Thursday, March 11

Human Ethology: Microblogging

I'm an internet sort of guy, and the internet is big, going on bigger. The internet is something which appears to be reaching its tendrils into every aspect of our lives, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Such growth may cause great trouble, because while the human mind is very adaptable, that doesn't mean it is always a quick study, and as I'll argue, microblogging has some deep ethological conflicts we need to address immediately.

Following the recent introduction of Google's new Buzz service, the company and internet were flooded with privacy concerns on the new service. Facebook has been through privacy scandals too many times, and Twitter is no stranger to these catastrophe's either. It appears that microbloggers are particularly susceptible to judgment or design errors. Why might this be?

A Selective History

Microblogging could hardly exist as a term without the older and respectable weblog, from which we derive "blogging." A blog isn't as mock conversation though, a blog is primarily associated with written work - logs, journals, diaries. Blogs were (and are) longer, thought out, and usually edited. When they were journals, they were more private and introspective, but they attempted to be contemplative.

Microblogging is closer to being a stream of consciousness; indeed, it was described as such by Jason Kottke when the term tumbleblogs was coined in 2005. A "no holds barred" philosphy was embraced, encouraging tumblers to post tiny messages, straight links, quotes, videos, songs, images, and even full length blog style posts. Whatever was on your mind, you ought to be able to leave it on the tumbleblog.

Together, Facebook and Twitter made microblogging more about status updates than media. Links are still common, but a greater emphasis is placed on the blogger's internal thoughts.

Why would you want to put your stream of consciousness, you inner thoughts, passions, and desires, all over the internet, the greatest single network in history?

What Microblogging represents in our minds

I need to take a moment to talk about the importance of symbolism in understanding human ethology. Let's use a linguistic example: a widely used title for a king or lord is "highness." Why highness? The meaning is quite literal. In our hunter-gatherer days, having an position elevated above the rest of the group meant you could see everyone when they cannot easily see each other. One could see further into the distance, to spot approaching game or enemies. One is visible to all, and can more easily issue commands. Overall, to sit/stand higher on the ground was/is a position fought over and claimed by the strongest, as such a position strengthens the holder.

Exactly the same logic falls under the phrase "look up to." You look up to them because they are above you, both literally and hierarchically. They have gained the higher position on the ground because of their success, to you look up to them (where they stand above you), and emulate them so that you too may be successful and control the higher ground.

The point is that much of our figurative language, art, and thought is actually quite literal, and can be directly tied to ancient behaviors which are very much alive in us today.

What is the symbol of microblogging? The symbol of Buzz is a multicolored quotation balloon. Twitter has that little bird with a 't' in a quotation bubble. Facebook makes use of quotation balloons so rampantly it is often difficult to find your way around the site. And Tumblr? Well, Tumblr is practically designed to be confusing, messy, and unaesthetic.

This is the fundamental problem: microblogging services want us to treat them as surrogates for spoken conversation, and we are easily drawn in and comply. But, microblogging is far too different from personal conversation. This divide is what makes costly errors so frequent in microblogging. 

A False Sense of Stability

What is a conversation? It is an interaction between two or more people, where everyone involved alternates between speaking and listening, all the while issuing feedback signals to everyone around. You know exactly who you're talking to and exactly how they react in real time. Microblogging removes the majority of natural feedback. you would receive throughout the course of a naturally paced conversation.

Most importantly, microblogging gives everyone an unknown audience. Audiences didn't exist in hunter-gatherer times. You had your family and friends which made up your entire community, the people who you spent your whole life with. They weren't a real audience, not by modern standards.

You could say whatever you want, and you could be sure that no one except your village will hear you because there's no one else out there for miles around. You knew exactly who you were dealing with and what kind of people they were. Microblogging provides the exact opposite: an audience of unknown size, made up of unknown individuals.

