Chapter Nine

Groups And The Internet 

Introduction

At first, the Internet could be seen as anarchic. By empowering the individual, libertarians hoped, the Internet would eat away the fabric of the State from the inside. In fact, the Internet can be used (or abused) by the State just as readily as by the individual. So far, it's difficult to say who is ahead!

Long term, though, the libertarians were probably right, in the sense that the Internet is ideally suited to the development of new models of cooperation between people, whereas its uses for the State are limited to the collection and dissemination of data, and interactions with citizens (financial and otherwise). It doesn't seem likely that the Internet will change the nature of the State; however it will allow the State to become more effective in the exercise of its power over individuals. (See for instance US state information collection systems such as CARNIVORE, now shut down in favour of more sophisticated – and undisclosed – commercial data gathering systems.)

Previous chapters have described how the invention of writing, followed by that of printing, and eventually a host of repositories of accumulated knowledge external to the brain have led to an enlargement of individual consciousness (self-awareness); and that process continues with the advent of the Internet.

Consciousness is the gateway to this bonanza of external knowledge, not in the sense that we consciously read the book that sits in front of us (the information arrives via our visual sense and is stored, analysed and used by the unconscious in exactly the same way – allowing for the different sensory modality – as information received aurally) but in the sense that a decision to access externally-stored information is normally made by conscious self-awareness. But this is probably an entirely fortuitous use of consciousness (self-awareness), which is involved simply because historically the brain wasn't used to getting information that way. The brain easily and automatically accepts the external input once it is aware it's there – just like putting a CD into the drive of your computer.

Humans don't seem to have the slightest difficulty in obtaining and using information from external sources, whether via sight, hearing or even via touch, as in the case of Braille. Sensory paths converge at an early stage of cognitive processing in the brain, so that it's irrelevant whether a piece of information arrived visually, aurally or by touch. In due course that fact will allow information input to bypass the human being's sensory channels and be received, presumably by wireless, directly by the appropriate parts of the cortex, once they have been fully identified. The bandwidth will be greater, and transmission will be more accurate. The consequences of this for the onward development of consciousness are explored in the next chapter.


The Affiliative Nature Of The Internet

The group-friendly nature of the Internet makes it a natural channel for humans to use in shaping their social milieu. Despite the seemingly unstoppable role in social and cultural development of institutions above the level of the basic human group, humans retain their groupish natures because these developed before external, over-arching social institutions became the focus of social and cultural development. Now, suddenly, after hundreds of years of inflation in human affairs, there comes a straightforward, cheap, accessible means of communication which allows people to connect with each other as naturally and easily as if they were in the local market square together.

In 2009, in the author's family, living in four different countries, the eight Internet-enabled members already routinely write e-mails on family subjects to the group – it's far more efficient and accurate than all those multiple phone calls and meetings. Nowadays we all know what's going on. It's easy to make a phone call or send a separate e-mail in case you want to add something more private, but we hardly ever do. It's an interesting fact (but an expected one) that within this family group there has not needed to be any discussion about procedures, rules, propriety etc – we all know instinctively (we are a kin-group after all) what can be said, and when, and to whom.

Unlike other inventions that have increased the scope of human consciousness, the Internet plays to the strength of groupishness. Previous inventions have indeed been helpful in supporting groups: radio and television provide groupish programming; books often appeal to groups; and magazines are quintessentially groupish. But only the Internet provides such a ready means of forming groups, of enhancing communication between group members, and of allowing the development of a social environment for geographically-separated group members.

Economically sophisticated individuals can surf the real world if they choose, and in making connections usually don't need the assistance the Internet can provide. The difference the Internet will make will be in relation to the large numbers of people, probably even a majority, who cannot help themselves out of the social trap into which they have fallen – or been pushed by the State. Luckily, however, the Internet provides an ideal space in which groups can take root and grow, and it is not an elitist medium. Effectively everyone can access the Internet, at least in developed countries, and it is a confident prediction that, with or without assistance from the State, the Internet will fundamentally change people's social environment in a groupish direction.

