learn to get along with unlike-minded people. Of course, these seem to be on the outs too.

The loop-hole to your doom scenario might be art and creativity. The same social software together with cheap personal electronics etc means that something close to a majority of people will be able to to publish creative works or perform publicly. We tend to like and take an interest in people who like the stuff we make, and since there’s no accounting for taste, there’s no telling what kind of people are going to like it.

Actually, already a common story I hear is of online friendships that probably would never have formed through real-life encounters. It’s not the end of tolerance if bowlers only hang out online with other bowlers, because all kinds of people bowl. I could imagine that hanging out online might even promote diversity and individualism in groups or subcultures in which members traditionally conform, because herding and peer pressure are harder to do in text.

Ken's picture
Ken on December 29, 2007 - 13:14 Permalink

Facebook extends your social network beyond geographical limitations, so Nazi fly fisherman could have been connected with French, British, and Chinese fly fisherman. Branching out stabilizes. But forget about war, I’m worried about the radical anger of a lone gunman.

Facebook makes intelligence work easier. Law enforcement loves a profile. Facebook is a well lit neighbourhood. If you want to break out of your social scene and grow as a person then log off and join the Peace Corps, get in the mud.

Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on December 29, 2007 - 13:23 Permalink

My own experience suggest that I have met and now am fond of a number of people that I could only have met online. But the research is quite clear about the more likely outcome — that we feel more comfortable with like minded people. Maybe because in the online world — where we don’t bump into each other at the supermarket etc, we don’t have to be civil. Few but sociopaths are actively rude in person — many are inline. People tend to be very polite on PEI because there is so high a chance that you will meet in person. So while the online world allows a much larger pool — it also promotes troll behaviour. Trolls en masse become a mob.

Here is a link to some cool research on the tendency to stay in the echo chamber — http://smartpei.typepad.com/ro…

Marian's picture
Marian on December 30, 2007 - 16:54 Permalink

I have to confess that I’ve done nothing but argue with people online, which either means that I am disagreeable (a very real possibility) or the internet is not necessarily a vehicle for homogeneity (or both). I see some parts of the internet as being an extension of older traditions of reading and letter writing. These parts actually reinforces heterogeneity (instead of reinforcing homogeneity) by supporting isolated individuals who have rare or unusual interests and by bringing them together with groups of like-minded people (people with a passion for traveling in Croatia for instance) and creating communities of interest. It also brings disagreeable people like me to people who are used to the usual run of conversation in Canada. Canadians actually hate to disagree in person, and are often offended when others voice dissenting opinions. So it’s actually hard to have a full discussion in person. There are exceptions, of course. Facebook, to me at least, seems conducive only to ‘making friends’and being liked. It’s an extension of your real connections online. If you live in a small town, your ‘friends’ will be the same people you have known in ‘real world’ and so not really a spur to further heterogeneity.

Marian's picture
Marian on December 30, 2007 - 17:01 Permalink

What I mean is, some parts of the internet, such as blogs like this one have arguments in/on them. That’s a sign of heterogeneity and differing opinion. Other parts of the internet, such as social networking sites, are less conducive to differing opinion because they simply reproduce social relationships as they are.

Marian's picture
Marian on December 30, 2007 - 17:10 Permalink

I wish you had an editing function, Peter.

Ann's picture
Ann on December 31, 2007 - 02:19 Permalink

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?

Sure. Turn off the computer and go outside.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on December 31, 2007 - 02:46 Permalink

Sure, we could turn off the computer and go outside. But, at least in Charlottetown, there are relatively few people who are pointing guns at us.

Marian's picture
Marian on December 31, 2007 - 02:48 Permalink

I think Peter has it exactly backward. In general, I think technologies like this blog that are based on reading and writing actually promote diversity of opinion, not echo chambers. I think real life is actually more of an echo chamber. But I think we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want polite conversation with no dissent in real life, but we also want to say that this community, where we exercise our skills at mitigating conflict, is not an echo chamber. But I think in the ‘real world’ people sacrifice honesty in order to get along. And sometimes this can go too far.

On the other hand modern communities are already relatively diverse, so not like communities before the advent of the printing press, for instance. And therefore people are also likely to meet people in real life who hold differing opinions. And this can seem more real and have more impact than words on a page. But words on a page are still more rational.

