I wrote this post a long time ago – in December 24, 2008. At the time, Twitter was new, FriendFeed was small, Facebook did not yet have functionalities it has today, and Google Plus did not exist. So the main platform for finding an online community were blogs.
I found this (the link is now broken, but the site still exists, and I could not find the post – perhaps got lost to the vagaries of time, or a re-design of the site, or blogger’s whim) quite intriguing:
Those thinking that online social networking is a substitute for face-to-face interactions might want to think again. Recent research in psychology suggests there are some benefits to real-life socializing that the Internet just can’t provide; researchers at Stanford University have published a report in Psychological Science called “Synchrony and Cooperation” that indicates engaging in synchronous activities (e.g., marching, singing, dancing) strengthens social attachments and enables cooperation. As most of our online social networking to date is based on asynchronous communication and interaction, this could spell trouble for those that prefer to engage in relationships online rather than off.
Hmmm, isn’t this quite a leap? There is a difference between being in the same physical space and doing something rhythmic in it. There is also a difference between doing something together online vs. offline. I do not see how those things are comparable.
Scientists have theorized that synchronous activities lead to group cohesion ever since the 1970s, but Stanford’s Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath wanted to put some backing behind this notion. In one study, the researchers led 30 participants around campus in two different conditions: one walking in step (marching), the other walking normally. Afterwards, the participants were instructed to play an experimental economics game called the “Weak Link” in which productivity is a function of the lowest level of input. Wiltermuth and Heath found that participants that walked in step were initially more likely to cooperate as a team.
In a second study, participants were instructed to read or sing the Canadian National Anthem while performing a simple activity in tandem or separately. As you’d expect from the hypotheses, individuals that sang together or acted together showed a greater level of cooperation. A third study cemented these results.
OK, that’s fine. This is why people chant, sing, dance, march, etc. There are good reasons why simultaneous rhythmic activity fosters cooperation and closeness. Have you ever been to a political rally and chanted something in unison with thousands of others?
That’s building a communal spirit:
Have you ever been to a soccer game in Europe:
The game started a couple hours later as it was getting dark. It gets dark here at 4:30pm. And that was around the time the crowd began to cheer for their team. It was amazing to listen to. Imagine an entire stadium cheering together… but not the kind of cheering that we know in the States. This was not the sound of random cheers… or the periodic screams that come with doing the wave… and at no time did I ever heard the word “fence”. No, the Serbian fans were singing. They were all singing together to support their team. And their voices in unison echoed through the chilly night and into our apartment. It was astonishing. I truly believe that everyone should have the great privilege of listen to European soccer fans. Then again… I have no idea what they were singing… honestly, it could have been about a fence… but I’m not going to focus on that.
It does not matter if you are playing for Milan, Borussia, Real-Madrid or Manchester United – you have to be a professional, an amazingly self-controlled person with nerves of steel in order not to be affected by the continuous chant of 100,000 Red Star fans when playing at their stadium. The players play in sync with the audience chants, and the audience alters the chant to match the rhythm of the play. It is absolutely amazing to watch. So yes, rhythmic synchronized behavior is a great way to ensure group cohesion which is needed for attaining the group goals, e.g., of scoring goals. Or winning elections.
But now we get to the argument that does not seem to have anything to do with rhythmic behavior:
The Internet is a great enabler of asynchronicity. Instead of phone conversations or face-to-face chats, for instance, occurring in real time, instant messaging allows all parties involved to think and react at their own paces. E-mail is handled at the recipient’s leisure. The pace of social networking is dictated by the participants. Is the nature of online communication- that is, a lack of synchronicity- potentially damaging for relationships? If it takes a certain sort of tandem activity to strengthen social connections, maybe the Web is missing out big-time.
As an aside, this might also suggest why individuals that are deep into the gaming scene (e.g., MMORPGs, first person shooters, etc.) often tend to find companionship online more easily than most: perhaps playing a game online is a cooperatively kinesthetic experience that satisfies this human need for synchronicity.
Hmmm, none of this is rhythmmic activity. It is social, communal and synchronous, but it is not rhythmic. Thus, the study noted above can’t really say anything about it. A lot of the stuff online happens synchronously, in real time – Skype, chat, fast-moving discussions on blogs and forums, etc. are just as synchronous as a real-life conversation. Here, the distinction is not between rhythmic and arrhythmic, but between online and offline.
Now, a lot of online activity is centered around finding like-minded people. When you find them, and, let’s say you read their blogs regularly, after a while you start wishing to meet them in person. What do you do? You connect with them on Facebook or Dopplr.com in order to track each others travel so you can meet up whenever you are in the same town. You organize a Blogger MeetUp to meet like-minded people in your area, or a BloggerCon if you want to broaden the scope geographically. That is how ScienceOnline originated – my wish to meet other science bloggers in person.
But when we meet in person, do we engage in rhythmic behaviors (no, I don’t want to know about that kind!)? Perhaps we may raise a glass of beer or wine in a completely synchronous and rhythmic manner, but that is rare. It is not about rhythmicity, it is about physical proximity. Even most of the Flash Mob activities (see this list for examples) are rarely rhythmic – I found only one example that is synchronously rhythmic.
This is also related to my obsession with the Death Of The Office, i.e., with the world of telecommuting and coworking. Instead of having the people picked for you by others – going to the office – you pick your own friends and, whenever possible, meet them in person. You actively choose to live in the place where you can combine all your needs for a particular climate and culture, with the proximity to a substantial number of people you like to see often, although you have first discovered each other online.
Then you can go with them to a soccer match and chant in sync if you want, but that’s not the point.