This is a large subject, and in terms of the social change that may flow from the seemingly inevitable dominance of the Internet as a communications medium, it is addressed from some different angles in the next chapter. But here, before trying to determine whether the Internet will be a force for social good, or the opposite, it is instructive to explore a little the psychological mechanics of social behaviour. The starting point is the assertion that undesirable social behaviour stems from lack of a robust internalized moral structure and that this in turn results from the absence of group-delivered behavioural rules. In Jungian terms, the anti-social individual fails to share in a positive and effective collective unconscious.

If that starting point is accepted, then anything that can increase involvement in (the right type of) groups is going to increase the power of the individual's collective unconscious and decrease his tendency towards anti-social feelings or behaviour. Of course this is why Lord Baden-Powell started the Boy Scouts; it is why Prince Charles started the Prince's Trust; and there are hundreds of other examples which go to prove that association is seen as a positive tool in building 'the right kind of personality'.

It becomes clearer every day however that the real world, as it is called, is not going to deliver associative goods in the necessary quantities. On the contrary, people are ever more individualistic – and encouraged to be so by our culture – and for some time to come (but not for ever) the State will continue to squeeze out competitive deliverers of morality. The 'empowerment' of individuals will continue, with bad social results.

On the Internet, as much as in the 'real' world, desired behaviour is the result of moral rules which are taken on board, or at any rate, obeyed by the individual. Moral behaviour, on or off the Internet, is delivered by an unconscious set of precepts and feelings; and in addition in many or even most situations there will be explicit group rules. External frames of reference will also apply (the law of the land, for instance). There is no reason to think that behaviour on the Internet in a group situation will be any different from 'real world' behaviour in a social setting. Based on the analysis of human social behaviour set out above and in earlier parts of the book, it is possible to make some assertions about the interplay between human behaviour and the Internet, roughly as follows:

  • Humans have a predisposition to affiliate;
  • Ingrained groupishness carries with it a set of unconscious behaviours which are reinforced by membership of multiple groups and are mostly beneficial in social terms;
  • The moral structure of society is defined and delivered largely through the agency of groups;
  • The human unconscious and consciousness are both involved in applying moral precepts to social behaviour;
  • Use of the Internet tends to increase the 'groupedness' of individuals and through their acceptance of the moral precepts that are implied by group membership, both at the unconscious and the conscious level, their social behaviour tends to improve rather than otherwise.

For it to follow that the Internet will be a force for good, socially speaking, it needs to be true that individuals will increasingly use the Internet for social interaction and to develop group memberships, and that the Internet itself will continue to develop its potential as a means of communication without too much interference from the State. Both of these conditions seem likely to be fulfilled.

It has to be admitted that Internet groups can be good or bad, as in the physical world, and there is a danger, perhaps in developed countries not much of one, that the State will as a result attempt to interfere with the anarchic freedoms of the Internet. In China it is doing its worst in that respect.

Atran and Stern (2005), commenting on Islamic terrorism, said that the Internet provides a forum in which "Small groups find fatal purpose". Suicide bombers may use the web to form communities of like-minded people, say the researchers, and efforts should be made to provide a positive counter to extremist communities on the web.

The right answer though is not to shut down the Internet, it is to engage with the groups that form. In the UK in 2005, it was the failure of established and respectable Moslem groups to notice or engage with the jihadic groups that were openly forming on the Internet that allowed these groups to plan and execute terrorist acts. It need not have been this way; and the reality of groups on the Internet is that the vast majority of them have highly moral profiles.

Groups on the Internet are not just at liberty to formulate codes of conduct for their members; they do so with great abandon, and these rules are in almost all cases extremely moral, in the sense that they conform well to codes of behaviour promulgated in the past by religions and other moral authorities. This is partly because such rules are deeply embedded in human nature as a result of evolution, and will immediately come to the surface in any grouping of people if there is no externally imposed frame of reference. Partly also there is no doubt a degree of cultural uniformity among some of the populations that form groups on the Internet, which is reflected in the rules they make for themselves.

Proposing that Internet groups will have basically moral structures may sound rather extreme, or a triumph of soppy hope over reality. But convincing evidence is displayed in an analysis of Internet groups at the end of this chapter, based on a random set of searches tracking the most popular uses of the Internet as reported by Harris Interactive.


