the Pavlovian internet

It’s not unusual to hear people wonder aloud about why certain behaviors that are rarely encountered in the physical world are encountered in online interactions. I believe a big part of the answer to that, and one of the keys to understanding online culture altogether, lies in the way in which social approval is made explicit and mechanized in the online social space.

Human beings, as a general rule, crave social approval. Though this has some powerful negative effects, on balance it’s a good thing, and quite necessary for human survival. This is certainly true in the offline world, and in no sense has the internet created this dynamic. Lately, however, I am more and more convinced that the explicit nature of formalized approval online– favorites, likes, retweets, shares, reblogs, +1s, hearts, karma, and on and on– has a deep impact on online social behavior. Social approval is nothing new, nor is its influence. But never before have we had such a torrent of deliberate and explicit methods to reward behavior, and I think it matters.

It’s easy to say that the stakes of these little gestures of approval are so small that they can’t possibly have a big impact. I think this is a misunderstanding of human nature. I believe human beings are a lot like dogs in a simple way: we tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded, even when those rewards are minor, if they are repeated. Indeed, this is the basic mechanism of dog training: you don’t reward a dog with one big meal at the end of a long day of obedience class. Rather, you give her a steady drip of small treats over and over again. That’s exactly the way in which these little rewards are distributed online– low stakes, constant repetition. The conscious mind understands how little these things actually mean in an abstract sense, but they rely on subconscious power. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if, every time we received these little strokes, we got a little neurological reward, a little shot of dopamine, conditioning us to repeat these behaviors. Behaviorism has undergone serious challenges, most notoriously in the production of language, but I don’t think that the essential insight of the power of reward to alter behavior is incorrect.

The question is whether the effects of this dynamic are salutary or negative. Being the internet skeptic that I am, I personally feel that the dynamic is an unhealthy one. While I believe in the necessity of social conditioning, I think that such conditioning is most appropriate when influencing community behavior, and least beneficial when it comes to arguments and ideas, which suffer if they are too easily influenced by social pressure. In other words, the online world, which much more resembles a debate hall, classroom, or legislative body than a social community, is precisely where we would least hope to find explicit markers of social approval. What’s more, it’s important to think about what kinds of online behavior tend to get these little nods of approval. Jokes, insults, messages of professional regard, and showy displays of disaffection are just as likely to receive these little digital strokes as good writing, thoughtful ideas, or kindness. And by their nature, some of the most important of social values can never be rewarded in this way: humility, reserve, gentleness, restraint, and quiet compassion. If the internet frequently feels like a pit of meanness and obligatory jokes, that’s because those are the behaviors that are most rewardable and are most rewarded.

These dynamics are exacerbated by the constancy of interaction that defines social life. I am hardly the first person to point out that, in contrast to the age-old reality of social conditioning, there is something profoundly new about the ceaselessness of online social interaction. There are many, many people who rise in the morning and immediately take to social networks, stay on them throughout the working day, taking breaks for only brief periods for work and face-to-face socialization, and remain on them until they go to sleep. This has completely blurred the lines between the social world, the professional world, and the political world. People announce their various professional projects and perspectives, debate them with people online, then share their political beliefs, debate them with the same people online, then react to the latest episode of Breaking Bad, and discuss it with the same people online. I think that asking whether this phenomenon is healthy, particularly when combined with the conditioning of social reward that I’m discussing, is fair.

Fair, but frequently unpopular. I admit that this is all fairly speculative on my part. One of the reasons I think it has salience, though, is precisely because people tend to be so defensive about critiques of online social conditions. Critiques and complaints about social media are constant, so I don’t mean to say that they are forbidden, but rather that there is a regular cycle of critique followed by intense, seemingly reflexive backlash against the critique. Frequently, I find the backlash immediate, dismissive, emotional, and unfair– in other words, these backlashes tend to have exactly the character you would expect if they were the product not of rational disagreement but of the herd irrationally defending its conditioned behavior. I suppose those are fighting words, though I don’t mean them to be. Instead they are the honest observations of a certain learned irrationality that is the product of digital systems that are designed to take advantage of the a-rational parts of the human mind.

