Now that the social web is maturing – the platforms have been winnowed down to a select few (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) – some interesting commonalities are emerging. The one shared feature that I’m most interested in is also a little disturbing: the tendency of the social software to quantify our social life. Facebook doesn’t just let us connect with our friends: it counts our friends. Twitter doesn’t just allow us to aggregate a stream of chatter: it measures our social reach. LinkedIn has too many damn hierarchies to count. Even the staid blog is all about the metrics, from page views to unique visitors.
What I’m most troubled by is the desire of individuals (especially myself) to constantly check up on these numbers, and to accept these measurements as a measure of something meaningful. We’ve taken the natural nebulousness of social interactions – I might know you’re important, but I don’t know how important – and made them explicit. The end result is that our online relationships are shadowed by power relations.
Here’s an example of what I’m referring to. I was recently talking to a twitterer with a very large number of followers. (My least favorite thing about Twitter is the use of “follow” within the platform, with its weird connotations of subservience. I don’t want to “follow” a person, I just want to “listen” to them.) He complained that one of his frustrations with the platform was the sheer amount of feedback from all of his tweets. He said much of the feedback was genuine (and sometimes critical), but a lot of it also struck him as inherently “phony,” in that it was written just to get a reply or retweet from him, which then might lead to some new “followers” for the lesser twitterer. In other words, his power within the social network warped the nature of his online social interactions.
The primatologist Robert Sapolsky has done some marvelous work on how our position within the hierarchy shapes our behavior. Here’s a fascinating description of the effects of testosterone on monkey aggression:
Round up some male monkeys. Put them in a group together, and give them plenty of time to sort out where they stand with each other – affiliative friendships, grudges and dislikes. Give them enough time to form a dominance hierarchy, a linear ranking system of numbers 1 through 5. This is the hierarchical sort of system where number 3, for example, can pass his day throwing around his weight with numbers 4 and 5, ripping off their monkey chow, forcing them to relinquish the best spots to sit in, but, at the same time, remembering to deal with numbers 1 and 2 shit-eating obsequiousness.
Hierarchy in place, it’s time to do your experiment. Take the third-ranking monkey and give him some testosterone. Inject a ton of it into him…give him enough testosterone to grow antlers and a beard on every neuron in the brain. And, no surprise, when you check the behavioral data, it turns out that he will probably be participating in more aggressive interactions than before.
So even though small fluctuations in the levels of the hormone don’t seem to matter much, testosterone still causes aggression. But that would be wrong. Check out number 3 more closely. Is he now raining aggressive terror on any and all in the group, frothing in an androgenic glaze of indiscriminate violence. Not at all. He’s still judiciously kowtowing to numbers 1 and 2, but has simply become a total bastard to numbers 4 and 5.
I don’t meant to suggest that Twitter is just like a primate dominance hierarchy, or that an injection of testosterone would lead people to abuse those with fewer followers. Instead, the elegance of Sapolsky’s experiment is its demonstration of the all encompassing influence of the social hierarchy itself. Even a massive injection of hormone can’t alter the way we experience the pecking order, which is why we talk differently to our boss than to our assistant, or why we’re more solicitous of a rich, powerful friend that we are to an unemployed friend. I hate myself for even writing that sentence, but it’s all too often true: we’re a craven species, obsessed with status for the sake of status. And that pursuit of status shapes so many of our interactions, both in person and online.
Now here’s where the digital social platforms make a bad situation even worse. Because they exquisitely measure our place within the network, we know exactly who the powerful people are; it’s like high-school, except on a massive scale. (Reading the comments on many popular blogs reminds me the sycophants who surrounded the popular kids in 9th grade. It’s all applause and affirmation, with every criticism shouted down.) Furthermore, the quantification of our social world inevitably inspires a certain kind of social anxiety. We want to be moving upwards, to have more friends and more followers and more connections. (Such are the burdens of being a social primate.) It’s a ridiculous endeavor, of course, and I chastise myself every time I check my twitter count, but it’s also a deeply seated instinct. I’m just a male monkey with broadband.
One last point: Because these online tools collapse the space between people – we can experience a kind of intimacy with perfect strangers, learning about their breakfast routines and airport delays – we bring ourselves into “competition” with a far larger group. We’re suddenly comparing ourselves with people we’ve never met, and never will. While this pseudo-closeness can be fun, I think it also comes with some anxiety inducing side-effects. David Hume, in A Treatise on Human Nature, makes a really important point:
It is not a great disproportion between ourselves and others which produces envy, but on the contrary, a proximity. A common soldier bears no envy for his general compared to what he will feel for his sergeant or corporal; nor does an eminent writer meet with as much jealousy in common hackney scribblers, as in authors that more nearly approach him. A great disproportion cuts off the relation, and either keeps us from comparing ourselves with what is remote from us or diminishes the effects of the comparison.
My worry is that our online social platforms both magnify our hierarchies (by measuring our friends, followers, links, etc.) and erase social distance, so that we suddenly find ourselves in the same monkey cage with a far larger number of monkeys. And that’s why I wish there was a popular social platform that didn’t measure anything. I doubt such a platform will ever exist – we clearly want the explicit hierarchies, even when they drive us crazy – but it sure would be a relief.