“What would happen if the world were suddenly without people; if humans vanished off the face of the earth? How would nature react —and how swiftly?” That’s the question asked by the documentary ‘Chernobyl Reclaimed‘, and the answer seems to be ‘it gets on just fine without us’.

I’ve been wondering if the social web doesn’t work in much the same way.

The social web, or to be more technically correct the social Internet has been around for a long time. USENET is over a decade older than the World Wide Web and though its appearance is something like a forum it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s based on a hierarchy of groups, organised as something that we’d read like a domain name: sci.physics or alt.music.bjork or rec.music.dylan, users subscribe and their client keeps track of what’s read and unread. It’s not quite synchronous: the service or Newsservers that you subscribed to may only have taken a portion of the available groups and once you post it has to propagate through to the other servers.

That said, if you’ve used a message board or forum or Facebook discussion you’d be right at home — you can go off and try it now. Google Groups in part acts as a newsserver and you can subscribe to USENET groups and post via the web or email. You won’t find much action in most of them, and even those with fairly high post-counts probably aren’t as lively as the once were. I’ve just taken a look into uk.music.charts, a group I lurked in a little back in the ’90s and, while there are posts and the odd conversation thread, it’s about 60/40 with spam posts offering cheap watches, easy jobs and easy women.

One trusts that those still frequenting those groups have learned to live with the spam, they have good filters or a high tolerance— or perhaps, despite the hassle, still find the groups the best place for what they do and the community survives.

Spam isn’t the only reason to move on, of course,  and some of the more general groups have found discussion splintering, devolving and just going elsewhere.

I thought for a time that this might lead to a social Internet Gaia hypothesis: that the various systems on the Internet are ” closely integrated to form a complex interacting system that maintains the [economic] and [conversational] conditions in a preferred homeorhesis” to paraphrase the original. In short that the social aspect of Internet routes around blockages much like the data packets do.

In shorter: people move on if the space no longer works the best.

And they’ve certainly moved on from the group that is uk.local.birmingham (stared I learned the other day, by a friend of mine back in the early part of the 1990s). I still keep a subscription to it on the off chance, but from a 1999 high-point of nearly 3,000 messages a month it’s now dribbled down to about 20. Apart from spam, the only surges of activity are bile-filled back-and-forths somehow connected with sometime Birmingham ‘King of Clubs’ (with all that entails) Eddie Fewtrell. In any real terms this newsgroup has returned to nature.

And yet it’s still going.

uk.local.birmingham | Google Groups

The spam is automated, so it doesn’t know that it’s not reaching people. The website (in my case) and newsservers don’t know that the traffic isn’t human so they continue to serve it. Those few real subscribers either no longer use the email addresses they signed up with, can’t be bothered to unsubscribe, or have long since filtered the responses away. Or they’re me—too sacred to mis anything—or the blokes whose ’70s territorial spats are best  conducted from the safety of a kitchen laptop. With Smooth FM on.

The Internet doesn’t care who or what is using it, it just bats content around. People set things up and then leave, it still carries on. How many services have you set to autopost, or synced with newer or better spaces and then sort of stopped using?

If every real person left Twitter tomorrow, like some dystopian novel (the film would be terrible), Twitter would carry on. As long as someone was still paying the server bills: pumped in Facebook statuses would still be posted, Foursquare mayors would still be declared, ‘news’ from thousands of company sites would be Twitterfeeded (or similar) to a gasping lack of public. And bots would generate new, Twitter only, content some silly, some aggregated, some spam.

The words ‘New Blog:’, ‘Breaking’, and ‘I am Jack’s colon.’ would still appear, and a lot of those posts would be shuffled off to Identi.ca or even some Facebook statuses. Autopost is the weed that would grow over our cities, spam is the animals slowly taking over. Our social web Ghosts in the Hollow.

In a way this already happens, there are thousands of social web accounts that exist purely to exist: automatic and unweeded, they either spam or have been set up and discarded. The amount of companies ‘talking’ to each other on Twitter is amusing to behold, often set up on a whim and operated from another service (usually Facebook) the accounts Tweet— but really that’s all that’s going on.

I was alerted to a local shopping mall being ‘on Twitter’ the other day, it’s been ‘tweeting’ for nearly a year. Following’ (despite never, it seems, logging into Twitter or dealing with @messages) 114 and being followed’ by 126 accounts. 90% of both of those numbers are other organisations tweeting nothing in much the same way, or people who work for those organisations. The account is a bot, talking to other bots and doing nothing except perhaps disappointing anyone who did want to engage with them.

The weeds are poking though even in fairly well ‘Liked’ Facebook pages too. Facebook page spam is on the increase, leave your page unattended for a day or so and if it’s popular enough to have attracted the attention there will be Russian brides and pyramid schemes posting. If it’s a page you created for fun, fair enough. It’s all about effort and no-one will think any less of you—but if it’s your work, I think you owe it to whoever you’re trying to talk to to care a little more.

Facebook | Birmingham: It's Not Shit

What can you do? Think carefully about what you automate, close or mothball old and unused profiles and pages. The usual stuff you’ll never get round to doing.

Twitter, reportedly, has about 3% of it’s servers at any one time full of Tweets about Justin Bieber. That’s some power of stardom, but think about it: how many of those accounts are autoposting to Facebook (or vice versa)? That’s 3% of Facebook’s severs too. And ping.fm’s and mySpace’s, perhaps. Maybe 1% of the Internet?

I’m guestimating to the point of losing all thread of argument, but the ecological consequences of auto-posting to dead services is probably fairly significant. We could be sucking the planet dry with our automated laziness.

But the animals and plants will do just fine.