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

People Paid to Post Misleading Information on the Internet Is a Global Practice

The practice of marketing companies paying armies of people to post misleading, false information on blogs, forums and social sites is expanding globally.

While the practice can be used to post fake positive reviews for pay, for example, more often these paid posts are intended to destroy competition. I’ve been getting unsolicited calls from companies looking to hire people to do “SEO work” where the work consists of signing up for fake accounts and posting fake testimonials or comments, depending on what you’re paid to write. It’s become part of the “work from home” industry.

I found an article on how China is going gangbusters with what is called the “Internet Water Army”. According to an article in TechnologyReview called Undercover Researchers Expose Chinese Internet Water Army, “Paid posting is a well-managed activity involving thousands of individuals and tens of thousands of different online IDs.”

Another article I found refers to the practice as “cyber warfare”. This is different then spam drivel appearing in a blog’s spam pile. These people are paid to be deceptive. The article about China above reveals how someone went undercover to learn all he could about the various ways in which companies pay for biased and misleading content. He developed software to spot the behavior and methods used for this type of paid content delivery.

The article claims:

[box] Paid posting is a well-managed activity involving thousands of individuals and tens of thousands of different online IDs. The posters are usually given a task to register on a website and then to start generating content in the form of posts, articles, links to websites and videos, even carrying out Q&A sessions. Often, this content is pre-prepared or the posters receive detailed instructions on the type of things they can say. [/box]

Clearly some companies are desperate enough to pay for dishonest information by purposely conning the buying and reading public.  How can you spot these paid bozos?  In forums, they tend to post often, start a discussion and than move on without any investment in the topic.  They use templates and cut and paste the same content, often sticking it in places that don’t make logical sense.  They leave comments but don’t respond to comments on their comments.

As always, when reading user generated content, use your head.  Get many opinions.  If something doesn’t seem credible, it likely isn’t.

Does Technology or the Internet Make People LESS Connected?

I was recently witness to a debate at a local gathering that began when one man angrily claimed that people who live on their cell phones and laptops are “selfish” and “not connected with people”.

His statement turned into a long discussion with people as young as a woman in her early 20’s to a gentleman in his 70’s speaking their opinions. Interestingly, the youngest one in the bunch was the most reasonable. She agreed that many behaviors are impolite. She reminded everyone that we each make our own choices and what is felt as “right” for some may be considered “wrong” to others. There is no such thing, another person said, as the “right” way to do things. Who decided things are not perfect as they are?

The first man insisted that people can’t be connected or involved in their environment around them when their face is glued to a computer device or their ear has a cell phone attached to it. He finds this selfish and the beginning of the end of humanity because we’re not caring about each other and ignoring one another until we’re free to come out of our techno-trance.

Other people love that technology gives us search engines, social sites and email. (Not to mention new medicine, better healthcare, environmental advances….) They say they are more connected then ever. It was agreed that many people are rude with their cell phone usage. But again, by whose definition of what is proper usage? Who decided that overhearing conversions or cell phones blasting in meetings is wrong? What moral code is broken when people don’t pay attention to their environment? How do we define “dangerous”? One person gave several examples of how even our definition of “dangerous” is biased and based on lack of information, fears, and myths.

It was a debate with no winners and many opinions. Oddly enough, I kept my mouth shut and just listened. I’ve seen this topic brought up before, but without the idea that maybe everything is as it should be.

Are you fed up with how technology has changed our habits and behavior towards one another? Does the Internet make you feel disconnected physically from people or perhaps more spiritually connected (energy, spirit to spirit, etc.)?

Who decides what is right or wrong behavior or social rules as each new type of technology is developed and brought to the masses?

Making an Impression on the Internet

There was a line once from a TV commercial that went, “If you want to capture someone’s attention, whisper.” Such a method may not work on the Internet.

Save Forums

I was curious to find where the new generation of search engine marketers and website designers are these days. I also wanted to know if the talented and skilled among the new folks were helping out the industry by passing along accurate information. I asked because this was how we used to do things. Chat groups, usenet, forums and email lists were how I learned and where I gave back. It was fun meeting meeting people and watching them build their brand and businesses.

A large number of people from the first generation of search engine promotion days remain out in force. These are the folks who were there when new search engines and directories were being launched so often we needed charts and diagrams to keep up with them. Each one had its own algorithm or human editors. They started out free. Today, there are 3 mainstream search engines that need very little help finding web pages and directories exist for any goal or niche. Sadly, some people continue to charge unsuspecting companies to submit sites to fee-based directories that have nothing to do with their product or service.

Where would a site owner go to get accurate, practical, authentic information on web site marketing? Who do they turn to? Who has their best interests in mind? And more important to me, does the thrust of the credible education still come from the pioneers and GenTwo? If the tradition of mentoring and freely sharing advice is continuing, where is it being done?

Picture of teacher at drawing board.

The answers are all over the place. One takeaway was learning that forums such as the one I own are dying out due to the incredible impact of spam and lack of quality advice. In addition, the medium itself is considered too old. Today’s web site generation rely on social networking sites and blogs for their education and interaction.

Another takeaway lies in the business model. Free advice may not be considered quality advice. Anyone can write a blog post and submit it somewhere. There is less attention to good writing, backing up statements with facts, resources or studies. Sphinn took a dive because the content submitted was either poorly written or intended only to promote a business, service or person. They’re working hard over there to turn that all around.

Many blogs are produced as part of a business. For that model, the content must be quality and correct because the reputation of the business depends on it. Paid bloggers and sites that pay for their content may attract more traffic than a forums where you’re never sure if you’re getting the right kind of information. Subscription-based forums have the incentive to provide professional content too.

“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.” Dakota saying.