Deception And Reputation On The Internet.

Much has been made in this book of the role played by deception in human social affairs, and the Internet is of course not immune from deception. On the Internet, deception already takes many forms. We may include viruses, spam and impersonation as deceptive behaviour. One of the characteristics of the Internet that most worries critics of its influence on young people is that fact that you don't know who you are talking to. The anonymity of the Internet allows an individual to pretend: perhaps this can be seen as the cyber-space equivalent of an amateur dramatic society, and that's just what it looks like in the case of virtual communities. But it also leads to more unpleasant phenomena such as middle-aged paedophiles pretending to be football-playing 15-year old girls.

Spam, viruses and 'malware' are getting so bad that some people give up the Internet as a bad job; but really it is just a kind of Black Death situation. Viruses, as in animals, have given rise to antibodies (patches or the equivalent) and doctors (anti-virus programs). Some of the remedies are even called Doctor this or Doctor that. It is perhaps a bit early to say that viruses have been defeated on the Internet; they never will be, either in people or in computers. But the vigilant, prepared individual (computer) should be able to defeat them in almost all cases.

Spam is 'free-loading' run riot. It is a kind of stealing, of the power of other people's computers, and of their time taken to sort through the incoming e-mails. Its effectivess in economic terms (for the sender) is wholly based on anonymity and the costless abuse of data and computer power, and loss of anonymity will rapidly prevent it. It is a special case of impersonation, in fact. The issue is how to deprive people on the Internet of the capacity to impersonate others, or at least to make impersonation so difficult to achieve, so easy to discover, and so costly when discovered, that there is no incentive to do it.

In human evolution this was achieved as regards deception by the emergence of groups, or more accurately, it was a by-product of the emergence of groups, with the development of individual reputation acting as a kind of badge of okayness, as was described in Chapter Eight. Technologically, it would not be that difficult to make the e-mail process completely transparent on the Internet, but the resulting loss of confidentiality and the extra powers given to regulators would make such a solution unacceptable to most people. Spam filters are a partial solution, but are very imperfect and are perhaps only a stop-gap measure. The solution may come instead from some kind of positive, associative process, in which a combination of certification, encryption and individual reputation will allow safe e-mail communication within groups of individuals, and between conforming groups. Identity theft would still be possible, but it would be easily detected and traced. The process of stealing an identity on the Internet requires something like a virus, to penetrate a group's or an individual's defences, and as seen above, that is a diminishing problem.


Virtual Internet Communities (VICs)

Perhaps because alternative communities on the Internet are the special home to young people, older people and particularly the 'authorities' worry about whether they encourage violence or sexual permissiveness, and about whether they so distort a youngster's idea of 'reality' that she will be somehow unfitted for life in the 'real' world.

What is the 'real world'? Surely it is no more than a series of social situations in which a person has to behave with her peers in such a way as to maximize her success in terms of the goals of life, including but not limited to survival, mating and the pursuit of happiness. It is very hard to see why 'alternative' reality communities should not serve these purposes just as well as 'real' ones. Perhaps they don't ideally do so at present, largely due to the relatively primitive stage of development of the sites themselves; but even now they are not doing a bad job.

Groups are often called 'communities' on the Internet. Virtual reality communities such as Everquest or World of Warcraft satisfy wholly unfulfilled human needs for social groupings, and are developing moral environments that are at least as complex as those provided in the 'real' world.

Alongside sophisticated internal bodies of laws governing behaviour, with severe sanctions for those who break the laws, Virtual Internet Communities (VICs) also have 'real' economies, in which actual money can be made or lost through trading activity. Although the progenitors and supervisors of these games, as they were originally, are ambivalent about this commercial activity or in some cases opposed to it, the only way in which they'll stop it is to become like a State, and this is probably not what their players want. There is completely transparent competition on the Internet, and few external limits (yet) on how players should behave. In the case of E-Bay, coming from the opposite, commercial, direction, sub-economies have already sprung up, many of them 'groupish' in nature; E-Bay also has had to construct a complex body of law dealing with the behaviour of its users.

