Is human behavior changing because of the way the web has allowed us to interact, or are we still following the same basic social rules as, lets say 10 years ago? My guess is that human behavior is affected around the edges, but no more than that.
The web has certainly lowered the transaction costs, or effort, to interact with others. Going from long traveling journeys to meet, smoking signals, snail mail and postal coaches, the telegraph, Morse code, radio, fixed telephony, e-mail, mobile telephony, SMS, the web, and now many different kinds of social networking tools and platforms, transaction costs for the user have dropped to virtually zero allowing us to interact like madmen. Human nature forces us to interact with others as much as we can. And as we are supported by this economic law of zero cost, that is exactly what we do. It is for this very reason punishment often comes in the form of captivity and taking away the ability to communicate. We do this with children (“Go upstairs to your room!”), but also with criminals when we send them to prison.
The lowering of transaction costs is (partly) responsible for the enormous amounts of e-mail, SMS, IM messages, phone calls, pokes, nudges, friends, social networks people use every day. But it comes at a cost (free always does). Not only have we increased the number of times we interact with others, the amount of useless communication has increased to a level beyond comprehension. There are predictions that more than 90% of all e-mail traffic is SPAM making e-mail a lame duck in communication. Join any social network and within seconds you have friends you never knew you had (or perhaps ever wanted).
Does all this technology lead to different communication behavior. Sure it does. People contact each other and call each other friend from all over the world without ever meeting physically. They send each other virtual gifts, even paying for some of them, send each other meaningless messages (to the observer) and communicate just because they can.
Dana Boyd writes some nice observations about this in her article called “valuing inefficiencies and unreliability”. One of her observations is that it has become easy to spam your friends. the example provides is Facebook Causes. I fell for one of those a few weeks ago when I joined the Movon.org protest against Beacon. And now I’m being asked to protest against President Bush, and a few other “important” causes. Another observation form Danah is that people tend to try to find excuses to blame technology when they do not want to communicate with others. “My cell phone was out of reach”, “I never got your e-mail” etc. This has become increasingly difficult as the technology is becoming more reliable.
I have seen some different behavior with teens. While my parents were socially trained to always answer a phone call and I am used to answer any SMS I receive, teens can easily ignore calls or SMSes they receive. Not only do they not bother to think up excuses for not responding, it is a completely accepted behavior by their friends. The receiver instead of the sender decides what importance the interrupt get.
But even with the endless possibilities to interact with each other some things in human behavior do not change. We still love story telling, the troubadour or bard of the middle ages has become the blogger everyone loves to read. We value the opinions from a friend more than that of a stranger. We value communication that has taken effort more than that which cost us no energy. Danah provides us with nice examples again. Teens start regarding Facebook applications as spam after a while, even if it comes from a friend, because it takes the sender no effort at all to send it. Comments are valued much higher, as it takes the sender time and effort to write one. It is exactly for this reason I always like it when people take the time to comment on my blog. Not only have they taken the time to read it, but they also have taken the time to respond. Out of this interaction new things arise.
Facebook is now providing scientists valuable information on the way people socially interact. Harvard scientists are now following all students from an entire class at one college to study how personal taste, habits and values affect social interaction. Facebook provides the academic researchers with an enormous amount of data. Data which wasn’t available at such low transaction costs before.
While this sounds great I cannot help but feel that the researchers are really only observing a very small part of human interaction. People do crazy things on Facebook. Mostly because it is so easy to do crazy things. The costs of interaction are zero with massive amounts of waist as a result. Facebook slamming, profile rating, spam, hatemails, the worst in human behavior arises when people interact on-line. Does that mean that teens are a-social beings? I doubt it. I am sure that teens are slowly getting used to a different meaning of the word friendship in different contexts. But I also think that in the physical world these teens aren’t so different from an older generation when it comes to human interaction. We are still bound by basic social rules in which tell us how to respond to another person. We like to interact, love, care, listen, be heard.
But due to technological possibilities we often tend to forget about human nature. Technology provides us capabilities, and because of that these capabilities will be deployed. It is easy to forget about human nature, about human needs when we design all these great new services. The sexier the technology, the more easily we forget about the most important actor, namely the user. Rolf Skyberg wrote a nice post about that called “Why innovation”. In this post he describes how meeting real customers changes his perception on his role as disruptive innovator at eBay. Rolf intuitively knows that technology isn’t what eBay’s innovation should be about. It is about doing the right things for the eBay user, allowing technology to make life easier.
The trap almost any marketer falls into is thinking he knows what is best for the customer, without actually ever meeting one. Using massive studies and research reports the marketer of today is armed with so much information about social behavior that he can easily be fooled into thinking he knows what is best for the customer. I am not saying customers know what is best for them. But meeting them and interacting with them provides so much more value than reading a report on their behavior.
(image taken from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/benjius/1174865875/)
It is what I call observing social behavior through a fishbowl. You can see the person, even see what he is doing, but you also be sure that what you see is a distorted version of reality. Human nature isn’t all that difficult to understand. It is around us, all we need to do is look for it.