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Are We Human in the Network?

Posted by Mark Bennett on February 21, 2010

At an HR Happy Hour a while back, Mark Stelzner made the important point that, “You are the most important tool in the network.” This is absolutely correct, yet within it also lies a hidden danger.

Mark was making the crucial point and reminding us on the call that while which technology tools to use will be an important part of our decision making, a social network has no value without the participation of people in that network. In other words, the technology provides the platform, but it is not the network; the people are the network.

What’s so bad about that?

Here’s the hidden (at least to some) danger: people make up the network and the more that people participate, the more valuable the network can become. However, if the network becomes too much the primary value to its users to the exclusion of the individual, the risk is that the identity and humanity of the numerous participants can become diluted, even to the point where it affects their perception of their own identity and humanity. That is paradoxically the opposite of what was supposed to happen.

A recent book by Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto“, discusses this problem and its philosophical, ethical, and economic effects. While his focus is mostly on Web 2.0 technologies in the public internet, some of the thinking applies to enterprise social networks just as much, especially in the way that management shapes the culture of its use.

Our SVP of Fusion HCM Development, Clive Swan, puts the concern well by wanting to make sure that we don’t end up treating people as “interchangeable carbon-based units.”

How can this happen?

How can primacy of the network affect our perceptions of our own identity and humanity? The network acts in many ways as a mirror that can powerfully affect our perception of ourselves. It doesn’t affect us all the same way and to the same extent, but it happens nonetheless. This effect isn’t a new phenomenon; the propensity for individuals to lose their humanity when they see themselves as an anonymous member of a mob is well-known throughout history. What’s changed over time is the acceleration of that effect through technologies that support things like mass media, assembly lines, and the internet. When radio and film propaganda was used effectively in changing almost entire nations’ images of themselves (by turning the cameras and microphones onto the population itself in carefully controlled ways), we almost lost the world. That danger hasn’t passed either.

As before, it’s not the technology itself that causes the problem, as much as we’d like to blame it. Rather, it’s the warping of the technology to achieve certain self-serving effects directly, or it’s the unintended side effect of some other nobler aim. So, for instance, we hear about the wonderful ability to tap into the experience of our workforce to extract knowledge so that we either improve productivity or stop the loss of knowledge as people leave the company. But here’s the catch: when the network solely becomes a mechanism for people to extract slices of information from “the network” (i.e. information that other individuals provided, but was blended into a homogeneous, albeit organized, mass), then the individuals that made the network even possible in the first place become secondary to the network itself. This can insidiously work its way into the culture with no one really seeing what’s happening because everyone is utterly focused on the first-order benefits.

Re-humanize Yourself

I work all day at the factory
I’m building a machine that’s not for me
There must be a reason that I can’t see
You’ve got to humanize yourself

– The Police

So, we must be vigilant both as management and as individual contributors. Management must adhere to the borrowed phrase of, “first, do no harm.” Resist the temptation to load the organization with too many policies and procedures that end up just obscuring the greater goal. Instead, communicate to people what the purpose of collaboration technologies are, along with general guidelines. Avoid the problem of unintended consequences by making sure that business goals in the use of collaboration technologies don’t create perverse incentives.

As individuals, we must all keep a look out for creeping anonymity. Maintain your identity on your enterprise network and nurture the identities of others. Recognize people and their contribution. Resist the temptation to always just “get in and get out fast.” Sure, there will be times when time is pressing and you need an answer fast or you need to answer somebody else fast. Just don’t let that so dominate your interaction with the network that you have become just a “gadget”. There are times when anonymity might be called for like with surveys, but the majority of your activity should be identified with you and convey as much of the whole you as you can.

Photo by brtsergio

8 Responses to “Are We Human in the Network?”

  1. Louise Barnfield said

    Great post, Mark, and an important reminder to us all!
    I was immediately struck by an early comment: “In other words, the technology provides the platform, but it is not the network; the people are the network.”
    This speaks to all of Talent Management. No matter how the technology and the tools improve, or how effective they become in enhancing the day-to-day activities, we must never assume those tools can bypass the human element in the process.

  2. Amy Wilson said

    Very interesting, Mark. I have just started reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin, in which he talks of the “mechanical turk” (a service in which a business process/problem is broken into tiny tasks that people will do for nearly free) … talk about de-humanizing and destroying the goodness of a network.


    • I had forgotten about Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. It got a lot of hoopla when it first came out, but I don’t see much about it these days. What does Seth say about it in his book?

  3. Mark – Love the post. I read some things recently about ‘phatic communication’, the kind of mundane, almost (on the surface) useless chatter that sometimes can sometimes seem to devalue electronic networks. The main point of the piece I read was that phatic communication has value as it reinforces some of the fundamental strengths of the network itself. And it also serves to humanize the network and its participants as well. This need to remember that networks are composed of human beings is really important I think. Great stuff.

    • Hey, Steve! How’s it going? How’s the weather? How was the BBQ? 😉 Seriously, thanks for bringing that up; it’s a lot of these seemingly mundane actions that form the social glue we all need (to varying degrees) in society. If you get a moment, please share any references you found particularly useful. Thanks! Take care! Have a great evening! Bye!

  4. Meg Bear said

    Authenticity, connection and information are what I value in a network relationship. I am probably not alone in finding the most fruitful online relationships having some of each. I agree with you that organizations need to look at this from the human lens. This is why I’m so anxious for the HR group to play a part in their companies social media strategy. There is a real leadership opportunity here.

    Great post Mark.


    • Agreed! This is where many of the skills, education, interests, and passion typically unique to folks in HR-related areas can really have a positive impact. Thanks for bringing that into the discussion.

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