During a recent conference, I heard Lee Siegel ruminate on the relationship between humans and the digital world. In a discussion on his book "Against the Machine," he and a moderator covered
questions of how and why we engage online and across emergent electronic platforms. The theme of the book, "being human in the age of the electronic mob," plus the topics of the conference -- the
onset and optimization of social media, engaging with the blogosphere, reputation management -- kept the conversation on a particular tension.
These gentlemen spent a lot of time considering the tricky relationship between a brand or individual building a digital identity and the blogosphere with which they must contend, negotiate -- perhaps even game. It was a talk on digital anthropology -- on the increasingly intense, sometimes psychotic call-and-response within this relationship. But, as I listened to them, a basic question was triggered that I find fascinating and ultimately open-ended. Why do we engage online in the first place? What drives us as brands, marketers, consumers and humans to even go there and connect in this day and age?
Alone with ourselves -- or online?
The vignette that struck me was this one: Siegel told a story about picking up Proust to revisit the text. Shockingly, he found himself agitated and unable to focus or even to understand some of the passages. In his bothered state, itching for comfort, he jumped online to communicate, browse, and connect. The reflex of his own unrest bugged him. The anecdote was a lens into something I've thought about a lot over the years. What drives us online from the inside out?
Our inner researcher?
Back in the early '90s, I worked for a major Western regional magazine. I was very close to a certain travel writer. As a prolific writer who took his craft deeply seriously, research was his world. As the Internet started to proliferate, and people were browsing, looking stuff up, passing fodder, and grabbing bites of information to hurl through email and over one-up cocktail banter, he fumed, "When and why in the WORLD have we become a nation of researchers?!"
This research craze boggled his mind; he saw it as a tendency to channel our inner librarian. That was the first time, too, that I ever thought about the psychology of it all. But, I was an unapologetic part of this phenomenon for certain. Immersed in editorial research, I found that my Thomas Guide, Merck Manual, and other standards of the resident library could only take me so far in my quest for information. Like so many, I was in.
From information to socialization
A few minutes later, as the Internet began to socialize and delivered advanced messaging, sharing, and online chat -- a thirst for information was joined by an impulse for connection and community. As we have discussed, these community rumblings were simply the precursors of what we now dub social media. On a very basic level, people were online, communing and conversing. Of course, today the digital galaxy that exists and enables this socialization is even more robust.
Yet, in today's version of digital media, some argue that it is not an outright desire for "community" that drives us -- but a desire to validate our interests. They say it is interests that drive us to connect online today. The distinction is subtle. But to me, ego and reflection are implied here. In a social media sphere where consumer demand and influence are the fuel -- it is obvious that self-interest is quite central.
Illustration: self-interest and the culture of the one-up
In a recent essay in the New York Times, "Lord of the Memes," David Brooks discussed the manner in which habits of cultural, intellectual snobbery and one-upmanhip have been totally changed by the digital:
"On or about June 29, 2007, human character changed. That, of course, was the release date of the first iPhone.
On that date, media displaced culture. As commenters on The American Scene blog have pointed out, the means of transmission replaced the content of culture as the center of historical excitement and as the marker of social status.
Now the global thought-leader is defined less by what culture he enjoys than by the smartphone, social bookmarking site, social network and e-mail provider he uses to store and transmit it. (In this era, MySpace is the new leisure suit and an AOL e-mail address is a scarlet letter of techno-shame.)"
No matter the weighting of all these drivers, it's fascinating to think about how they play together, as we've gotten more downright digital. Whether a proclivity for research, community, self-interest, cultural facility, or the one-up, it's the consideration of these that will continue to shed light on the path ahead.