Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Problem with Online Social Networking

Give humanity anonymity and see the true potential of its depravity.


We are repeatedly trying to simulate human behaviour online, with dramatic results.
Social networking has changed humanity forever. I began to realize this when I discovered a frightening trend in the news about how kids were killing themselves over things done online. Why would someone do that? I thought. That is when I decided to embark upon an ambitious social experiment two years ago to see the true depth of how social networking has changed the human animal. This post documents my findings in grave detail. Note well: you may find the contents of this post either deeply upsetting or deeply disturbing. You have been warned.



Normally we assume that humanity makes changes within its structure to accommodate for change for the better. That is usually a cyclical process. The process usually has hiccups and the hiccups are usually ironed out. In every case however, these cyclical changes transform the human animal, permanently, apparently for the better, but ultimately for the least until another cycle begins. Here, allow me to give you an example of what I really mean:

Checks and Balances

Nature spawned life as an accidental byproduct of physics and chemistry. In response, life became a thing that became preoccupied with its self preservation. In so doing, life became a tense balancing act of progress and egress. For every two steps forward, life must take a step backward. If it doesn't take a step backward, it will go too far forward and walk the proverbial plank into extinction. That's how it's always been—well at least until man finally come along.

When nature created grass, it also created zebras to keep it's growth in check. When nature created zebras, it also created lions to keep zebra populations in check. When nature created lions, it also created man to tame lions, keeping them in check. When nature created man, it created disease to keep man in check. This was fine until man eventually invented medicine.

Now because of medicine, man started to live longer, long enough to come up with innovative new ideas with more regularity. We invented our way into an advanced civilization that over populated the earth,  taxed its resources, eventually becoming a detriment to all other life on the planet. The ecosystem is no longer in balance. But it appears that while we may have temporarily defeated disease, perhaps nature had one deadly card left up its green sleeve:

Mans' Intelligence

It is man's intelligence that will become the architect of his ultimate undoing. We've already begun to see man's intelligence destroy mankind. We discovered fire to cook our food and then destroyed our homes with it. We invented religions to advance our thinking and then killed each other over it. We invented nuclear power to provide sustainable energy and destroyed our lands with it. We invented artificial food to feed the hungry and ruined our health with it. We invented computers that made our lives easier to live and far easier to ruin.

It is that last invention that really has me worried. Not only have computers taken up a near irreplaceable role in our lives, but the services we now use them to run have taken over our lives. These services are slowly, one by one, replacing the essential things that effectively made us human. At the risk of sounding like a doomsday prophet, online social networking is probably the harbinger of the beginning of the end of our species–at least as we now know it.

Evolution in Reverse

The advent of social networking has fundamentally transformed how we use computers on the internet and ultimately how to we relate to each other. Social networking, like many of the other things that man has made, is a simulation of a simulacrum of something that we have, through a course of cognitive evolution, so poorly implemented. In this case, social networking is an unimaginably poor simulation of the simulacrum of communication that we call language.

Language is already a poor communicator. Language is an attempt at encoding ideas such that they can be transferred between minds. However, the encoding process behind language is so simplistic, that only a tiny percentage of the idea ever gets across. There is no exception to to this. No matter how complex a language has evolved, the idea communicated will never retain the sophistication of its inception in the mind of the communicator. This is why memes exist. Memes are little more than randomly generated axioms of poorly communicated ideas.

Apropos, social networking by extension, being a simulation of language (which is itself a simulacrum of communication), is taking something that is already poorly implemented in our societies and distilling it down even further to more simplified memes that, for the most part, obscure the sheer complexity of human intelligence between humans involved in the process.

Stupid Mode

The end result is that the human minds at either end of the spectrum adjust "down" to match the simplicity of the communication strategy. In other words, they assume a lower level of intelligence to match the simplicity of the communication medium. We'll call this the "stupid mode". This "stupid mode" that is used is now so ubiquitous, that it has now come to characterize all forms of communication across social media. Here, I'll provide a few examples:

  • Using Acronyms for human Behaviour — If you have ever typed "LOL", "LMAO", "ROFL", "ROFLMAO", "DWL" or any other variation of the set of acronyms to denote laughter (or any other emotion for that matter), then you've engaged in stupid mode.
  • Falsely Denoting Human Behaviour — If you have ever used any acronym for human behaviour when it didn't apply (such as beginning or ending a sentence with LOL when you're not actually laughing out loud), then you've engaged in stupid mode. In fact, if you've even used a smiley face :) when you're not smiling or to communicate some form of tepid friendliness, you're engaging in stupid mode.
  • Channeling Memes to Communicate Sentiment — If you have ever reused one of the hundreds of thousands of memes that have flooded the internet (such as Success Kid or Grumpy Cat) to quickly communicate a feeling or sentiment (whether positive or negative is irrelevant), then you've engaged in stupid mode.
  • "Trolling" — If you have ever deliberately sought to elicit a negative emotional reaction from others by using incendiary remarks or otherwise "pushing their buttons" (especially if it involves others), then you've engaged in stupid mode.
  • ...there are many more, but you get the idea.

