Oxytocin, Google, And Cuddly Pandas

I was sitting on my couch yesterday when a notice from Aardvark popped up on my laptop screen: "Are you there? I have a question about *cars* you might be able to answer."

Aardvark, you may recall from my January column, is the artificially intelligent search engine that uses its artificial intelligence to connect the human asking the question with the human most likely to be able to answer it. It is so intelligent, in fact, that it knew that, even though I myself am pretty useless at car questions, my car-savvy husband was sitting right beside me. So I told Aardvark I'd be happy to give it a go.

"What kind of vehicle/model is this? /" I wouldn't have known the answer in a million years, but hubby barely had to glance at the picture: "It's a T-Rex." (The "duh" was implicit.) I sent the answer and the Wikipedia link to the questioner.



A minute later, I got this response: "THANKS!!!!!!!!!! F**K YEAH!!!!!!! I just got done bragging to a thousand people about that. THANKS KAILA, YOU ARE GOD!!!!"

As much as I wanted to print that out and put it up on my wall, I had to confess that it was actually my better half who supplied the answer, to which I received, "I see. Then... your husband is GOD!!!!!!!!!! You better treat him right, all right?!?!???? THIS IS SERIOUS!!!!!!!!! N.Z. RULEZ! BYE NOW!!!!! :DDDDDD"

My husband started strutting around with his chest puffed out like a peacock. I laughed all day. It was a phenomenally gratifying encounter.

And one, no doubt, replete with oxytocin, also known as the cuddle chemical. It's the stuff that makes us feel empathy, care for others, and fall in love. In a fabulous Fast Company article, journalist Adam Penenberg offers himself as a guinea pig to neuroeconomist Paul Zak, a.k.a. Dr. Love. Zak is working on demonstrating that encounters with people online can have the same chemical effect on our brains as encounters with people in the physical world. His experiments with Penenberg seem to support that claim; during a 10-minute Twitter session, Penenberg's oxytocin levels went up as much as those of a groom at a wedding, causing the title of the article, "Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling In Love," to seem a little less hyperbolic.

An emotional, oxytocin-inducing experience like the ones you might find on Aardvark or Twitter would seem completely out of place on a utilitarian site like Google. ifindkarma describes it as the difference between lobsters and pandas. We go to Facebook for the lobster experience (apparently lobsters just wanna have fun) and to Google for the panda experience: forage, consume, move on.

The difference between these two approaches is not insignificant, and both have their merits. Sometimes you just need to be productive, while personal relationships are fundamental to the human experience. And they can obviously co-exist -- after all, Google bought Aardvark at the beginning of the year. But they need a certain amount of separation in order to succeed. When you want to get stuff done, you want to get stuff done, and when you want to cuddle you want to cuddle.

So, again, we come back to whether Google Me has any hope at all as a social network. Frankly, I'm inclined to agree with Penenberg and ifindkarma: without the oxytocin, they'll never be anything more than pandas.

Does social networking make you all lovey-dovey? And does Google make your oxytocin levels spike? I'd love to hear about it, here or via @kcolbin.

3 comments about "Oxytocin, Google, And Cuddly Pandas".
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  1. Ric Dragon from DragonSearch, July 13, 2010 at 10:03 a.m.

    Love it; I'm going to be quoting "We go to Facebook for the lobster experience (apparently lobsters just wanna have fun) and to Google for the panda experience: forage, consume, move on. " But there might be a bigger play here for Google - as I wrote back in march about the "Social Panopticon" ( - not if, but WHEN Google (and they aren't the only player) is able to integrate social with ALL aspects of online - social becomes a completely different game. A whole Zoo, if you will.

  2. Monica Bower from TERiX Computer Service, July 13, 2010 at 10:04 a.m.

    So Lobsters are cuddly but pandas are narcissists?

    Apart from the failed metaphor (and after all, you didn't come up with it so it's not your fault the lobster is supposed to be cuddly compared to the panda), You're dead on. Google has a silly friendly name but the oxycontin clearly stops there. It won't be the new facebook, it will be the new myspace, which had the same problem - too much emphasis on doing your own thing and too little emphasis on actual content. Google botches content apart from google maps/earth, which is understandable considering their roots, but isn't going to put them in a good position to overtake facebook.

    And the larger unasked question is, do people really want something to overtake facebook?

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, July 13, 2010 at 11:35 a.m.

    One day we may all feel like those nasty exclamations towards all motor mouth networks. If pro social behavior can be adopted on line, then anti social behavior can too. Be careful what you wish for.

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