Gorging on the social internet

Our appetites for some things know no bounds

Chris Aldrich went off on an interesting tangent yesterday, while thinking about food.

[T]here’s kind of an analogy between food and people who choose to eat at restaurants versus those who cook at home and websites/content on the internet.

The IndieWeb is made of people who are “cooking” their websites at home. In some sense I hope we’re happier, healthier, and better/smarter communicators as a result, but it also makes me think about people who can’t afford to eat or afford internet access.

Are silos the equivalent of fast food? Are too many people consuming content that isn’t good for them and becoming intellectually obese? Would there be more thought and intention if there were more home chefs making and consuming content in smaller batches? Would it be more nutritious and mentally valuable?

I agree with Chris that "there’s some value hiding in extending this comparison". So here's my home-cooked appetiser.

I'm not the first person to observe this, but the thing about fast food is that it plays directly into appetites for which we have not yet had time to evolve an off switch. Fat, sugar and salt have been in short supply for almost all of our history. If our ancestors came across an abundance of any of these and failed to gorge when they could, they would not in fact be our ancestors. We have an insatiable appetite for fat, salt and sugar precisely because our ancestors had such an appetite. And now that we're faced with so much of those three valuable components of a good diet, we have to learn to ignore them.

I'm also not the first to observe that we are consumate gossips. Our social intellect 1 requires us to know what others are thinking, particularly about us. You could say that we find it as difficult to avoid wondering what others are thinking as we do to avoid fat, salt and sugar. Social media engineers, like fast food engineers, know precisely how to get us to worry about how others are responding to us and how we ought to be responding to them.

And they have an extra tool to play with: intermittent reward. Most people know that you can train a rat to press a lever to get a food pellet. Stop providing food, though, and eventually the rat stops pressing. Instead of giving a reward regularly, however, you can also schedule the rewards randomly, so that on average the rat gets a pellet, say, every 10 presses, but sometimes it gets one after far fewer presses and sometimes it has to work much harder before the system delivers a reward. And if you train the rat that way, when you withdraw the reward it will continue to press the bar for far longer than the rat that got a reward every 10 presses.

Did I get a retweet? Or a like? Or a comment? Rats! Let me try again. Oh yes, there's a star. I wonder how I can get more stars?

You see where this is going?

Just as fat, salt and sugar are extremely valuable when they're scarce, so a hunger for gossip is valuable when it too is scarce. And it used to be, in our evolutionary past.

That was when the Dunbar Number 2 -- which owes a lot to ideas about social intellect -- was probably a key element in social cohesion. Once the number of people you had to keep tabs on got much larger, the chances of something going wrong increased. Rival factions could form, wreaking damage on the group, which would split, and grow and split, and grow ...

Now, social media offers us a huge number of people to "care" about. What do we think of them? And what do they think of us? And again, we have to learn to ignore our desire to know, always to know.

I don't want, now, to talk about the appalling behaviour that anonymity and tribal belonging foster online, though those are probably also aspects of the same tendencies. For me, the clearest demonstration of that was the success of the more limited social network ADN. 3 Bizarrely, for anyone who has seen what other siloed social networks have become, ADN was a place of respectful, thoughtful, engaged conversation. And even when it wasn't, it was a great place to be. Rather than offer my own encomium, I'll just link to the farewell of one of my ADN chums and note that the reason it was such a great community was because for each of us it was really quite small.

So, to get back, finally, to Chris's questions:

  • Are ... people consuming content that isn’t good for them and becoming intellectually obese? Yes
  • Would there be more thought and intention if there were more home chefs making and consuming content in smaller batches? Yes
  • Would it be more nutritious and mentally valuable? Probably

But I set aside the first question -- Are silos the equivalent of fast food? -- because I don't honestly think it is the siloed nature of the social spaces that is the problem, unless you want to blame the fact that, being silos run for their owners' benefit, they need to keep your eyeballs captive so they can sell them.

It is abundance -- the size of the community and the unlimited fat, salt and sugar, manipulated by clever engineers and our own evolutionary history -- that creates the conditions in which we overindulge, satisfying short term "needs" at the expense of long-term well-being.

  1. An idea developed by my old mucker Nick Humphrey, most notably in The Inner Eye: Social Intelligence in Evolution.  

  2. There are actually several. The common one is 150, "the number of people we call casual friends—the people, say, you’d invite to a large party" Robin, too, I would count among my 150. 

  3. app.net dies tonight, or possibly tomorrow, so this is very fitting. 

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