I opened the Internet Advertising Bureau’s ENGAGE2010 summit in October (followed – intimidatingly – by Carol Bartz, Yahoo!’s formidable CEO) with a talk that aimed to provoke the advertising creatives in the room to consider what impact that their actions were having on the experiences of the people who consume the World Wide Web.

It proved a controversial talk, perhaps because I started out by saying that they were responsible for breaking the Web.

What can I say, I was asked to provide a “thought” piece. I’m pleased it produced some thinking.

The text is below. The content is a first stab at a more robust thesis I’m working on, and so I would welcome your comments.

If you’d rather watch my keynote dance instead (I have a tendency to flap my arms around and stride up and down the stage when I give talks), the IAB has published the video.

Hello and thank you for inviting me to open this exciting event. I am a social psychologist. I feel like I’m in a confessional. I am a social psychologist. And my bag, as it were, is social influence. Specifically, the influence that Web users exert over one another via the Web.

My goodness, I can hear you say: that’s exactly our bread and butter! Well that’s great. It’s – at least on the surface – a very good fit.

However, I’m here to tell you that the Web that you are creating – through your apps and services, your content and campaigns – is broken, and it is breaking more every time you help someone find what they’re looking for online. Everything you do that gives someone what they want (or, indeed, the appearance of something they want) is undermining the original ethos of the communication technology that is revolutionising how we interact with one another.

Before I go in for the kill, let me back up a little bit.

The Web is Made of Tubes
The Web is an agnostic series of tubes – yes tubes – that allow us to communicate. It was developed, as Tim Berners-Lee said, to fulfill a need: a very lazy need to get stuff from other people without needed to actually speak with them.

What has fascinated me about this technology is how it holds a mirror up to us: it tells us what we value, it tells us what we want, it tells us something almost essential about what it means to be human.

In my own research, I’ve discovered that we form groups and communities in this space for the exact same reasons as we do offline: to belong, to feel safe, to find out how we define ourselves according to who we deem to be similar and who we deem to be different. We cluster around attitudes and behaviours, forming communities of practice that transcend national boundaries, colour, socio-economic status, creed, age or gender.

This is the original ethos of the Web.

But here’s the science bit.

The Science Bit: Online Relationships and Attitude & Behaviour Change
We form relationships for the same reasons as we do offline – and in much the same way: we seek out people who are similar to ourselves, with whom we can share experiences that form the basis of strong emotional bonds. We choose to be friends with people we meet regularly, reciprocally divulging information about ourselves in a way that heightens our similarity to one another, and encourages us to divulge even more information.

There is a difference here: the medium – because it’s computer-mediated and therefore has fewer interpersonal cues than meeting in meatspace – fosters the sense that we are somehow less prone to the consequences of our actions (whether we are anonymous or use our real names), and so – despite the headlines – we have a tendency to be more open and honest with online friends than with their offline counterparts, and we believe other people are being more open an honest with us too.

This allows us to generate strong feelings of trust more rapidly online, which in turn leads to a sense that another person is credible source of information, which in turn leads to influence.

In fact, we do attitude and behaviour change in the same way as offline: we are influenced by the people we know whom we compare ourselves with, and whom we view as typical of our social identities – that sense of who we are and which group we belong to.

But because we have less information about the other people online – we have a tendency to conform to the attitudes and behaviours that people whom we (superficially) believe are more like us demonstrate.

But even more fascinating, we are more likely to fill in the blanks about people’s attitudes based on what we think they think, often perceiving their attitudes as more extremely similar to ourselves than they actually are.

And so what we have online is social conformity based on a social pressure that more than likely doesn’t exist or is believed to be something than it is.

What a house of cards.

Silencing Serendpity
So what happens when you combine these tendencies with the extrordinary world wide web – an information repository so vast that it’s impossible to parse it in a meaningful way? A library of information that demands filters because it’s so enormous, otherwise it would be as utterly useless as a novel of words rearranged in a completely random order?

How on earth does Joe or Jane Web user decide which content to look at and what to be influenced by?

Well, as a social psychologist, I’d say it’s social influence.

And web developers are getting pretty wise to this. You don’t have to look far to see them trying to do it: first the focus of the success of a website was about getting eyeballs through developing community. More recently, it was about personalising search, and encouraging social searching services. The premise was that you’d be more likely to believe the information that was delivered to you from someone you viewed as similar, trustworthy and credible. And we already know how those form.

Then came the next evolution of social searching – the phase we’re currently in now: social network searching. And it’s doing a phenomenal job of filtering the Web. CNN proudly announced last month that 75% of its news hits come from links on social networking services like Facebook and Twitter.

May I remind you that Facebook and Twitter are services that pair users with their friends.

I would therefore say that what these services are doing is breaking the original ethos of Web.

Losing the Vision
Back in the day, the pioneers who settled on the frontiers believed that we would open our minds to new and amazing things because of the vast quantities of information that we would have at our finger tips. And yes, thank you Wikipedia, thank you the medium of mindlessly surfing, but I would propose that our courses through the Web – that seem at first random – are actually determined by what we want to know and what we want to hear.

There are successful business models based exactly on this: amazon’s recommendation engine is a case in point. it gives you exactly what you think you want based on what it is that you already read – or what people who are similar to you already read – thus providing a more than certain sale and a good feeling overall.

But this is ultimately leading to an echo chamber, which which we are deluded in thinking that everyone else online thinks like we do, does what we do and believes what we do. Our field of vision is narrowed and our differences become greater as we coagulate into different camps of interest.

So much for the global group hug.

Back in the day, the original founders of Web communities believed that the Web would be an engine of self-actualisation: that we would use the tools to play around with who we are, exploiting the apparent anonymity of the environment to try on new selves and use the open and honest feedback we received from other people to help shape our eventual attitudes and behaviours until we achieved the apex of our identities: our true selves.

Well, what’s happened is that we have become fragmented, defined not only through the, frankly, obscene outpouring of information about ourselves that clogs the Web – I am more guilty than most – but by the links and tags and uploads that other people put up about us, forcing us instead of being the masters of our own fate, to be buffetted around by the tides of our online social exchanges.

We are no longer the masters of our own virtual fates: we now make decisions that are broadcast – willingly or unwillingly – in public, and recorded for posterity, which has a profound effect on what it is that we decide to do, the innovations we decide to adopt and the attitude we choose to express and hold.

This is turning into doomsday predictions about the end of the world.

How to Save the World
I assure you, I am not anti-the web. I make my business looking at the implications of it for the past, the present and potentially the future. I love it because it shows me the most extrordinary side of human beings: a face we have never before been able to see.

But I would encourage you to stop and think before you deliver the next service, campaign or brand to your demographic on a plate.

In order to ensure that the Web does not continue to break us, you must encourage serendipity – active and passive acts of randomness that make us better people, that bring us together with information that does not already confirm who we are, and does not restrict us ever more to being a demographic rather than individuals.

Create services that force people with different attitudes to bump up against one another. Design systems that force people to actively challenge information. Make it more difficult to be found, so users have to navigate the rabbit holes of the Web to get to you.

It may seem the antithesis of what it is you’re trying to do, but cracking a way to promote serendipity will be the next greatest idea to come from this industry. It will inspire new interactions with content and new narratives that will, in the end, make what you do more significant for the consumer. They will have had to find the end goal through their personal heroes journeys through the sea of Web stuff.

And if it has a bonus feature of saving the world, you’ve done your good deed of the day.

The End
We are and can only be ourselves online because the Web is a communication tool. But it can be used to enhance us rather than restrict us. Use its interactivity to create new connections, new stories and new ways of learning. And that is when it will become a true revolution.

Thank you.