Originally published in an interview for the Soho House collective.
I have spent 13 years researching people’s behaviour online. I started out looking at computer games, and then moved into more of an academic slant by looking at self esteem and identity in online environments during my masters degree. Then, for my PhD, I looked at notions of friendship and trust in social networks, and how these have identical influence effects to friendship and trust offline, even if people have never met one another in “meatspace”. Those lessons, and my work for BBC2’s Virtual Revolution in 2009, became the columns I wrote for The Observer and Guardian between 2010 and 2011. That was draft 1. I then incorporated even more – including the ongoing work I’ve been doing with the award-winning BBC Radio 4’s Digital Human series plus the latest research – and the book is the result!
In it, I take a look at 20 social and psychological phenomena that people claim have been “transformed” by the web, and I untangle the rhetoric from the research. Why do we form groups? How do we express our identities? What is privacy and have our attitudes to it changed? I extract what the empirical evidence told us about these things pre-web, and what empirical evidence tells us about them after the web, and I compare to determine if, indeed, the web has transformed them in any way.
I’ve become tired of the polemic arguments on both sides: the internet will destroy us/the internet will save us. Nonsense. The internet is a series of tubes, a technological infrastructure that allows us to communicate with one another. It connects humans to humans. So anything that’s happening is a result of our desires and our behaviours, not some kind of technological intervention. It’s us writ large.