I should start by saying that I'm not really one to ask about such things, as I am an extremely unsophisticated user of the Internet. I've never sold anything on E-Bay, bought anything from Amazon or posted something on You Tube. I don't have an avatar on Second Life and I've never "met" anyone online. And I've never successfully defrauded the wealthy widow of a Nigerian dictator. So I'm not much of an expert on this.
However, like most everyone else, I've wasted huge amounts of time wandering around the Internet. As part of my profession, I think a lot about the behavior of primates, including humans, and the behavior manifest in the Internet has subtly changed my thinking. Much has been made of the emergent properties of the Internet. The archetypal example, of course, is Wikipedia.
A few years back, Nature commissioned a study that showed that when it came to accuracy about hard-core science facts, Wikipedia was within hailing distance of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Immensely cool â€” within just a few years, a self-correcting bottom-up system of quality that's fundamentally independent of authorities from on high is breathing down the neck of the mother of all sources of knowledge. The proverbial wisdom of crowds. It strikes me that there may be a very interesting consequence of this. When you have generations growing up with bottom-up emergence as routine, when wisdom of the crowd phenomena tell you more accurately what movies you'll like than can some professional movie critic, people are more likely to realize that life can have emerged with all its adaptive complexity without some omnipotent being with a game plan.
As another plus, the Internet has made me think that the downtrodden have a slightly better chance of being heard â€” the efficacy of the crowd. A small example of that recent elections in which candidates have run Internet campaigns. Far more consequential, of course, is the ability of the people to vote online about who should win American Idol. But what I'm beginning to think is possible is that someday, an abused populace will rise up, and doing nothing more than sitting at their computers and hacking away, freeze a government and bring down a dictator. Forget a Velvet Revolution. An Online Revolution.
Mind you, amid that optimism, it's hard not to despair a bit at the idiocy of the crowd, as insane rumors careen about the Internet.
However, the thing that has most changed my thinking is the array of oddities online. By this, I don't mean the fact that 147 million people have watched Charlie Bit Me, with another 20 million watching the various remixes. That's small change. I mean the truly strange Websites. Like the ones for people with apotemnophilia, a psychiatric disease where the person wishes to lose a limb.
There's someone who sol Webd a piece of gum online for $263 that Britney Spears had spit out. A Website for people who like to chew on ice cubes. Websites (yes, plural) for people who are aroused by pictures of large stuffed animals "having sex." And one for people who have been cured of that particular taste by Jesus. An online museum of barf bags from airlines from around the world. A Website store for people who like to buy garden gnomes and stab them in the head with sharp things. And then post pictures of it. On and on. The weirdness of (subsets of) the crowd.
As a result of wasting my time over the years surfing the Internet, I've come to better understand how people have a terrible craving to find others like themselves, and the more unconventional the person, the more the need. I've come to realize that there can be wildly unforeseen consequences in a material world crammed with the likes of barf bags and garden gnomes. And most of all, the existence of these worlds has led me to appreciate more deeply the staggering variety and richness of the internal lives of humans. So maybe not such a waste of time.