One Giant Footprint For Mankind

“To post, or not to post: that is the question.” Nisha Inalsingh enlightens us on the subject.

I have never been a fan of social networking– Facebook walls, Tweets, FourSquare, and whatever else is out there leaves me feeling befuddled; so many lonely people telling everyone all the boring minutiae of their quotidian lives. “Yolanda just took big B and little B to the Short Hills Mall” or “11 years ago I married my wife.  Happy Anniversary Honey!”  Why tell all of your 200 friends, and Facebook’s data capture servers all of those boring, and what should be, intimate details. I was still willing to give Facebook and Twitter a shot, but when I saw what my friends and their friends were writing, I found myself even more turned off by the social network.

Despite my feelings, no one can deny the growing numbers. Something is happening and this was confirmed when I recently read an interesting article that for the first time, put social networking in perspective and showed its importance. The article is called, “The Greatest Experiment of All Time…” and was written by Mark Buchanan for New Scientist, 24, July 2010.

The gist of the article is that with the rise of technology (from cellular phones to social networking), scientists have access to millions of users and their digital footprints. This wealth of data can be analyzed, show social trends and predict behavior. This is particularly interesting because the information is used to figure out mathematical models to determine when independently minded actions become trends and more of a herd mentality. For example, when I feel the need to get some new music I find myself going to iTunes (since I rarely listen to the radio anymore). iTunes knows my music preferences and puts together their Genius list of new recommendations. I usually like the recommendations so I will click through to the recommended artists’ albums and their songs. I choose to listen to the most popular songs and may go to the less popular songs if I want to hear more. I buy based on what I ultimately like, not necessarily what is the most popular, although the recommendations of the most popular save me a lot of time. Guess what? iTunes Genius is a math model, and do you know what this means. Well, it turns out my behavior is totally predictable and that most human behavior is predictable. We actually follow a mathematical pattern that is found in other animals such as deer and bumble bees. It always goes back to Darwin, funny enough. Humans do think independently on some things.  These are the early adopters, but at some point a threshold is reached and this then turns on the herd or ‘most popular’ mentality that allows for the exponential growth from the followers.  With this behavior model, scientists can predict the success of films based on the initial tweets; this also holds true for new songs. (Hollywood and the music industry are paying close attention to these models.) This also can help predict the outcome of political elections or help predict how social movements grow – patterns which definitely affect the future of our society.

It’s all so fascinating albeit scary to realize that very little we really do is unique, and more than that, there is indeed information in social networking when looked at from a macro scale. So even though I have ‘rejected’ Facebook or Twitter it turns out that my digital footprint is still being captured in other ways.  We are all part of this social networking revolution taking place today. And, even if I may not be so keen on knowing where someone had lunch today, I am still interested in finding out if Samoan cuisine is gaining momentum in NYC — I’d like to be the first to check it out!

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