The insistent intrusion of 'trade' into Internet groups is no surprise to an evolutionary biologist: trade was one of the first characteristic activities of human hunter-gatherer groups once they began to settle down, or perhaps even before. The instinct to trade is very deeply rooted in the human psyche, and sits on very nearly the same level of the unconscious as does groupishness. This subject was explored in Chapter Four.

As an example of the type of legal and ethical environment which tends to spring up in a Virtual Internet Community, we may take subscription membership service secondlife.com, which has a set of 'Community Standards'':

'The goals of the Community Standards are simple: treat each other with respect and without harassment, adhere to local standards as indicated by simulator ratings, and refrain from any hate activity which slurs a real-world individual or real-world community.'

A scene from Second Life
Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License


'Within Second Life, we want to support Residents in shaping their specific experiences and making their own choices. The Community Standards sets out six behaviors, the "Big Six", that will result in suspension or, with repeated violations, expulsion from the Second Life Community. All Second Life Community Standards apply to all areas of Second Life, the Second Life Forums, and the Second Life Website.
  • Intolerance
    Combating intolerance is a cornerstone of Second Life's Community Standards. Actions that marginalize, belittle, or defame individuals or groups inhibit the satisfying exchange of ideas and diminish the Second Life community as whole. The use of derogatory or demeaning language or images in reference to another Resident's race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation is never allowed in Second Life.
  • Harassment
    Given the myriad capabilities of Second Life, harassment can take many forms. Communicating or behaving in a manner which is offensively coarse, intimidating or threatening, constitutes unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, or is otherwise likely to cause annoyance or alarm is Harassment.
  • Assault
    Most areas in Second Life are identified as Safe. Assault in Second Life means: shooting, pushing, or shoving another Resident in a Safe Area (see Global Standards below); creating or using scripted objects which singularly or persistently target another Resident in a manner which prevents their enjoyment of Second Life.
  • Disclosure
    Residents are entitled to a reasonable level of privacy with regard to their Second Lives. Sharing personal information about a fellow Resident --including gender, religion, age, marital status, race, sexual preference, and real-world location beyond what is provided by the Resident in the First Life page of their Resident profile is a violation of that Resident's privacy. Remotely monitoring conversations, posting conversation logs, or sharing conversation logs without consent are all prohibited in Second Life and on the Second Life Forums.
  • Indecency
    Second Life is an adult community, but Mature material is not necessarily appropriate in all areas (see Global Standards below). Content, communication, or behavior which involves intense language or expletives, nudity or sexual content, the depiction of sex or violence, or anything else broadly offensive must be contained within private land in areas rated Mature (M). Names of Residents, objects, places and groups are broadly viewable in Second Life directories and on the Second Life website, and must adhere to PG guidelines.
  • Disturbing the Peace
    Every Resident has a right to live their Second Life. Disrupting scheduled events, repeated transmission of undesired advertising content, the use of repetitive sounds, following or self-spawning items, or other objects that intentionally slow server performance or inhibit another Resident's ability to enjoy Second Life are examples of Disturbing the Peace.'

With fairly minor adaptations, this would do very well for a code of social ethics under which most 'real-world' inhabitants would be only too happy to live their lives!


Groupishness On The Internet

Table Seven reproduces a table published by Harris Interactive listing the top 10 uses of the Internet. The top five uses are analyzed below in terms of their 'groupishness'.


TABLE SEVEN

Top Uses Of The Internet
Percentages of respondents using the Internet: 
Very Often
Often
Sometimes
Rarely
Never
To send or receive email
25
26
25
14
9
To do research for work or school
18
28
19
10
24
To check on news updates, weather, etc.
16
27
26
18
14
To get information about a hobby or special interest
15
25
38
15
8
To gather information about products and services
14
24
38
10
15
To surf to explore new and different sites
10
24
34
22
10
To make travel plans and reservations
8
18
25
18
31
To obtain information on local amusements and activities
6
17
36
21
20
To obtain information about health or diseases
8
13
38
26
16
To pay bills
7
9
15
9
60

To send or receive email. Of itself, the sending of an e-mail is not perhaps a groupish activity, but a high proportion of e-mails are sent to family, friends, work colleagues and other members of groups to which a user belongs (Lebo, 2000).

