All posts on October 12th, 2015

Mental Health of the Internet

If the Internet was a person, with a mind of their own….how healthy would we consider it?

Increasingly the Internet is a taken-for-granted part of everyday life.  But really it is a hive-mind.  Most people are completely unaware of the work internet services are doing for them, just as they are unaware of the work their brain is doing at any point in time. This article explores the parallels between the human mind and the Internet ‘Hive Mind’.

What is the Internet evolving into and is this something we can guide?  How much does internet traffic say about us?  I’ve done a little digging to look at what the internet is thinking!

* Bare in mind (hahaha) that a lot of network traffic data is dependant on how it is measured and therefore should be considered indicative only.

Conscious vs Subconscious Thoughts

A surprising amount of human behaviour is unconscious, often learned responses.  This is primarily to drive efficiency and this increased speed of response has an evolutionary advantage in keeping one safe.  Is there a parallel to unconscious behaviour in the internet?

Some evidence suggests that the majority of internet traffic is not by humans at all, but by ‘bots’ which scour the web both seeking information and also executing various activities.  Some are good (RSS feed bots, Googlebots) and a lot are bad (impersonators, hacking tools, scrapers and spam bots and fraud campaign bots).  A study by incapsula has found bot traffic to account for 56% of internet traffic.  There are many opportunities for drawing parallels between conscious and unconscious brain activity and internet activity, however BOTs jump out as a worthy analogue.

In reality this unconscious internet activity is at a much lower percentage that normal human mental subconscious activity.  As the information and computational power of the internet grows it is easy to see that ‘unconscious’ internet activity will also rise in percentage terms.

Other contenders for unconscious thought could include P2P activity and various automated behaviours, both of which are discussed below.


Image courtesy of M.P. van den Heuvel from Science News

Image courtesy of M.P. van den Heuvel from Science News

High Levels of Activity – & Activation

Just as the brain dedicates energy and resources such as oxygen, where most required, we can measure the internet’s traffic peaks which match particular events or demands.  Notable mentions which saw spikes on particular days, include HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ season 5 premiere (4.1% of traffic on a USA fixed network) on 12th April 2015 and the release of the ‘Call of Duty’ Ascendance pack on 31st March 2015 (12% of traffic on a USA fixed network).

A key observation here is that spikes are observed when content is made available to be consumed.  We are yet to see a significant uplift in user-driven creative and collaborative behaviour drive and be reflected in internet traffic statistics.  This ‘internet-mind’ could be considered passive.  Which brings us nicely to…


Broadband Subscribers across the World

Broadband Subscribers across the World

Sharpen Your Senses

Video & Movies – just as we humans are highly visual creatures, internet traffic reflects this.  Video being more bandwidth hungry than audio (due to larger file sizes) means big chunks of bandwidth are the result of video transfer.  Netflix now counts for a substantial amount of bandwidth traffic in the USA (34.5%) during primetime hours.  YouTube accounts for approximately 15% of internet traffic and accounts for a higher percentage of mobile content distributed.

There’s a lot of YouTube content created by folks at home – cover songs, how to videos etc and there’s also a lot of corporate owned content on there as well.  My observation is that content creators are thin on the ground compared with content consumers.



The internet as whole could be seen as a repository of information.  Ever heard of the ‘dark web’?  On a good day I see the dark web as a set of deep parallel networks – including a lot of corporate and government network activity.  In this regard, this part of the web is like a less visible type of working memory.  The WWW part, indexed and highly available, while the un-indexed parts are either locked away or hidden for various reasons – many of which are unsavoury.  Either way, it’s interesting to note and draw parallels between human memory access and retrieval and web-content access and retrieval. This article from Quora details the evolution of the dark web and some interesting observations of it, in the comments section.


Sex on the Mind 

Sex on the human mind is nothing new of course and this evolutionary driver is amply reflected in internet traffic. Interestingly, depending on how internet traffic is measured, claims of how much internet traffic is Pornographic material ranges from 4% to 36%.  There are confounding variables involved, a) Porn sites tend to be video heavy, resulting in more bandwidth usage, b) some evidence suggests time spent on Porn sites exceeds the norms for other types of sites.

For a detailed summary check out this site and a closer look at online eroticism research via the book by neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam called A Billion Wicked Thoughts.



