Understanding and Leveraging Human Behavior on the Internet. What’s Possible?

03 Oct

In this blog post I am paying particular attention to Christakis and Fowler’s book “Connected” (specifically Chapter 8) as their observations and discussions are compelling with regards to behavioral and sociological dynamics. These dynamics may very well revolutionalize how we understand, educate, and train human behavior in a positive way (http://bit.ly/Vu2V1M).

They begin this chapter by discussing the impact of the game “World of War Craft” and the addition of a new game element, a serpent called “Hakkar”. This “Demon” has the capacity to infect players with a fatal disease. Players who caught this disease demonstrated psychotic, selfish, sociopathic behavior, and other behaviors, providing insights also in the nature of an epidemic. Catching the attention of mathematicians, psychologists, and epidemiologists each recognized that there was much to learn about human behavior in simulated environments.  Such games provide a profound source of insight into personal, interpersonal, and group dynamics.

In discussing the implications for technology on the quality of life, two camps emerge: those who believe that the use of technology will have negative effects on human interactions and community and those who believe that technology augments our pre-wired communal behaviors. Perhaps both are correct.

It is clear that the Internet provides a platform that transcends geography and can provide individuals with a space from which to make connections, experiment with roles and personalities, and generally make broader connections to a broader swath of people. But according to the authors, our pre-historic “campfire story-telling” past is only augmented by modern-day technology.

Of particular note was the replication of the Milgram studies on conformity and social behavior. In virtual environments, scientists demonstrate that even while “simulating” such experiments, individuals have similar proclivities towards obedience while also demonstrating very real human behaviors. This opens the door for sociological studies that are unheard of in modern times.

While this chapter does provide a solid rationale for the use of online experiments to generalize non-online behavior, I have to push back and wonder how, over long periods of time, would humans begin to depersonalize their experiences. Perhaps over time online simulated environments may “desensitize” the individual towards others. Does “Presence” fade away after prolonged computer simulation vs. real human interaction? Time will tell.

I was particularly fascinated in how simulated environments such as “Second Life” and others provide a place to conduct new sociological experiments. Understanding how people treat one another based on any number of personal characteristics (height, weight, looks, etc…) can have significant transferability in the real world. This has profound implications for the Internet and its potential for provide a therapeutic medium. I took to heart the authors’ claim that “…We do not leave self-interest, greed, bias, altruism, or affection behind when we cross over to the digital world … “ (Pg. 263).

Within these virtual worlds, individuals can simulate all types of personal and interpersonal actions, thus providing them with a safe place to explore possibilities. Learning to be more self-confident, how to lead others, developing more positive relationships, all can be a by-product of simulated online activities.

Net/Net: the Internet is a tool that accelerates and magnifies our lives and relationships. It allows us to reach, scale, and coordinate like never before (note the power of Wikipedia to coordinate positive efforts). Modern technologies have reduced transaction costs (See Shirky, “Here Comes Everybody”) while mobilizing people around common causes. At issue are the ends to which people strive: good or less than good.

It is a tool by which the authors explain can provide significant opportunities for understanding and facilitating human growth and relationships, while at the same time it can be used in destructive ways (providing chat rooms on “cutting” when often such places can exacerbate the problem. Hyperconnectiity can help us get, do, explore, and coordinate what we want—whether in bright and dark spaces.

Perhaps this hyperconnectivity will take us too far. With “meta-identities” forming across multiple platforms, and implicit data populating every network we are a part with little nor no control or privacy (See Palfrey and Gasser in “Born Digital), we may find ourselves ultra-exposed while at the same time hyper-insulated from anything not targeted by our data (See Stray in “Are we stuck in filter bubbles”).

The author’s conclude: “Networks help make the whole of humanity much greater than the sum of its parts, and the invention of new ways to connect promises to increase our power to achieve what nature has foreordained.” (Pg. 86)

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