Dave Roberts, a longtime blogger for Grist (and, not coincidentally, someone who tweeted in a constant torrent), recently decided to take a year-long break from the internet, for reasons he explained at length. Many took exception to his announcement, and I can grok why. I get thinking that he could have just, you know, left, without the preemptive announcement and navel-gaze. I get think that there was something presumptuous and self-important about it. I get the argument that he could have just tried to moderate his internet and social networking usage, rather than to leave entirely for a year, and I agree that learning to moderate in that way would actually be healthier in the long run than taking a long break. I don’t mean to undermine legitimate criticisms of his decision or his announcement. What I want to suggest is that, when Roberts says the constant connection of the internet is “doing things to [his] brain,” he’s telling the truth, and that perhaps the internet is doing things to the brains of his critics, too. It may be the fact that the hive mind is real, and that it does not appreciate challenges from individuals who are breaking away, however temporarily.

Alan Jacobs frequently complains that people ascribe various social problems to the internet in a vague or unhelpful way, and that the internet thus becomes an all-purpose bugaboo that stands in for technology or modernity or society or whatever else. And he’s right to so complain. But this is a fact: there are behaviors and structures in place now which have existed for a very short time, and these behaviors and structures have sprung up on a vast scale, and they have disproportionately captured the attention of a connected and influential elite that dominate our media and our government. Yes, there are ancient social analogs to retweets and follows and likes. But none of them are perfect analogs, and the differences matter, and those differences can have effects that are detrimental to human social behavior.

I am comprehensively alienated from elite internet culture, a culture that seems to me to celebrate the cruel, to insist on the triviality of all things, to constantly devolve into either showy acts of professional regard that imply a future quid pro quo or into mindless snark and derision. I cannot separate those impressions from my personality, from my social commitments, from my politics. But neither can anyone else, and in that context, our perception will be dominated by the opinion of the mob, and the mob inherently gravitates towards approval and defense of the conditions that created it. If my thinking is correct, our opinions about the internet are conditioned by our attachment to it. Alan has spent years and thousands of words considering what online life means for human life, for the life of the mind, and it’s hard for me to imagine someone doing so more thoughtfully or more rigorously. Yet when I read his work I frequently suspect that the strengths of his beliefs outrun the rational evidence that he has presented. I think, in other words, that his defenses of online culture are both the result of his rational mind and its interpretation of evidence and also of how he has been conditioned by that culture. None of us are capable of standing outside of how our own perception is warped by the conditions that we describe. But only some of us are saying what the rest want to hear.

The inevitable joke is that I’m captured by the very dynamics I’m complaining about. I don’t tweet, but I am one of those reflexive Facebook users who finds himself checking his phone at every spare moment. And when I use websites that have these built in features of social conditioning– Gawker Media sites, say, where Nick Denton has expertly monetized the power of this conditioning for years– I have to admit that the digital strokes matter. Only a little. Not in a way I consciously care about. But enough. I think I am hardly alone in this, and the long-term question is, to what end?


  1. And by their nature, some of the most important of social values can never be rewarded in this way: humility, reserve, gentleness, restraint, and quiet compassion. If the internet frequently feels like a pit of meanness and obligatory jokes, that’s because those are the behaviors that are most rewardable and are most rewarded.

    That’s a really important and well-stated point. Thanks.

  2. Bummed to see some people describing this post as making accusations against the moral character of others, when in fact my purpose was to describe a mechanism that I believe results in bad behavior through conditioning rather than through moral failing.

  3. @Josh, I agree.
    That’s what stood out most to me, too.
    I work with teenagers, and at the risk of portraying myself as the old man shaking his fist at the speeding car tearing down his nice residential street, I really am concerned by how little the majority of my students seem to recognize the benefits of anything that is internal/intrinsic or lacking in monetary value. Thoughts and feelings, increasingly, aren’t even seen as valid unless reified online.
    So. As rewards come to be defined more as more as being a) external and/or b) necessarily public (if not materially significant), will these less public (but formerly acknowledged almost-universally as positive/laudable) traits increasingly be seen as not particularly positive (by virtue of their not being publicly rewarded)?
    Serpent eats tail.

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