Back in the early 90’s there was much to celebrate. Aside from being thin and having hair, the TV was full of things to keep any self-respecting pseudo-intellectual happy. The ultra-cool obviously watched Twin Peaks. Still a classic and hasn’t aged at all. The more thoughtful and romantic were glued to Northern Exposure. Obviously, being intent on being ultra-cool and thoughtful and romantic, I watched both, avidly.

One episode of Northern Exposure that stuck in mind came back to me recently, it contained this quote:

Ed, you’re dealing with the demon of external validation. You can’t beat external validation. You want to know why? Because it feels sooo good.

It made me think again about external validation. This is what I thought, well, as much as I can remember as I type…

The Cast of Northern Exposure

The Cast of Northern Exposure - Ed on the right

Over the last few years I’ve dipped my toes into a number of things. I spent quite a lot of time writing a book (and not enough time editing it). At the same time, I bought a DSLR and got into photography fairly seriously. When you’re writing a book and, in particular, your first book, it is very easy to wonder what you are doing. Hour after hour is sunk into thinking, writing, worrying and, mainly, doubting. If  you try it and you’re dumb like me, you’ll embark on attacking a book with no experience and just hope that you can pull it off. Trouble is, as you go, the doubts creep  up on you. You think you’ve written a good bit but there is no one hanging on your shoulder shouting “Wow” and applauding. There is no immediate feedback, there is no feedback at all. This makes sustaining enthusiasm and focus tricky. Remember, this was all being done after coming home tired from work, cue violins.

Compare this with digital photography. You take a picture, off the camera on the internet and someone can be using it,commenting on it, telling you its good within minutes. Boom! External validation. And we know how good that feels right? And beyond comments the photos then turn up on the web, on books, on TV and well, how you can resist that drug and spend hours writing a book that you may never finish and, in all probability, hardly anyone will read? Because of this, I’m quite pleased with myself that I did finish the book. With such ready access to the external validation drug it would have been easy to give  up. Which led me to think…

The growth of the social internet has been fuelled by feedback mechanisms. Ostensibly this has been used to determine good/useful/entertaining content. Lots of Diggs/Stumbles/Likes indicate popularity and this fundamental mechanism helps filter the content and let the stuff we really want to see bubble through the million miles of froth the to top.

More mechanisms like this come along all the time. Now we have retweets, Facebook integration everywhere and even things like Follow Friday on Twitter is that kind of thing.

But there is a problem. For as much as these feedback mechanisms form the fabric of social sharing and the language of measuring popularity, they also create and feed our innate desire for external validation. And this, I’m afraid, weakens the fabric.

From here on, I will try hard not to be too harsh or cynical, it’s not my intent – hopefully you’ll see what I mean…

People like to be loved and the social media mechanisms put into place for sharing and measurement of popularity provide an excellent mechanism to receive that love. Unfortunately, the desire to be loved means that people will inadvertantly, subconciously or, in some cases, deliberately subvert the process. How many times do you get followed by someone/something on Twitter knowing that you are only being followed because they want you to follow them back? How often have you seen people comment copiously on things in the hope that you will reciprocate? Even someone as innocent and potentially useful as Follow Friday on Twitter has been reduced to religiously spouting the same list of friends every week. To what end? I bet there are some people (no one I know obviously!) who do this simply in the hope that someone will reciprocate.

The noise very quickly overwhelms the signal. And this is repeated across every social channel you can think of and is massively endemic in how kids view their interactions on Facebook. You need to get anything you submit “liked” – if it doesn’t get enough attention then fights can, and do, break out. “Why didn’t you like that?” etc.

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Please Like Me (Look, I've Even Got a Button at the bottom of the post)

The effect is amplified by one of the better sides of human nature; the basic desire to be nice. I notice this on photography sites especially. Everyone is nice about each other’s photos. I don’t mind this but sometimes you wonder if the process and everyone in it would be better served with honest feedback. I’ve seen many healthy debates about this on a number of forums ( there is a good example here on Blipfoto ).

Thing is, with so many people hell bent on being nice and so many people feeding of the external validation we must, to some extent at least, be becoming addicted. The basic mechanisms that have been put in place to make the social internet function tie directly into a fundamental human need. Someone cleverer than I is doubtless already thinking about what impact this is having on us a humans. I was lucky enough to hear JP Rangaswami talk recently. He spoke about how the kids of today have developed to cope with multi-tasking and dealing with rapid stimuli across a number of simultaneous channels. If young brains can grow to work in this way, is there a direct impact on their emotional development of their thirst for external validation is magnified by the way they run their social lives online? You can’t beat external validation. You want to know why? Because it feels sooo good.

So as we all troll around giving to receive and desperately wanting to be loved, do we leave the outcome with any validity? Probably, the process is saved by volume and our collection of small victories have not much bearing overall. But what impact does this process have on us? Will this post get retweeted? Will anyone comment? Eh? Come on, I need it, I NEED IT.

The Green Man in Northern Exposure was right. You can’t beat external validation. So much so, that we have built a myriad of ways that we can now receive it instantly, daily, constantly. Are you hooked?

I’m not, I’m off to write another book, see you after another few years of pain and doubt…