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Articles: The Internet As Water Cooler

I find it interesting to watch human behavior. We definitely have a way of thinking and acting collectively that seems to be somewhat different than what we might do all by ourselves.

Individually, the vast majority of us are resistant to change. We get annoyed if a detour forces us to take a different route home, even if it only adds fifteen seconds to the trip. We’re uncomfortable making a major software upgrade, especially when they change the shortcut keys we’ve gotten so used to. Just saying the words to a group: “There are some changes to the plan” will pretty much get everyone’s attention.

But collectively, something like the internet comes along and we plunge headlong into it, heedless of the consequences, admiring the potential like swooning teen-age girls in front of a rock star.

The truth is, we have absolutely no idea what the overall benefits and consequences of the internet will be. It all seems like a pretty good idea (and is going to proliferate whether we like it or not), but there are consequences we need to be aware of.

One of those consequences is manifested in the proliferation of blogging. When a series of blogs create a perception, or even assumed knowledge, of, well, anything, it is a much different kind of information-gathering than what you might think about if you read an article written by a professional writer, edited by a professional editor, published in a well-regarded magazine.

However, once the information is digested, it generally just sits there without a whole lot of concern as to its origins. In other words, sometimes our brains are just scanners, collecting information that goes on cards that we later pull out of various mental drawers… but few of us bother to read the origins of those cards when we’re repeating the information to someone else.

As more and more sites offer more and more opportunities for anyone and everyone to weigh in with their opinion, usually anonymously, one starts to get the sense that if the collective blogging consciousness out there says something, it must be true. Even if it’s not, as soon as it’s repeated once, the authoritative nature of the information is enhanced immediately with the repeating.

More and more often, we’re seeing blogged-origin information become news items on various rumor sites, with the origins being anything from someone’s random musings to a misreading of a five-year-old post.

So before you start basing too much of your worldview on blog-based information, you might try and lock two very important considerations into your information-absorption filter. First, when people are anonymous, it’s not so much that they get more honest; they just leave any sense of decorum at the door. What would never be spoken face-to-face (by all but the most brash or annoying) is freely typed on a blog. It probably doesn’t hurt to remember that one definition of being polite is *not* to say what you’re thinking, or tell a “white lie” to avoid hurting a person’s feelings. When you remove any need or desire to be polite, you get a level of human behavior that is at best… interesting. But what’s more important than that is to understand that we’re starting to communicate and learn more and more from these polite-free zones, even if you’re not reading them directly.

The truth is that over time, we have no idea whether that’s going to make us collectively angrier at each other or collectively get sick of it and ultimately create systems forcing some sort of enforced blogging decorum, with those who don’t adhere to it being drummed out and banished.

The second consideration to remember is what happens in a large office where you have a contingent of gossipy colleagues spewing venom, half-truths and innuendoes about other people in the office. Not a place that’s fun to work in. Like the “Lord of the Flies,” sometimes our behavior de-evolves when good manners aren’t forced upon us.

I still haven’t figured out what it is about groups that sometimes lowers our intelligence, but if you’ve ever seen examples of a mob mentality on TV, you’ve seen people gleefully damaging property or other people, many of whom wouldn’t dream of doing anything like it on their own. In many ways, the mob rules the internet.

In addition, like anyone who hears 100 criticisms and 99 are positive, the sole negative one is where all our eyeballs gravitate. So as rumors and negativity and speculation swirl around out there about anything, whether it’s Steve Jobs health or the rumors of the latest Apple release or why Apple pulled out of MacWorld (and that’s just in our industry)… take it with a grain of salt. And if it’s negative, it may be only a result of that negative-as-eye-catcher syndrome.

The simple fact of the matter is that as a species, across all cultural lines, we demonstrate time and time again that we need leaders, of groups both big and small. Collectively, we generally struggle to steer ourselves in the right direction without them.

Since it is virtually leaderless, the internet is an interesting human experiment, and I think it’s best to remember it that way, rather than taking everything you read at the same face value our parents did when they read the newspaper.
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