Stupid mode is a quick way of communicating non verbal communication through a medium that cannot handle such communication. While it is a fast way of communicating sentiment, it is also a faster means of miscommunication. Because stupid mode cannot handle all of the axioms of language, (which by itself cannot handle the complexity of full body communication), it often leads to confusion, especially where new terms (i.e. memes) are spontaneously generated on the fly (sporadically born of popular culture) that no one else yet understands.

Communication and Intelligence

Either way, this type of "adjust down" communication shreds the intelligence requirement for standard communication, essentially propagating a community of mutually devolved human beings. In other words, we are literally becoming more stupid to communicate more quickly. We are trading intelligence for communication. We are literally trading substance for quantity.

It is difficult enough to communicate deep, profound ideas with language since the vast portion of our communication isn't with language. There are still some ideas that can never be encoded with it. Language is so limited in its capability, that even if you were to succinctly describe sadness, you can never communicate the feeling of sadness unless you are in person. Sadness described in song is still more powerful than sadness described in a poem, because a song communicates tone and other emotions, which words alone cannot encode.

How much less then does social media communicate the true nature of human sentiment? We cannot perceive hurt through a Facebook status update. We cannot feel someone's love or pain through a tweet. A funny meme will never communicate the true humor behind a clever joke. Using an acronym like GTFO can mean either anger, banter or sarcasm—even in context.

In fact, the true limitation of online communication is probably best demonstrated in its inability communicate these abstract ideas without explicitly spelling it out. Double entendres and innuendos are even more difficult to encode. Sentiments like sarcasm are next to impossible to encode, since sarcasm in written language looks like any other form of written language. Sarcasm requires tone of voice to be immediately effective—and that is lost here.

The end result of this shredding of communication for the sake of speed over effectiveness, is that we are creating a culture of humans who are less empathetic, less emotionally intelligent, more callous and more prone to unfeeling cruelty. Through this culture of online social networking, we are filtering away much of the communication that makes us human.  As a result, we are becoming less human. We are slowly becoming the robots we've always feared.

It is no small wonder then, that the anonymity of the internet has reduced most of our humanity to quibbling piles of callous ferocity. From the early days of the pre-Facebook age where bulletin boards were the home of frequent "flame wars" to the modern post-Facebook age where cyber-bulling has become a fatal problem, the internet has taken away so much of our humanity, that it has quickly become a place that celebrates and encourages ignorance.

You need not look much further than the callous comments on YouTube between perfect strangers over an inconsequential idea, the vicious trolling of female personalities like Adria Richards on Twitter from people who know nothing else about her, and the vile verbal abuse of socially awkward teens on Facebook to see how animalistic social networking has reduced much of our humanity to. Give humanity anonymity and see the true potential of its depravity.

Social networks not only filter away our emotional intelligence, but our cognitive intelligence as well. We have replaced so much of our real life friendships with fans, that we have now inexplicably valued being liked by thousands of anonymous individuals over having real life friendships. It's as if we want to embrace our inner celebrity to attain some modicum of the shallowness of the media effigies we worship. We like being liked so much, that being adored by thousands of anonymous souls has become a numerical quantification of our self worth.

This is despite the fact that women in particular are especially at risk of being targeted by mindless drones who are only fans/followers because of their pictures. Young women these days display a remarkable lack of intelligence, even more so than women of previous generations. If you ask a young woman to strip naked for a perfect stranger, 9 out of 10 times she would decline, and yet, there are photos of her on Facebook or Twitter and now, Instagram in little more than underwear. If that doesn't blow your mind, then let me try again:

The Social Experiment

I've had a Twitter handle since 2010. I've never used it for social networking as much as I've used it to publicize the contents of this blog. It really came in handy for connecting with readers to share controversial ideas and following up on the latest world developments. I have never really used my handle to do much else. But then I noticed something quite curious:

There is a curious behaviour shift between Twitter profiles that were designed to propagate content (such as those created for news organisations) as opposed to ones that were created by personalities (like celebrities). I noticed that personalities engender a LOT more traffic (thousands, and in cases, MILLIONS of times more traffic) via social networks than news organisations. Even more interesting, is that 99% of the content of this traffic is meaningless.