To do research for work or school. This is not at first sight a groupish activity; but in fact a surfer will very quickly be offered group membership as an aid to gaining in depth information. In order to explore this, let's imagine an accountant in the UK who has been asked by a client for information about Section 660 (the Inland Revenue's threat to assess additional tax on dividends paid to spouses in family businesses). Searching in Yahoo for Section 660, the first three relevant results (there are some US Section 660 references) are:

  • Contractor Alliance, a membership organisation which offers various types of support service to its members, including the Contractor Alliance, which assists contractors to get in touch with each other and to form teams to tender for projects;
  • Shout 99, which offers membership to UK freelancers, including financial benefits. The site makes much of the quasi moral nature of the organisation's struggle.

    Shout99.com is the largest freelancer network in the UK.

    The name "Shout99" is a sporting metaphor. Ninety-nine was the codeword used by the British Lions rugby team while on tour in South Africa in 1974. If one of the team was under threat, a shout of "99" would bring instant support from all team-mates. The undefeated British Lions of that era have become acknowledged as the epitome of teamwork and camaraderie.

    The Internet brings the ability to shout "99" to thousands of like-minded small businesses.
  • Contractor Calculator, a membership organisation which supplies a variety of services to contractors.

Notice that there are no pure information sources in these results, which are three groups. Further down the listing there are purer information sources, but you have to work to get to them.

To check on news updates, weather, etc. This is not a very groupish area, dominated by CNN, CBS, Fox, the BBC, and the like. However, a Google search for 'weather groups' brings up a 'sponsored link' at the top right to OneWorld, which describes itself, very groupishly, as:

  • a global information network developed to support communication media of the people, by the people and for the people — everywhere. Its goal is to help build a more just, global society, through its partnership community. OneWorld encourages people to discover their power — power to speak, connect, and make a difference — by providing access to information, and enabling connections between hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of people around the world.

    The OneWorld network is driven by the people and organizations it supports — people write the news, provide the video clips and the radio stories. Through this network, individuals have access to information previously unavailable to them — information that can broaden their world view and enable them to make better decisions. There are countless stories of people saving lives, helping their communities, and improving the economic prosperity of their families and villages.

To get information about a hobby or special interest. Randomly picking 'greyhound racing' as a search term on Yahoo, we are given three national greyhound racing associations in the top ten search results. The first in order of these is the American Greyhound Racing Association. It offers membership, with access to a range of information and benefits, and it has a Code of Conduct for its members.

  • MEMBERSHIP CODE:
    The Greyhound Racing Association of America is a non-profit membership association founded to promote, protect and enhance the sport of greyhound racing and the greyhound industry through education, example and media for the benefits of its members, fans, supporters and the greyhound racing dogs that make this great sport possible.

  • Code of Ethics:

    GRA/America encourages responsible greyhound ownership for its members. Our goal is to provide the most efficient tools and information for our members to make greyhound racing an enjoyable and respected American experience.

    GRA Encourages & Supports:

    Placing the welfare of the greyhounds before all else

    Strive for breeding for the best qualities of the breed. Quality, not quantity.

    Education and pro-active ownership during the racing career of the greyhounds

    Setting an example as a responsible owner for all others to follow

    Making educated breeding choices; quality--not quantity

    Awareness of legislation that affects greyhound racing and contacting your legislator to let your views be known

    Contacting GRA, NGA and local authorities if abuse or neglect is witnessed

    Introducing new members to the sport and educate them about the greyhound breed's unique characteristics

    Dispelling the myths and lies that the press, activist groups, and the misinformed spread to the public about our sport

    Improving of the relationship between the racing industry and the adoption industry

    Getting to know your adoption groups and supporting them financially or otherwise

This Code is representative of the hundreds of thousands of affiliation groups that exist on the Internet, and it is very clear that this group sets out desired behaviours among its members that have quite strong moral overtones. There is also a connection to relevant legislation, an appeal to fight against other, negatively-portrayed groups, and a call for financial support. There is no mention of trading; but this is a quasi-official body, and likely to frown on commercial activity.

This was a completely random example; any search term whatever with hobby or interest relevance is extremely likely to generate group membership invitations high up in the search results.

