Does the internet change human nature?

Because online communication is qualitatively different from face-to-face interaction

The short answer is no. While the Internet clearly amplifies all our good, bad and indifferent qualities, basic Homo sapiens DNA can never match the pace of tech innovation. That is, unless in the future–

  1. we enter into the morally questionable arena of radically re-engineering the human genome;–or,
  2. artificial intelligence breakthroughs make human DNA irrelevant (see my blog posts for June 24 and 27, 2014 for a discussion about that issue).

But what about ‘digital natives?’–aren’t they different?

Millennials, aka, digital natives, exhibit the advantages of superior brain neuroplasticity (learning about the digital world seemingly by osmosis, solidifying navigational and even coding skills through Internet exploration and experimentation). That said, they are often uninformed about basic social reality, having no clear idea of what came before the Internet, often believing, for example, that the Internet was discovered, rather than created. Many in this tech savvy group are even deficient in online technical abilities like constructing a query, understanding the limitations of search algorithms, etc.

Because online communication is qualitatively different from face-to-face interaction, I also agree with experts who argue that digital natives have been slower to learn about key social realities and social skills. This is especially the case in skills related to eliciting the best from others via respectful, empathetic communication.

That said, a number of sociologists have asserted that the Internet and social media serve as a necessary safety valve for what in recent decades has become the over-structuring of their time with after-school activities, more homework and the emergence of ‘helicopter parenting.’ –Kids used to run around their neighborhoods freely, despite all the attending risks, because for good or bad, that was the unquestioned norm. Like all prior generations, digital natives need to interact with and seek the approval of peers–by whatever means available.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss how IP and other online tracking have caused some to back away from posting bullying, racist and sexist comments. Such social-cyber problems run parallel with our more fluid, ‘managed’ online identity/identities. For those who are hiding aspects of their identity on some social media while revealing them on others, security/privacy is an ongoing risk.

The Internet has made us more aware of the big differences in human identity and beliefs

I said that the Internet has amplified the good, bad and indifferent aspects of our DNA-based human natures. That said, there’s no denying that the Internet is shaping and molding digitally influenced cultures around the globe. And, because we’re ‘culture-bearing animals,’ our values, norms and behaviors are changing and will continue to change.

Does the internet create a greater understanding and tolerance of differences?

The Internet has made us more aware of the big differences in human identity and beliefs. This has put some on the defensive, pushing back about how they are ‘exceptional and better,’ and lashing out at/or about people they consider dissimilar or somehow inferior. Most of us, however, prefer to ‘build bridges’ with folks who are different, to affirm our common humanity and to move beyond self-serving assumptions of superiority.

Creating constructive dialogue about and greater good will about differences demands a combination of honesty, diplomacy and forgiveness. Developing these qualities takes time and an underlying desire to make the world a better place. We all want the kinds of connections that help us and others learn and grow. Taking that road requires equanimity and balance. In some cases, we just have to move on from those not receptive to those goals and to connect with new people.

Our increasingly fluid online identities

Because our online/social media identities so often overlap, many feel it is easier, even more principled to fully self-disclose online. In fact, some bravely present a unified online persona across social media regardless of potential social blowback. –Who can question folks who do this IF they are respectful and thoughtful? That said, how one self-discloses on FB, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social media varies according to the medium. And trying to navigate between some identities can be difficult, even career-limiting–as many have discovered the hard way.

In my March 13 blog article “Marketing to Millennials,” I commented that the social identities of young urbanites in the U.S. (in Europe, as well) are more fluid/complex than ever. In the U.S. and other technologically advanced cultures, one-dimensional ethnic/tribal identities no longer determine one’s fixed position in society. While the melting pot analogy increasingly applies to complex, modern societies, some divisions are proving harder to overcome. Social mobility, e.g., (movement up and down the social ladder) has decreased in recent years, tarnishing ‘the American Dream.’

It’s imperative that parents mentor their children about staying safe online

The message bears repeating: Kids absolutely need our mentoring and oversight about how to navigate and post online. Peer pressure for risky Internet behaviors may be impossible for them to resist otherwise. At the same time, they also need time to explore and some freedom to make inevitable mistakes.

In my next blog, I’ll outline some strategies for overcoming unintended challenges to workplace productivity resulting from ‘virtual distance.’