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Does the Social Web Impact Human Behavior?

CNN’s online news site recently posted a poll that asked, “Are you tired of social networking?” When I had checked their results, it showed that 74% chose “YES.” Yet according to Inside Twitter by Alex Cheng, Mark Evans and Harshdeep Singh, after analyzing information disclosed on 11.5 million Twitters accounts, 72.5% of all users joined during the first five months of 2009. 85.3% of all Twitter users post less than one update per day. Twitter is not the sole means of social networking of course, but this is one small example of conflicting reports regarding the Internet and human behavior. While not everyone is comfortable online, as a world civilization we’re adapting to the changes Internet technology is making in our lives.

What might this mean for online marketing and user experience web design? Should social networking development cycles be investigating usability? Might they also be considering the impact of social media web sites on human behavior and society?

The CNN poll was inspired by a piece they ran called Do You Suffer From Internet Fatigue?, which focused on a PEW study called The Mobile Difference. Pew found that only 7% of people use the Internet as their primary means of social communication. Yet, some of them feel guilty if they can’t keep with all the various forms of the social Internet.

According to John Horrigan, Pew Internet Project’s associate director of research:

“The most high-tech group we labeled the “digital collaborators.” The digital collaborators are the ones with the most technology, doing the most with it and loving it the most, and really are about not just using technology to communicate with others but to cultivate their creative lives.”

Horrigan discussed young people and their usage of cell phones for texting and Internet for social networking with sites such as Facebook and Twitter. This is how they communicate and socialize, and when they have to go “off the air,” they apologize for not being there.

Do we need a break? According to Horrigan, the answer is yes.

“I think it’s fairly well known in the tech community that traffic for blogs and so-forth dives on the weekends, so I think people tend to use the weekends as a way to take a little bit of a breather.” SciTech blog writer, John D. Sutter , who invites discussion on the topic of Internet fatigue (see resource below), shares that many are indeed fed up with information overload, or feel that “online social networks are ruining our society.”

It’s Google’s fault

One thing you can always count on with humans is that they will always find someone or something to blame for whatever they dislike. The July/August 2009 issue of The Atlantic has a technology article called Get Smarter that presents the perspective that human beings are an evolving species and one of our natural triggers is “How do we cope with this?” The author, Jamais Cascio, explores whether the “hive mind of the Internet” can influence everything from personal growth, entertainment and communication to scientific discoveries, because we now have a tool for visualization and simulation. We’re adapting to the Internet by way of “fluid intelligence,” which is the “ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems, independent of acquired knowledge.”

By contrast, others such as Nicholas Carr who wrote Is Google Making Us Stupid? for the magazine presents a different view. He argues that our brains are being rewired and it’s harder for us to relax due to information overload.

Linda Stone, a technology thought leader, likens what we as web developers call “hyperlinking” to “continuous partial attention.”

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.”

We’ve spent a good deal of our energy creating usable web sites that make it easy for people to find where we put everything, but we focus far less on their physical and emotional experiences. We may take it for granted that site visitors will follow every link. Search engines follow hyperlinks. Persuasive site design calls for making links compelling, noticeable and worthy. When was the last time you thought, “I want my customer to rest for a minute and gather their thoughts before they purchase from my web site?”

Design for future

The future came yesterday. Internet technology isn’t going away. We’ve adapted. We’ll keep finding more ways to use it. It’s estimated that 2 billion people will be on the Internet by 2010. That’s next year.

In a very short time, we’ve made quantum leaps in how we think, share and interact with one another, both as individuals and as consumers. With social networking we share ourselves in ways we never dreamed of doing face to face. We don’t have to leave the house to purchase products. We can call or send a text message to someone from wherever we happen to be, rather than hunt for a telephone booth. The line between our personal and public information has nearly disappeared. Our values, beliefs and human behavior are changing as a result.

In a white paper, A Road Map for the Post-Web 2.0 World Jerome Nadel, MS, CUA, CPE / Chief Experience Officer Human Factors International, Inc., writes:

“In the era of interactivity and user-created content, user experience is changing the very way we do business. There was a time in which digital technologies was just another asset of the enterprise, a tool used to execute strategy developed by management, and delivered to customers. That model has been flipped on its head. As we zoom past Web 2.0 into the realm of Web 3.0, customers are using technology to drive products, marketing and strategy.”

Are we worn out with social media? Do we really suffer from Internet fatigue? I think the answers depend on several factors, such as your age, where you live, personality, income, work life and personal values. To be sure, Internet marketers are having a blast and can’t quite figure out what all the fuss is about. And yet, in private, some of them admit they’re indeed worn out.

I believe we’re learning to cope with the technologies we’re inventing and people still prefer simplicity. Google shot past the other search engines because its interface was simple. The takeaways for us, regarding usability and SEO, is that our value lies in our fascination with and understanding of Internet technology and usage. We know how to “work it.” Could we wreck a good thing? Sure. We can contribute to the chaos and as result, drive people away from wanting to interact with social networking web sites. Companies can continue to develop applications and tools that invade public privacy. We can support adults sites or consider how what we are doing affects human civilization in the long run.

Or, I was just visualizing sitting on the beach with a frozen strawberry daiquiri on sunny day with a light breeze messing up my bangs, watching a school of dolphins off in the distance, breathing in coconut mango suntan lotion and letting the ocean waves lull me into total relaxation.

My computer, video, camera and cell phone are nowhere to be seen.


This article was originally written by Kim Berg and published by Search Engine Land, June 19, 2009

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