It's complete drivel!

Are humans more fascinated by rubbish from a likable "personality" as opposed to meaningful content from a non personality? I wanted to test that theory and so about a year later, in 2011, I decide to create a second social media profile, not as a representative of a blog, but as a representative of a person. I initially wanted to use it test the waters of this social networking paradigm. That's when a new opportunity arose to examine our online behaviour.

This is what I found:

The Facebook Protocol

A place where everyone goes to be liked—whether they are likable or not.

Many people will tell you that Facebook is a great way to link up with people you thought you lost contact with. That is both true and misleading. Virtually every social network that came before Facebook afforded the same opportunity. Facebook is just the latest most successful version of that. It too will one day go the way of dinosaurs like Hi5, Friendster and MySpace.

Remember them? Exactly.

Anyway, first I started out by using a very real manifestation of myself on Facebook. Almost immediately, people I had been out of touch with since childhood started coming out of the woodwork. First it was in occasional discoveries that trickled in. Soon, the trickle of old friends occurred in full blown floods. The more people you rediscover, the more connections you re-establish in shorter spaces of time. It's an explosively exponential sequence of re-connections.

After you re-establish those long lost connections, much of Facebook's novelty disappears (just like Hi5, Friendster and MySpace). There's a reason why you and those people are no longer in touch. In most cases, there was nothing substantial there to sustain a friendship in the first place. That's why as soon as you moved on with your lives, the connection between you faded away. That's why Facebook's engineers reframed the business model of the site.

Now Facebook is in the business of reselling your personal information for profit. Of course it denies this vehemently while Facebook ads flood your page. But let's face facts, your personal information is its greatest asset. If everyone on Facebook suddenly decided to withdraw their membership, Facebook would quickly go bankrupt. Why? Because none of the people who actually have money, goods or services to market will need to use it anymore. It's that simple.

Furthermore, to fill the void, Facebook fills its content cupboards with online games, stumbling upon a brilliant way for you not just to reconnect with your old friends, but for you to micro-share every, single, banal, moment of your trivial life, through social media applications that use Facebook as a spam portal. If you have had to block certain messages, "mute" certain applications, or "filter" updates from certain individuals, then that is a clear sign that Facebook has exhausted its true usefulness to you. You're just sticking around for the cheap popcorn.

What's popcorn? Other people's lives, of course.

Popcorn is all the shallow drama that a lot of your friends get into online that would have been best reserved for offline. Popcorn is all the microscopic updates that people feel the need to share that communicates absolutely nothing useful. Popcorn is the inadvertent entertainment parlayed when someone exposes their stupidity. Popcorn is that hot babe you know who you don't have the courage to ask out, but follow around on the internet anyway because she constantly uploads semi nude pictures of herself, without securing them first.

Like the empty calories of the delicious snack, Popcorn entertainment is throwaway minutia of other people's (often sordid) reality that you would much rather watch than be a part of. It's the same reason why you like to see your ex-lover get fat or live vicariously through the epic weekends of more outgoing people you don't know in person. Most of the people who thrive on Facebook enjoy this popcorn, because it is instant, meaningless, throwaway entertainment. It's like reality TV, but without a pesky script. Chaos it seems, is more entertaining than order.

I'll give you an example:

What is the point of "friending" people on a social network if you don't like them in real life? I find this most common among women. They call each other "bitches" and "cunts" offline, but yet they are "friends" on Facebook. If that's not bizarre enough for you, then consider the fact that many people (again, mostly women) seem to only befriend people they don't like just so that they can keep tabs on developments in their personal lives. So, why would they do that?

It's pathetic!

They even "like" what they say, just so they can follow the comments on their status updates. Apparently, it seems the rules on Facebook are fundamentally different from real life and words don't mean online what they mean in standard English—but never mind. It appears that the original intent of the like button has evolved to function as something else entirely. I'd actually second the motion that Facebook needs not only a dislike button, but others as well:

If this function existed on Facebook, I would be using it wantonly and indiscriminately. It would work in exactly the same way as the "like" button, without miscommunicating users' true intentions. I think that would actually make Facebook a lot more interesting and just a tad closer to reality instead of functioning as nothing more than a staging ground for people to amass in droves to have their petty egos stroked out of its insecurity with a "like" that isn't. But if you think Facebook is really wack, wait until you see the nonsense I discover on Twitter.

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E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com

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