Do Social Networks Bring Out the Animal in Us?

BJ Gupta made the famous comment "Man is a social animal. Without society he is nothing but animal."

The question now becomes: is the Internet an extension of society? In most cases, we bring our societal ethics with us. But, the surreal nature of the Web has shown it brings out the animal in people who don't feel anchored to society's rules.

The problem arises when predators, who don't feel the constraints of society, discover that many of the social media communities make it easy for them to live anonymously in a heightened fantasy world. As a parent, I want more safeguards -- including me educating my children (they always list their home state on the opposite coast). As a person who cherishes freedom, the regulation of the Web becomes a conundrum.

Are the falsehoods of people luring child predators out into the open offset by the good they're doing? Should there be more regulations to ensure people can be tracked? The cry against behavioral marketing seems to counter that.

The recent story of the woman accused of using the Web to drive a teenager to suicide is another example of social media gone awry. Interestingly, she's being charged with computer fraud, and the social nature of that discussion can be seen in the depth of some of the comments left on blogs interpreting the charges.

Not all aspects of the use of social media are nightmarish. This weekend, a father Twittered the birth of his child. He used the medium to record the events leading up to the birth -- allowing his "followers" to share in what was happening without pacing the hospital halls with him.

Surprisingly, Twitter isn't the social media of choice for the teenage crowd -- at least that's what I'm told by mine.

MySpace is still number one for the pre-college crowd. Facebook has gotten traction with the college crowd and older social networkers. Twitter is just starting to catch on.

We're definitely social animals, on and off the Web. Four of the top 10 most visited sites are social media sites: MySpace, YouTube, Facebook, and Blogger.

Now if we can just learn how to keep the animal in check, the hunters and cages may not be necessary. But if Twitter keeps going offline, I'm not responsible for my actions.

Kevin Ryan Fires Back

In the not so distant past, I was having lunch with the president of a major financial publication. Among the topics of discussion was the next generation of humans (homutus societus digalti) entering the workforce, and what unique attributes they brought to the table, if any.

Disclaimer: we weren't just a couple of old-timers waxing poetic about the good old days or how great things used to be when people actually learned how to communicate, we really wanted to understand what was happening in our universe.

In short, it seems the latest group coming into the world is extremely adept at sending e-mails, blogging about every miniscule detail of their lives and, in general, communicating -- as long as they aren't asked to speak to anyone.

They run from spoken communication. They fear any interaction that can't be clicked or typed in some way. They don't know how to interact, and when they do, they don't understand civil interaction.

Of course, this behavior isn't limited to the kids and their new math.

Much of what we describe as backward or rude behavior online can be sourced back to John Gabriel's Greater Internet ... uh, Fudgewad (expletive substitution) Theory. Now a few years old, Gabriel's theory assumes anyone looking for attention will say whatever they want, without fear of repercussions outside the anonymous digital world.

Bold and foolish behavior has grown up since Gabriel's theory first became popular. Anonymity is no longer required to act like a fudgewad. Flame wars abound. Accuracy is less important than getting attention.

Our world has changed.

People don't talk anymore. They misinterpret information, fly off the handle, and dehumanize the people around them. To them, people on the receiving on end of communications aren't people at all.

All this activity without consideration for consequence is forming a new societal social construct. Unbridled emotion reveals basest flaws in our species. The promise of social networking bringing human communities together is foundationally flawed.

Human communities are coming together in a very limited capacity. Interest communities are coming together on a large scale, but that's not moving us toward the Gene Roddenberry Utopian society. This paradoxical effect was caused by text communication technology moving faster than video communications.

If connected video conversations were as easy as connected text communications, the next generation of humans would perhaps be in less of a pickle. Sure, you can argue the evil characteristics of humanity always existed, but it's never been easier to connect with millions and seek affirmation from likeminded, erroneously self-inflated and largely misguided morons.

Nine of 10 dehumanizing "text conversations" wouldn't exist if digital social predators were forced to meet and interact with their online prey. Video communication on a large scale may have slowed the spread of dehumanizing interaction but it certainly would not have stopped it.

Disagree if you like, and tout the benefits of digital communities. Choose blindness, if you must, but consider the following: some emboldened fudgewad recently choose to throw eggs at Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, rather than interact with him on an appropriate human level.

It's not just an Internet problem anymore. The delusional empowered -- living in their parent's basement with a blog -- are coming out into the world in force. Like it or not, we're going to have to deal with what we've created.

One simple rule -- if universally accepted -- could catapult our species forward: if you can't stand in front of your target, reading what you've written aloud, you have no right to it.

I reckon a lot of human complications could be reconciled by being forced to experience the tears, smell the anguish, and see the bloody devastation that one has created, live and in person.

About the author

Frank Watson has been involved with the Web since it started. For the past five years, he headed SEM for FXCM -- at one time one of the top 25 spenders with AdWords. He has worked with most of the major analytics companies and pioneered the ability to tie online marketing with offline conversion.

He has now started his own marketing agency, Kangamurra Media. This new venture will keep him busy when he is not editing the Search Engine Watch forums, blogging at a number of authoritative sites, and developing some interesting online community sites.

He was one of the first 100 AdWords Professionals, a Yahoo and Overture Ambassador, and a member or mod of many of the industry forums. He is also on the Click Quality Council and has worked hard to diminish click fraud.