Marian's picture
Marian on December 31, 2007 - 02:55 Permalink

and so more likely to lead to real discussion.

oliver's picture
oliver on December 31, 2007 - 07:41 Permalink

But words on a page are still more rational…and so more likely to lead to real discussion.”

To real discussion of the wrong things often, depending who’s done the rationalizing and who’s doing the reading. Discussing anything emotional only in writing is a shot in the dark, especially between two strangers, neither of them Nobel-winning novelists.

Marian's picture
Marian on December 31, 2007 - 16:58 Permalink

I’m not saying that irrationality won’t be present especially between irrational persons. I’m saying that you’re more likely to get punched or have your coffee thrown across a room in person, than in print. Print involves pausing however briefly to arrange the letters and words in the right order.

oliver's picture
oliver on December 31, 2007 - 18:59 Permalink

It’s a good point about the higher mindfulness of writing versus talking off-the-cuff, and it’s another good point about the value of not being within range of hot coffee or a fist from whoever receives your words (something you can arrange with a phone call too of course). I just want to register the point that “being rational” doesn’t imply and isn’t a surefire recipe for understanding or getting along. I wouldn’t want to risk a friendship on the reliability of text.

Marian's picture
Marian on December 31, 2007 - 19:39 Permalink

I guess my problem is that I think getting along is often overrated. I also think understanding is not the same as getting along. Though I’m grateful we don’t live somewhere where bombing people is the resolution du jour for every argument.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on January 1, 2008 - 00:33 Permalink

We evolved in small successful groups. Part of that evolution was competition with other groups. Groups which conqured violence among their kin would be disproportionately successful in most circumstances. The opposite goes for extra-group conflict. The common element, now disappearing with the Internet, was the face-to-face contact. What now (and I don’t have an answer) that the Internet is busting the basic evolutionary unit while it connects people who never (or rarely) see or touch each other? I’ve been asking this question for a decade (at least) and have seen nothing from social scientists (of substance) on the topic.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 1, 2008 - 02:54 Permalink

How is this different from books, letter writing or radio (where there is no face to face contact either)? A lot of what passes for commentary about new technology sounds like moral panic to me. You know, that’s where people freak out about the dissolution of common decency and standards because of the introduction of a new subculture or new way of doing things. Here is a link for background info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M…

oliver's picture
oliver on January 1, 2008 - 05:36 Permalink

I guess my problem is that I think getting along is often overrated. I also think understanding is not the same as getting along.”

I think you’re not understanding me, while thinking exactly the same as I am. Are we getting along? I think being able to get along _while_ being understood is or has been under-valued, and that we’re attracted to typeface socializing as a place of relief and refuge from the environment that undervalues it. I think the relief comes from feeling at liberty to make a priority of being understood—a feeling we get partly from communicating at a distance, anonymously, and both blind and deaf to others’ anger and hurt, except whatever they might be able to convey with words. That’s cool in a way, since feelings often have relatively little to do with the conversation at hand, and so in principle in text you can have a “conversation” that couldn’t happen in real time, except maybe broken by silences of hours to days or by long and potentially “unproductive” tangents. But even if you don’t care to “get along”—say you aspire only to manipulate others to your evil ends—it’s good to know how your words make others feel. I think this know-how takes experience and practice, regarding which I think that interacting through text can be a waste of class time, if not a source of misinformation and bad habits—even while being great with regard to expressing and discussing what you really think.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 1, 2008 - 16:08 Permalink

I think feelings and getting along have got the upper hand in North America. Our comfort level determines whether something is true or not. If we feel comfortable with something, it is true. If we don t it isn t. I also think we pathologise differing opinion and difference generally because we fear it. So if we disagree and the disagreeable person refuses to conform we pathologize that person. We say so and so doesn t just disagree but is a terrorist or a whack job or sociopath or whatever. Part of the success of a show like House, for instance, has to do with the fact that we are totally unused to people speaking their minds in North America. To see someone do that is so unusual it makes us laugh out loud.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 1, 2008 - 17:33 Permalink

I think you’ve hit on a parallel between increasing written socializing and declining habeas corpus in U.S. policing. No body, no right to understand or explain.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 1, 2008 - 18:11 Permalink

Actually, I think the reverse is true. To the extent that people are not as swayed by emotions there is more room for truth. To the extent that the internet is more rational, it furthers real discussion and understanding, if by understanding we don t necessarily mean agreement or mere comfort. Anyway, I m not saying that making people uncomfortable guarantees the truth. I am saying that niceness is often the enemy of truth and sometimes of justice as well. For instance, asking some official about that three hundred thousand dollars and where it came from is not nice but it furthers the truth. It may make some people uncomfortable, but it promotes understanding. Anyway, I think we understand each other, but we aren t getting along if by getting along we mean agreeing.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on January 2, 2008 - 19:10 Permalink

How is this different from books, letter writing or radio (where there is no face to face contact either)?”