A Game of Numbers

Picture a scene of a hundred people filling a decent sized room, like a lecture hall. Now, wipe it out, and imagine two hundred people in a different, comparably sized room. How does the scene appear different to you? Try it again with 500, then a 1000. Work your way further up the chain if you feel like it.

In the above thought experiment, its important to really wipe your mind of your previous image. The use of a different setting helps with this. Humans are pretty good at saying two amounts are different in comparison, but when it comes to precisely generating internal images of large amounts, we're rubbish. Humans generally have very limited ability to discriminate between large numbers, intuitively.

The psychological sub-field of Numerical Cognition is all about this. When we evaluate small quantities in a blink of an eye, it is called subitizing. But you can't subitize quantities larger than a couple dozen. We thus have learned to count, but some fun studies with modern hunter-gatherer(H-G) cultures have revealed a few that don't really learn all the knacks. When presented with twenty hash marks, and asked to reproduce that number, these H-Gs would just scratch some marks next to it in order to indicate that the amount was "a lot."

In the H-G world, you're almost never going to see very many people organized in once place. If you do, all you need to know is, "that's a lot." Same with hunting herd animals, all you need to know is that the herd is big, and perhaps more importantly, healthy, which isn't a numerical judgment. Plus, these are external, concrete scenes, not mental images you've made yourself.

Yet, when we look at our follower base on a microblog, the emphasis is on a raw number. 23... 145... 2079. Each one is significantly larger than the last, but because these are just raw numbers, they're not strongly connected to the emotional and judgmental regions of the brain. Plus, quantities of that magnitude are barely discriminable within the number centers of the brain, for reasons stated above.

This setup is a recipe for disaster, as evidenced by mistakes made by so called professionals in much more natural situation than Twitter provides. Senator George Allen called some guy "macaca," probably by accident, and winds up losing an easy re-election race. Comedian Michael Richards got angry and made a racist comment while performing, video gets around everywhere, and Richards' almost loses his entire career (basically forced to go on hiatus for several years).

The circumstances were hardly natural from an absolute perspective, but at least these celebrities could see their audience, interpret the feedback, plus had years to adjust to the burdens of fame. Now think of microblogging. Its like these situations but worse in almost every respect.

Negative Feedback (or lack thereof)

When I microblog, I have this urge to just say crazy nonsensical stuff all the time because that's what I do in real life conversations. A lot of the time people get kicks out of it and laugh, providing me with the knowledge that I've hit on something. Other times I just get stares and pauses, the coldness of which indicate how poor my comments have been judged to be.

Buzz, Facebook, and Tumblr only allow you to "like" things. Twitter isn't even complex enough for that, but it allows you to retweet as a way of showing agreement. There is still no way to show your dislike. In Buzz and Facebook, you must leave a comment, and presumably explain yourself if you want to make your feedback negative. Even then, your input is only qualitative; you can't impact those "6 likes." already on the board.

All forms of feedback are a crucial part of personal interaction. So why not allow people to show their disdain as well as their favor?

This is nothing new, even to the online world. Digg and Slashdot both use positive and negative moderation to control the quality of what their users are presented with. This system works because it is anonymous. There is no good reason for a similar system not to be implemented in microblogging.

Furthermore, absence of feedback is still feedback. When someone reads a microblog post, they are going to have a reaction even if no one is present to see it. It might be tiny, but microexpressions (how fitting) are effectively inescapable in human interaction. However large the reaction is, it is effectively wasted. You can tell the poster later how you felt, or comment on the post, but you can never replicate that initial reaction, and that right there is crucial feedback. The poster's fast-acting cognitive architecture never receives this feedback, which sends a different message: there was no reaction, which is of course untrue. Higher order brain architectures will take into account subsequent feedback, but that primitive instantaneous system in our heads will always be providing a substantial bias based on false information. There's no good way around this problem, unfortunately.