To gather information about products and services. Although there are possibilities for groupish relationships in the direct supplier/customer relationship, they are not widespread. The first result, Xerox, doesn't have a membership program, although there is a Channel Partners membership program for resellers, which is a bit groupish. A search for 'Xerox users forum', something that a prospective purchaser might well undertake, yields a number of user forums. They typically require members to adhere to a set of standards; a typical example is Print-Planet.com, which is part of E-Communities, an extensive series of computer user groups, and which requires a substantial amount of personal and professional information before admitting members. It has a long user agreement.

One paragraph reads:

  • Your use of the Services is subject to, and you agree to not use the Services in any manner that is prohibited by or facilitates the violation of, any applicable local, state, national, or international law or regulation. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, you agree that you will not use the Services to: (a) stalk, harass, or harm another individual; (b) impersonate any person or entity or otherwise misrepresent your affiliation with a person or entity; (c) interfere with or disrupt the Services or servers or networks connected to the Services or disobey any requirements, procedures, policies, or regulations of networks connected to the Services; (d) collect or store personal data about other users; (e) post, e-mail, or otherwise transmit any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising or promotional materials, "spam," or other forms of solicitation; (f) attempt to gain unauthorized access to other computer systems or to disable or circumvent any security or tracking mechanisms included in or operating in conjunction with the Services; or (g) interfere with anyone else's use and enjoyment of the Services.

Members can send e-mails and other messsages ('posts') to their fellow members, which can have trading or commercial content, within limitations. (See notes above about how the Internet may protect itself against impersonation and spam in future; this is an example of how it begins to happen.)

It's probably unnecessary to go on. Any use of the Internet comes up against user groups, forums, communities etc in short order; and they normally have sets of rules with more or less ethical content which seek to control the behaviour of members.

Curiously, the Harris poll didn't list – and perhaps didn't ask about – sex or gaming, which are regularly reported to be the two main uses of the Internet. Both of them no doubt have plentiful clubs, membership privileges, forums, etc.


References

Atran, S and Stern, J (2005) Small Groups Find Fatal Purpose Through the Web, Nature, 437.7059, p 620

Barkow, J H, Cosmides, L, and Tooby, J, (1992) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, OUP, New York

CARNIVORE, Cyber Terrorism at http://www.auburnmountain.com/BestPractices/ProtectClientDataCredit/CyberTerrorism.aspx

http://www.contractorcalculator.co.uk/About.aspx

http://www.contractoruk.com/index.html

Dessalles, J-L (2000) Language and Hominid Politics, in The Evolutionary Emergence of Language, ed Knight, C, Studdert-Kennedy, M and Hurford, J R, CUP, UK

Emler, N (1990) A Social Psychology of Reputations, European Journal of Social Psychology, I, pp 171-93

Everquest, www.primagames.com

http://www.gra-america.org/GRA-America/codes.html

Harris Interactive poll at: http://www.microsoft.com/presspass/press/2004/aug04/08-02searchpollpr.mspx

Knight, C (2000) The Evolution of Cooperative Communication, in The Evolutionary Emergence of Language, ed Knight, C, Studdert-Kennedy, M and Hurford, J R, CUP, UK

Lebo, H (2000) The UCLA Internet Report: Surveying the Digital Future, University of California Los Angeles, http://www.ccp.ucla.edu

Nesse, R M (1992) The Evolution of Psychodynamic Mechanisms, in The Adapted Mind, ed J H Barkow, L Cosmides and J Tooby, pp 601-624, OUP, New York

http://printplanet.com/forums/register.php

http://secondlife.com/corporate/cs.php

http://www.shout99.com/contractors/

Trivers, R (2002) Natural Selection and Social Theory; Selected Papers of Rovert Trivers, OUP, New York

http://us.oneworld.net/about

http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/index.xml

 

 
 

To read the remainder of Agent Human, go to amazon.com or to amazon.co.uk.



 
 
Copyright 2008-2010 M G Bell. The material contained on this site is the intellectual property of M G Bell and may not be reproduced, transmitted or copied by any means including photocopying or electronic transmission, without his express written permission. Contact the author.