Is Online Harmony Holding You Back?

"Argument" by Filipe Dâmaso Saraiva, made available under a Creative Commons Share Alike Licence
"Argument" by Filipe Dâmaso Saraiva, made available under a Creative Commons Share Alike Licence

There are many benefits to participating in online social networks. The ability to build a large network without geographical constraints gives access to support, insight, feedback and promotion opportunities in an immediate, easy and powerful fashion. There seems to be no downside apart from the time needed to engage with your online tribe, but there is an interesting problem lurking within the groups we create.

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, director of the Information + Innovation Policy Research Center at the National University of Singapore, has put forward the idea that our online networks may be harming our capacity for innovation. He may well have a strong point that needs consideration for anyone getting deeply involved in online networking.

In an article in the journal Science Mayer-Schönberger examines the impact of extended online networking on software engineers and concludes that this is, in part, responsible for the incremental pace of innovation in the open-source community. Innovation still happens but the curse of groupthink keeps the pace of change slow.

I think that the problem stems from the nature of the networks we build. There is little persistent dissent in most social networks. If you don’t get on with someone you can unfollow or block them either explicitly or by creating a mental filter, “that’s just Maggie mouthing off again”. It is easy to create an environment that feels very positive and affirming but this creates a strong averaging force that pulls us towards conformity. Innovation often comes from the resolution of thesis and antithesis, but if our network provides only thesis and affirmation there is no need to stretch ourselves and find the innovative solution that may be just around the bend.

For group wisdom to have a beneficial effect we need diversity of opinion. Online networks can apear diverse but there are usually threads linking the network. My networks include a lot of people working in webdesign as part of influential small companies. They come from all over the world and have many differences but there is a kernel of common ground that can be powerful. You wouldn’t find many advocates for the wonders of Internet Explorer 6, everyone has an understanding of the importance of semantic markup and coffee heals all ills (or at least used to and is missed).

Independence of opinion is also important in crowd wisdom. The diversity of opinion needs to be capable of withstanding opposition to get through. This is rare in online communities. It is much easier to say nothing than to disagree. This avoids being unfollowed for disrupting the harmonious state of the group. Online networks are much more fragile as there is little depth of relationship to fall back on. The pull to score ourselves based on followers is powerful too, rocking the boat could have negative consequences so on the whole we don’t do it. In offline communities dissent can be difficult too but it is easier to tackle communicating in person and if the contact is one to one rather than one to many saying nothing is not such an easy option.

The persistence of our contact with our online groups retards the ability for diverging opinions to develop. With periodic notifications of group activity through applications, browser feeds and smartphones our online groups are never far away. This denies us the mental space to nurture dissent. Our online networks often overlap too, many people are friends on several services, so spending time in FriendFeed as opposed to Twitter gives little difference in experience.

It is through homogeneity that Metcalfe’s law (the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of members) becomes subverted. We can have a network of hundreds or thousands of members but if the number of discernable points of view is less than the number of network members the utility of the network will be less than Metcalfe’s law would predict.

Online networks have great value but their effects on how we work and think will only become apparent over time. Innovation is a rare thing and probably not a useful aim much of the time. There is great value in sticking to the predominant view and executing brilliantly but if innovation is your aim it is useful to be aware of the influence your online networks may have on you.

Published by

Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at

  • Before I write out a ream of thoughts triggered by arriving here, I would like to mention a video from Viktor Mayer-Schönberger

    Video presenting “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age”

    I have Viktor's presentation playing in the background as I write this but I will return to hear it with more clarity for I appreciate that multi-tasking does not work. One can however think one's thoughts which can benefit from intelligent background noise. It is therefore a discovery mode rather than a prescribed behaviour of one more “social animal”.

    What I hear so often is the phrase “humans are naturally social animals (creatures)” but when I hear it online it seems to parse more as “come to my website”. I have even heard people suggest that if one takes human society formation out of the equation then man is but only an animal. This is as if we have never seen social behaviour in the animal kingdom or at least that it something “special” to humans?

    Such assertions need to be challenged only to question what the interest of the individual is in making rather obvious statements so explicit. We may then be breeding the idea that anything other than this perspective is deemed “anti-social” or at least comparative to bad body odor or at least “thinking that stinks”.

    I have not determined for myself what effect this might have on our innovative abilities or how this may or may not subvert our perspective. There are enough meme makers in civilization to occupy large amounts of our brain cells, without duly making a concern of new meme makers who wish to cohabit that part of our mind which isn't already occupied with other competing “social” messages.

    Innovation as far as I see it is a due process, has cause and effect and that it might also occur due to the 10,000 hour rule Gladwell and on rare occasions there is a Eureka effect where an idea presents itself. The problem of “social” has nothing to do with the network but the affinity for discovery.

    In the case of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule, there is both the idea that we can spend more time than 140 character attention etiquette that can be seen in how people follow each other, or ascribing “likes” or writing short pithy comments, not wanting to appear to “hog” or “waste other people's time”. Yet the 10,000 hour rule suggests that this determination is OUR OWN TIME.

    Moreover very few people will seek who are Malcolm Gladwell's sources and so never encounter people like Albert-László Barabási who wrote “Linked” and in the case of 10,000 hours, the connection to K. Anders Ericsson:

    Expert Performance & Deliberate Practice

    I need to defeat my own behaviours to learn delayed gratification, to not provide links that populate attention but are never really accessed and to discover in this space filled by people who do this thinking for me. I must learn to think about my own thinking and then realize whether I am really thinking or simply following.

    That people view online “thinking spaces” as tribal spaces is probably because there are so many voices reminding us that we are “social animals” rather than explorers (as if human migration or exploration has not fundamentally shaped the human experience).

    I would like to think or at least note that I don't want to think I know what I am talking about but that I think out aloud to discover my own affinity to both knowledge and follow my inner calling. Exploration is IMHO natural to the way we personally think. If I look in the mirror I won't learn anything fundamental if I merely assume that I am a social animal. I must migrate and challenge my own thoughts.

    What the social animal has taught me particularly looking at the 20th Century is its war-like mentality, even when protesting about the need to have peace. I can hear Viktor's presentation talking about the benefits of forgetting and the role of remembering. I can see the wisdom in this idea of “delete” and “expiry” and the insanity of attention which can accrue from new found abilities to accumulate digital memory.

    I write to think not to memorize and memorize only that which key for me to learn and which heightens or adds value to quality of life through a growth of personal wisdom. 10,000 hours is OK as a superficial observation, but to do it, that requires more than a life of one-liners, that requires singular personal discovery.

    That means I am writing this for myself. I have just poured out a sliver of my thoughts, I have been thinking out aloud and in the very moment as I did, juggle with ideas and conceptions in the moment they are occurring. This is a unique experience that needs to be backed up with my own life goals and life purpose.

    I am not here to live other people's lives and live other people's experience, but I benefit greatly to immerse myself in a new emerging world where the quality of immersion is dictated by the quality of exposure we are prepared to discover . . .