Object Permanency

Another problem with me saying wacky stuff on a microblog is that its stuck there forever. Thanks to feed control, archiving, and caching, one information is out there, it can seldom be made to go away. When it can be gotten rid of, the greatest risk is that by the time you go through all the channels and waiting periods to get content removed, anyone who was looking could have copied it and saved it for their personal use. Then, its too late.

There isn't much one can do about this problem - I'm not one to advocate for less data accumulation in searches and archives. The removal process could use improvement, but unfortunately, this is something we're probably just going to have to knuckle down to and deal with.

Say what you will about how chat software and text messaging are destroying language; they've got similar problems. They have certainly have their downsides, but as technological advancements go, they are much more ethological than microblogging because as abtract as they might be, you know you're having a conversation.

Returning to the question posed earlier, why would we scatter out internal thoughts all over the internet, I can offer a two-piece answer. Firstly, because we don't understand just who and how many people we're telling, and secondly, those thousands or millions of followers don't let us know they're listening, because its simple and easy to do so.

My Recommendations

I've spent all this time outlining the problems, but I'd just be a whiner if I didn't explain what we can and ought to do about them. Microblogging's main flaws are in feedback. Human conversation relies on constant visual and auditory signals, virtually none of which are available in a microblog. 
  • Microblogging ought to allow for both negative and positive feedback, and when someone leaves feedback, they ought to be able to do so anonymously.
  • Enough with the conversation symbolism. Microblogging isn't speech, and it never will be. Microblog services need to use more accurate representations.
    • For instance, since we've established microblogging is much closer to a stream of consciousness, use a thought bubble symbol, or a brain, or perhaps a combination of the two.
  • Microblogging is a more unnatural technology than chat or traditionally blogging, and it should actually be treated more gingerly because of this.
    • Service providers need to stop this opt-out privacy nonsense. The default ought to be ethological, and ethological means private.
    • If you can use something other than microblogging to accomplish a task, try it out.
      • For example, some people say microblogging is the next big thing in internal corporate communication. Yet some companies use internal Jabber servers for this purpose, and as a proper chat protocol, Jabber is more organized, more efficient, and comes naturally, like in a conversation.
  • Force yourself to think about your microblog, even if "the point" is not to. Take your spur of the moment thought, let it mature a bit, then distill it into a core idea you can post.
    • Not only will this filter out noise and bad ideas, but distilling your ideas like this is an extremely valuable skill to cultivate.
    • This whole process might cost you a minute of extra time.
  • Time! The system will get better as mobile devices become ubiquitous the way the personal computer has, and as users adapt to this new behavior. In the meantime, no one should rush into early adoption in order to get on the bandwagon. You gain very little by being one of the first Buzz users. Let the service providers provide a decent product before adopting it. So, time and skepticism.
    So what do you guys think? Can you Digg it?


      1. Nice.

        I'm actually fairly surprised Buzz didn't start out with both a like and dislike option, considering all the whining that goes on at Facebook over not having that mode of feedback.

        Your post also leads me back to the idea we had in #e[l]ection about a better way to do the blog, where instead of individual posts, the contributors respond to each other in a public way. I suppose you could do it by editing each others posts to add your respose, but that's kind of messy; I don't think there exists a content deliver service (ie Wordpress) that is actually well-suited to the format.

        Finally, I have to take issue with the juxtaposed words, "respectable weblog". That is all.

      2. Well, your blog improvement suggestion, sounds disturbingly like gWave...

      3. My suspicion is that there is only a "like" option to artificially increase the positive aspects of such interactions. (Similarly, your contacts in Facebook are all "friends", theoretically filtering out acquaintances who are likely to dislike your actions or thoughts anyway.)

        Interesting :)

      4. Yeah, I'm inclined to attribute this to a misguided desire to imbue these services with "feel-goodery." They just aren't aware of the greater harm they're causing. Induction and all that, I'll wager.

        The Friends issue you bring up: I do agree that it IS an issue, though I think it makes much more sense from an ethological perspective, so is much less of an issue.