Should any industry be responsible for passing along the baton to future generations? Some people don’t think it matters. Others have experienced what happens when the education is corrupted. For example, the story I was told about someone in a high paying IT position whose company downsized and let go of most of its employees, only to start replacing some of them with cheaper labor. Assigned to work on a project with one such new employee, it was soon obvious the new person was in trouble. When asked where he learned his skills he replied, “I learned from Google.”

Forums or Blogs?

However without a steady influx of new members a forum will stagnate and die.

Some people say a forums should adapt with the times by getting on Twitter, Facebook, getting a blog, starting a Linkedin Group. Cre8asiteforums has already done this, with the exception of being on Facebook. None of that increased traffic.

We weed out the spam and because of the industry well-knowns, who are either moderators or regular contributors, the content is more likely to be accurate.

But that hasn’t attracted a steady stream of new members. With today’s forums and the volume of information inside them, someone can join and learn but never participate. They don’t give back to the community or even let the community know they exist at all.

That’s the part that has changed from the old days. There are new places and new ways to make an impression on the Internet.

Web Design That Makes an Impact

Unless a web design relies on Flash and is packed with vivid images, we as web users find most sites to be boring to look at. What separates the truly talented web designer from the template driven or less experienced ones are those who want to make a human connection with each web site visitor. I’ve seen online forms that make me feel as though someone is standing next to me with words of encouragement and even humor.

Human computer interaction is one of my passions. I write it about it for SearchEngineLand. Today, Information Behavior and Mental Models was published.

How often do you have a happy, fun, relaxing and utterly satisfying experience while browsing an online retail web site? Do web site designers know or even care what puts us in the zone? What does it feel like to be a captivated web user?

I hope the article inspires you.

Internet Marketing Awards and Contests Do Not Cover Entire Industry

Being recognized by one’s peers can be a happy moment. It’s far better than being ignored. But what happens when your name appears on a winner’s list and you don’t know why it got there?

What about awards lists that name people you know don’t deserve to be there or there are exceptional people who were left off the list?

I wrote about a contest in December that didn’t make sense to me. With today’s winners announcement for that contest came a viable rant by Rae Hoffman, CEO of Outspoken Media. As she wrote in Most Influential Online Marketers of 2009 FAIL for her company’s blog,

In addition to the obvious haste in publishing the final results (at the time of this writing there are numerous typos in the bios of multiple marketers), Invesp decided to taint both the nomination and selection process, left out some of the most obvious and influential marketers in the industry, while including some folks that you’d have a hard time even having heard of, much less name anything influential they did for the community at large in 2009.

A lot of the marketer bios sound as if they were scraped from conference bio pages and it was obvious no real research was done into deciding or explaining why some of the marketers on the list were considered influential enough to make the list.

With the SEMMYS coming out, as well as numerous other yearly nods, I wish someone would do them with some common sense, without bias by judges (because not everyone in the SEO/M industry likes or gets along with each other), and tell us what the winning criteria are.

This past year I feel I wrote some of my best articles ever on the topics of search engine optimization and usability. I wrote them for 4 other publications, however. Unless THEY are followed, I most likely will not get any notice for that work. It is something that contests don’t take into consideration.  There are no categories for cross-skilled people and no categories for experts who conduct training or live on the speaker circuit.  It’s as if those contributions to their field don’t matter in the least and I take issue with that.

A contest worth its salt to me would:

1. Obtain extensive user generated feedback. It should be mandatory to give a solid reason for making a nomination. Being a fan should not count.  Related:  Judges should be experts in the category they are judging.

2. Allow have user instructions that make it easy to understand how the process works.

3. Put up a form for feedback on that process and correct the issues that come in.

4. Explain the judging criteria. What makes someone a winner? Is it something they did?

5. Define your terms. What does Internet Marketer mean, exactly? Does it include all the branches of online marketing and if so, isn’t it logical to break out into categories?

6. Research nominees and candidates, please. Some people are very clever at hiding behind their computer monitor, making it look like they even have a business when in fact, they do not. Check employment history. Check to see if they left the industry. Just because someone was once well known doesn’t mean they are still active anymore.

7. Get references for any work related accomplishments. Make it known exactly what a winner’s specific achievement is.

8. Give examples of what you are looking for in a winner rather than accepting anything.

9. Do not cut and paste bios from conference materials or their site bios. If they won, allow winners the opportunity to tell you what they want published. Related: Avoid grammatical and spelling errors. It just makes your contest look sloppy.

10. Do not use the contest to market yourself. This is link bait, not a true competition.

Maybe it’s part of the gene pool of marketers to keep rewarding themselves. I crack up when I speak at conferences because I find that in the real world, nobody knows me. I’ve been in the SEO and Usability fields for going on 15 years and yet when I was hired to train new SEO’s for a company in November, none of the trainees had ever heard of me. So, if  “influencing the industry” is a criteria for winning, who the hell cares?

I like to be acknowledged, don’t get me wrong. I love a good pat on the head once in awhile. But I want to earn it. I want to know what I did that you liked. By the same token, it is sad when I know I’ve accomplished something that goes unnoticed. I think this is also what bothers other people. We’re each unique. I know of no one who combines SEO, software QA testing, usability testing and information architecture like I do. I know some people who may have two of these skills and that’s all that is required of them or all they are interested in doing.  I’m usually excluded from contests because I don’t fit into their square peg.

Finally, there are some people in the internet marketing field who fit in somewhere as part of a team, with their specialty, such as copy writing.  Categories most often missing in Internet marketing contests include mobile marketing, video marketing, online radio, social media, teaching and education (forums, schools), niche blogs and search usability (findability).

So my final request for those who would run awards and contests is to be sure you know and fully understand your own industry first.