Serious question? — more like a minor point in a bar-room debate huh.. ) But, just in case, in a word “interactive”; if it weren’t for the Internet that question would have no context, neither could it be asked, nor would I be in a position to answer.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 2, 2008 - 21:49 Permalink

I have written here in the past glowingly about facebook and the effect it has had in make my social network better. Six months later I am less sure. I can only speak for myself but I have found that my actual in person contacts have suffered a little bit due to some time spent on facebook. It has been great for distance relationships though. Another point in the same vein is the level of honesty that a move to online social networking has. We all need to remember how much harder it is to be dishonest/false in public. This applies even if real names are attached to real profiles. Food for thought.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 2, 2008 - 21:53 Permalink

Sorry I meant “in person” not “in public”.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 2, 2008 - 23:28 Permalink

Kevin, sure you could ask it on the radio (the radio has phone ins all the time). Andrew: about being honest in person vs being honest online, I think people underestimate how much they are dishonest in person. From the first exchange: “How are you? I’m fine, and yourself” (not “How are you? My wife just died could you not ask me that?”). To the last “See you soon!” we are all dishonest to a fault. It’s true that a lot of people are bald faced liars online, but in a lot of cases that’s irrelevant because, especially where blogs are concerned, people aren’t having personal relationships on blogs, or they are but their friendship is based on interests. So their friendship takes place while discussing other things, political issues, community issues, hobbies etc.. And even though anyone can lie about the issues, we can all look up the facts involved and see where the lies are. Nobody cares much about the personal details.

I can’t comment on social networking except to say that having checked it out, it’s kind of boring. It seems to want to fit my real life relationships into ‘fun’ activities. I hate fun. Also, it’s very personal and hardly text-based at all.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 3, 2008 - 16:43 Permalink

Yes, people are dishonest in person too. Facebook is more like a facade or a whitewash of people’s personalities/interests/ideals than most of us can manage in person. For me blogs are part of the same continuum that also contains radio programs and newspaper columns.

Marian's picture
Marian on January 4, 2008 - 03:12 Permalink

I guess my impression is that people lie about different things on the internet than they do in real life. I think people are more inclined to gloss over their true opinions in polite one on one conversation in real life, but are less likely to do so online. On the other hand people are more likely to lie about who they are online than in real life. Online relationships are more liberal in the sense of being more rational, anonymous, and individualistic than real life relationships. I think networking software is kind of an exception to this because it’s based on the real relationships we already have.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 4, 2008 - 16:11 Permalink

And that is what the problem is those blurring of those rules — I just wish they actually made us more honest with each other.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on January 6, 2008 - 22:54 Permalink

Kevin, sure you could ask it on the radio (the radio has phone ins all the time).” You help me make my point; radio phone ins are participatory, not interactive. Perhaps your counterpoint is indicative of what Internet culture has already done to our apprehenison of meaning. Your perspective is youthful.

Participatory is to interactive as phone sex is to the real thing; it, more-or-less, maintains function while being largely washed of emotional fulfillment (or biological purpose for that matter but that context doesn’t fit the metaphor well).

Put another way: If you regularly call a radio progam, can you call the host a friend? If you call frequently are they a good friend? No and nope!