Pirated/Illegal Content – A 2011 report lead by Dr David Price for Envisional indicated that 23.8% of all internet traffic was copyright infringing material.  This has caused a huge impact to creative industries; an area in which I take a keen interest.  According to the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) between 1999 and 2013 music sales in the USA dropped 53% and reports suggest that in 2009 only 27% of music acquired by consumers in the USA was paid for.  This is a problem of equal or greater magnitude in the UK and Australia.  It costs jobs – but consequence is not well considered by internet users in general.  A very high percentage of peer-to-peer network traffic is pirated, or copyright infringing material.  However increasingly mobile providers, Apps, anti-virus programs and ISPs are utilising P2P for legitimate purposes, which will drive down the percentage of pirated content from the current estimated 99.5%.    Porn made up 36% of P2P content according to a report by Envisional in 2010 – 2011.

Add to these grim statistics the proportion of malicious activities performed by viruses, bots and the like.. plus the unsavoury aspects of the dark web: illegal and without a moral compass, it appears much of the internet is a rather unwell mind.



You know what a selfie is right?  Well, this is a new phenomenon.  The amount of internet content dedicated to selfies is quite astounding.

Andrew Harrison, Brian Mennecke and William Dilla

From The Immersive Internet – Ch 19 Social Norms, Regulatory Policies and Virtual Behaviour (Harrison, Mennencke and Dilla)

There is a trend to self-validation on the internet, which is probably transient – but I thought it worth mentioning that the internet definitely has a forming personality and this probably reflects the maturity of the majority of users and the structures driving content.  I’m sorry if this sounds a little over critical!  However much like a 6 or 7 year old forms their personality through trial and error, I can see the same experimentation over a longer time period, occurring on the internet.

This experimentation extends into the virtual internet world, where more solid societal structures such as ‘Second Life’ have more flexible boundaries between socio-regulatory influencers.

There is increasing research interest (an example from Marjorie Zielke is here ) in how internet use and internet driven behaviour then feeds back into the real-world.  The selfie is a prime example of internet trends manifesting as behavioural change in the real world.


Automatic or Assumed Activity – Mindfulness and Safety

One could consider assumptions about how one uses the internet as unconscious, however most human internet use is conscious but is reflective of unconscious motivations.  Internet Addiction (which was I believe was beautifully described for the first time ever, in Daniel Keys Moran’s science fiction bookThe Long Run‘) is a problem particularly amongst young people, affecting academic results, family relations, finances and physical and mental health.  Online gaming and online gambling both bring significant risks to users.  There are assumptions of how safe online activity is, which are often ill-considered.  There is a general acceptance, if not complete willingness, that being on-line means sharing personal information.  A 2009 Australian study indicated a belief that privacy breaches are inevitable and risk (of identify theft, personal safety, repetitional damage etc) is accepted as a trade-off for convenience.  The study found there is some ‘complacency in adopting appropriate risk management strategies.’

Since 2009 the issue of perceived safety of the internet and an understanding of the risks inherent in what would be considered ‘normal’ use has in my view, deteriorated.  This is in part due to the frequency personal information is requested (from both trusted and untrusted parties – both of which are personally unknown), which leads to learned behaviour and acceptance.

How does this related to the mind?  I believe this is both analogous with and reflective of mindfulness.  Considered action would see a lot more reading of ‘terms of use’ and less revealing of personal information on social media.  Can you trust the internet?  Can you trust your mind?  As Katie LeClerc Greer states in this post, awareness and correct use are key to safety.

“In my most recent presentations, students were excited to rattle off hundreds of apps they were currently using, but were unable to tell me about their privacy settings, location-tracking services, and/or who they were communicating with when using these apps.”

For an entertaining and informative look at our awareness of how computers work (quite analogous with our awareness of how our minds work!) check out Willard Loxton’s blog-post here from the Telegraph in the UK.


Dangerous Thoughts

Just as an unhealthy mind can have dangerous thoughts, so an unhealthy internet can spread danger to vulnerable users.  On-line risks include: bullying behaviours (such as spreading rumours, making threats, malicious messages)  harassment and sexual solicitation.  This article by Guan & Subrahmanyan from 2009, details the dangers very well.


The Mind Designed

‘Tree Brain Neuron Thing’ by Richard Stelmach

I have lent some considerable time over the last 10 years considering how to build a better mind.  One thing I have concluded is that active choices guided by one’s values will lead to positive mental development.  In this regard we have golden opportunities ahead, to guide the internet toward a more positive course; to turn this mind from passive to constructive; from malicious and unwell, to positive and secure.

If you’ve made it this far.. (well done!) please lend a thought to what and how you consume internet content and also what active choices you make to create and contribute to the future net.






Below are some links you may find of interest…


The Immersive Internet: Reflections on the Entangling of …

On Being Liked on the Web and in the “Real World”

Which Countries are most plugged in?

Cataloging the Connections

Richard Stilmach – artist

Plus various references for this post: