Friday, October 06, 2006

The Human Network

This site invites people to define "The Human Network" ("a social structure composed of individuals, business partners, friends or other organizations") Here's my attempt:

We can't ever know for sure whether anyone else is conscious, but as social animals, we've evolved to read conscious into other humans (as-well-as animals, puppets and other human-like entities). And we're vitally concerned with how other consciousnesses view us. I like and dislike people, so I assume Kate likes and dislikes people. If she likes me, she'll share food with me (or sex or something else). Since we're often around big groups of people, we tend to be concerned about how the group sees us.

Human Networks are the ultimate class-ranking systems. Almost all human interactions can be boiled down to attempts to gain more acceptance (and sometimes more distancing) from a human network -- or to bring someone else into a network (or kick him out). I want to be a cheerleader; I wish that guy would go away; I want to work in that office; I want to be left alone...

Most of us have two opposing drives: connection and disconnection. It's obvious why we want to connect: other people can meet our needs (for companionship, sex, paychecks, etc.). Why do we want to disconnect? Sometimes that's obvious too: Charlie is going to hit me, so I want to get away from him. But sometimes we want to disconnect from "nice" people. I think this is because social processing is expensive, complicated and ultimately exhausting. After hours of reading tiny nuances and trying to figure out what they mean, we need time to recharge.

Some people rarely need time to recharge. They are social athletes -- extroverts. Others have a harder time reading cues, and the social mechanisms in their brains get overloaded very quickly. They are introverts. Most people aren't pure introverts or extroverts, so they experience tension between wanting to connect and wanting to disconnect -- or they flip-flop between the two.

One can manage this tension -- sometimes -- by constraining one's network: I will only stay out until 10pm; I will only hang out with a small group; I will only hang out with people I know. Bounded networking.

Technology confuses traditional boundaries. On the Internet -- and in other new mechanisms for networking -- I may be unsure how to control the tension between my desire to connect and my desire to disconnect. How can I join such-and-such a message board and only talk to the people I want to talk to? But since this tension is pretty stable -- all people feel it and are used to feeling it and know they will always feel it -- most of us find ways to placate it, even in new social situations. New networks are confusing (and sometimes scary) at first, but we have such strong drives to carve out a comfortable (and simulating) social space for ourselves, that we throw all of our resources into making them work. And in the end, it usually does -- although we are rarely able to completely avoid tension. We can control networks, but we can't control other people. We can set up rules, but we can't always make people follow them.

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