oliver's picture
oliver on January 6, 2008 - 23:44 Permalink

I don’t think distinctions like “participative” vs. “interactive” capture very well why live, face-to-face, in-the-same-place, real-time co-experiencing things with others tends to beat the alternatives. I think ways of sharing and communicating can be more or less rich in sensory data and more or less reliable for information and that ironically we rarely appreciate why any particular medium works or doesn’t for a particular social purpose, at least while using it. I think that like a scene in a movie or a novel what you take in either succeeds or fails to elicit the feeling of “being there,” which I think is a function of the art/craft/technology employed as well as basic human/mammal/vertebrate psychophysics. Ultimately, we’re guessing even we see that our lover is telling us the truth, it’s just that having lived and in effect studied a person, watching his or her face and hearing his or her voice, the guess carries better and less indeterminate odds of accuracy than a short piece of IM text on a screen. Another thing is that , if only unconsciously, we we crave “being there” and we embrace the sensation even under circumstances so impoverished of data or ambiguous or unreliable that we’d be better questioning what we think we’ve just heard or seen. That’s how magicians and mountebanks make a living, and I think text-only relationships carry a high liability of catastrophic misunderstanding for the same reason.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on January 8, 2008 - 19:55 Permalink

Just to clarify; I made a point about the Internet being a huge shift from the social structures in which we evolved (structures which evolved along with us) and how the Internet is rapidly skewing the social context without a corresponding, evolutionary, process which our species has always enjoyed previously — and I openly wonder why there is no social science dedicated to studying this (none that I can find anyway).

Then I was ever so slightly accused of being a scare-mongering Luddite and asked how [fundamentally, is the Internet,] different than books, letter writing, or radio.

I chose radio to respond and then used “participative” vs. “interactive” to counter the point — not to imply anything with respect to negating “why live, face-to-face, in-the-same-place, real-time co-experiencing things with others tends to beat the alternatives”.

On the contrary, your point was fundamentally my point — that traditional relationships are vastly different than Internet relationships, but more precisely, they are relationships which have co-evolved with us and are therefore appropriate to our well being, whereas Internet relationships are skewing the natural order quite substantially, and we need to (if we care) think about that.

To me this is obvious — and from my years and years of talking to Internet users on an (almost) daily basis, I have seen tragic effects fairly often — I know a number of my former customers who went, sight-unseen, to meet and live with people they met on the Internet; needless to say it didn’t all work out and for some it was quite harrowing from the get-go for others (one of them, to my knowledge, has never been heard from since by any of her former friends on PEI — she went to the UK.) I was seeing the damaging effects years before these stories made the papers (like the recent suicide in the US over the facebook thingie). I was concerned about the contra-evolutionary effects of Internet social groups long before I saw (what I believe are) the negative consequences.

Having said all that, there are tremendous benefits to these new relationship possibilities as well.

As for books, letter writing, or radio — I shouldn’t have replied.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 8, 2008 - 21:58 Permalink

Actually, I saw myself as filling in and riffing on what I thought you had in mind, Kevin—I saw you reached for “interactive” as just the nearest word to hand for responding to the radio point and wanted to make sure your broader point didn’t get displaced or lost in the discussion, since you made it early and in just a few lines—and since I’m of similar mind. I do think your evolution point needs to be made more carefully to make perfect sense, because it sounds like you’re describing people having physically adapted via group success rather than by variant alleles or genotypes coming to predominate within groups, ala Darwin, because the individuals who carry them reproduce more on average. I’m with you that culture and ways of grouping evolve hand-in-hand and even lay ground for physical adaptations thanks to genes. I just worry about mushing them together, since reconstructing biological history is enough of a free-for-all even arguing strictly by the principles of Darwin, and casual evolutionary talk is notorious for rationalizing for all sorts of prejudices.

Andreas's picture
Andreas on January 25, 2008 - 11:14 Permalink

What an excellent input and discussion. I think you are right in that classic social networks tend to support homogeneity of opinion. That is because we like it. Meeting like-minded people is always easier and most will prefer it most of the time. But you are right, in the long-run we may suffer. One comment already pointed towards families as another social context which works differently. I think that is very true. We have nothing in common other than a very special relationship. It had annoyed me very much when I was younger that there were so few people like me in there and I tried to get away. Later I realized how important those relationships were; latest when I got my own kids and needed support. Since then I try to contribute much more towards my own family.
Where does this all lead to? First I think we need to find the right balance and we could do this in being in very different “communities” in parallel or perhaps it would be a good idea if all communities somehow allowed everybody to got a bit asray at times.
Secondy we live in different social contexts at the same time, which may work differenty in the first place. I see friends and work being quite similar as it is about reaching out to many new connections with something in common that we have chosen and other contexts like family keeping existing ties with people connected to us that we have not chosen.
Social networks for the latter have yet to emerge since the objectives and social dynamics are very different from the first.