There aren’t always rational explanations for the ways in which we behave on networks. While there are trend spotting sciences and pattern recognition methods which try to make sense of how and why we behave in these strange ways on networks, they generally fail to actually help us understand why we do the things that we do when we are connected.
Recently, in a workshop on ‘Habits of Living’, organised by Brown University (USA) and the Centre for Internet and Society (Bangalore), a collection of researchers, artists, practitioners and educators came together to understand how networks form these habits that we take for granted in our digital lives.
Habits are unthinking, visceral actions that we do for survival within a network. They are things that we do without even realising that we are doing them – Liking a post, retweeting a tweet, sharing an interesting link, adding pictures on an album. These are all things we do without realising that they distract us from our work, need time, energy, and attention which we could have spent on other tasks. Instead of looking at these as actions which can be rationally explained, we might start looking at them as habits that shape the ways in which we trust, transmit and treasure information online.
Networks are everywhere these days. They are the things that we study and the lens through which we study the world around us. In the last week, I have faced three separate instances that reminded me of how we live in networked societies.
There was the scare that the private messages on facebook have suddenly turned public and available on our timelines for everybody to view. The social network, these simulated fortresses of friendships and trust, suddenly became a place of danger. Conversations which were committed as acts of secrecy emerged as potentially compromising public acts. The network was in my face, blinking red, making me suddenly aware of the fact that the network is not merely something I can take for granted. It is something that works seamlessly for most of the time, is actually something that I cope with, negotiate with, and teach myself to live with, without realising it. The relationship I have with my social network is a lot of work but it gets explained away as ‘habits’ , which are such an everyday part of my digital life that I have stopped looking at it as work.
The second incident was when a friend complained about the hostility she faces when she is not on any of the popular social networks. As an outsider, who refuses by choice, to belong to either Facebook or Google Plus or many of the activity networks (like Instagram, for instance) around, she constantly gets a raised eyebrow, a pointed question and a look of incredulity when she confesses it to somebody. More often than not, she gets treated like digital pariahs, social outcast who is no longer ‘relevant’ in the current scheme of things. She was telling me about how hard she has to work to convince people that she belongs to the communities, even though not to these networks. And how, she is constantly afraid that while she plugs out, people might be saying things about her that she might want to hear but never get to know.
The third is perhaps more common than we would agree to but it deals with multiple identities online. In the world of Wikipedia, there are people who use sock-puppets and meat-puppets, using multiple avatars and identities to make their point, to fake support for their arguments, and to build false consensus in order to win the edit wars that they are fighting. These puppets, that stand in as surrogate structures of real people, are not mere surface structures. They are fleshed out, have personalities, have styles and identities which the users invest in quite passionately. While the community frowns upon these false identities, and indeed social network platforms encourage us to shun all role-play and stick to our one authenticated social identity, these flourish and often gain a life of their own as a shadow double of the user. And yet, everybody knows that these identities are a matter of habits, a collection of ‘things that we do’ which emerge as important actors in the networks.
These habits might offer us an explanation of why we participate in memes, sharing and disseminating information virally across the interwebz. They might also give us an insight into why we troll and transmit viruses and spam, to friends in the networks, even when we do not mean to. They might help us understand why we are suffering from such an information fatigue, even when we have smart algorithms and softwares constantly sifting through the information web and filtering customised results for us.
The idea of the network as a series of habits opens up a new way to thinking about all the three instances, which I described above. It shows that the networks become invisible in our everyday practice, thus creating a condition of false crisis, because they are simultaneously transparent and opaque. It shows that networks are not ‘natural’ but take a lot of effort and energy to sustain – something that digital natives might take to easily but are not kind to digital immigrants, settlers or non-inhabitants, who cannot invest as much time in their networked lives, thus creating new demography of exclusion.
And it shows that the network, despite the much acclaimed wisdom of the crowds, can be easily manipulated by those who learn how to fake conditions of life and living within the simulated networked environments. And it would explain why, if I end this column by asking you to go to Google Images and search for “completely wrong”, partly out of curiosity, partly because of expectation, and partly because of habit, you will run the search strings anyway, in the process, supporting the network but also reinforcing your habits of information search and connections.