“What matters to you the most?”

It can be a daunting question, but according to Paul Adams, product management lead at Facebook, no matter where in the world you go or who you ask, the answer is the same: close friends and family.

And this means if you are interested in capturing real live humans’ attention online, or if you’re curious about what really drives user behavior, it’s helpful—and more accurate— to view the web as networks of people rather than networks of data.

“When you organize information around people, the experience gets way way better, because that’s how real life works.”

During Paul’s presentation yesterday at 1871, I couldn’t help but think back to the sharpest question Jay Cross asked at the DevLearn conference last year. Across the board, people tend to hate working but love having conversations. And in a world where communication is a huge part of so many jobs, why aren’t workers finding more meaningful and fun connections at work?

Paul asked a different question, but his answer was the same. For the first time in history, we have the ability to “quantitatively study social behavior” by collecting information on user choices, so why aren’t comsumers’ online experiences informed more by their likes and habits and their friends’ likes and habits?

A massive conceptual shift in the way we view work and learning, commerce and the Internet are already underway. It’s just going to take time. The web has been in existence for a mere 20 years, and businesses’ understanding of social psychology has yet to catch up with modern technology.

Take Etsy as an example. Why is it, Paul wondered, that when he or his Bill Murray and SpongeBob SquarePants loving brother visits a seemingly well designed site like Etsy, they are presented with boutique purple necklaces and lingerie? Because if Etsy were plugged into Facebook’s API, he wouldn’t even have to search for a handmade Ghostbusters tea cozy. It would be shown to him first thing.

Along with an intuitive user interface, it’s a connection with consumers’ tastes, affections, and emotions that creates a real relationships. After all, the best brands tell the best stories. And when consumers themselves choose the stories, it’s easy to see that the draw is emotional.

These are the seven most shared stories on Facebook last year. At least Kim Kardashian didn’t make the cut.

  1. Before and after pictures of the tsunami and earthquake in Japan
  2. What teachers really want to tell parents
  3. Don’t worry! Your zodiac sign did not, in fact, change
  4. Parents, don’t dress your girls like tramps
  5. Father/daughter dance video montage
  6. Canine soldier mourns death of Navy SEAL
  7. You’ll have a fit when you see the new Facebook

See what this same neighborhood looked like a year before on Boston.com.

So given the exponential growth of information online, we subconsciously sort out irrelevant material by focusing on content that creates an emotional connection and brings us closer to our friends and family.

And the practice of this basic human social behavior, made immediate and global by technology in general and mobile phones in particular, is what will shape the evolution of everything from commerce to culture.

In conclusion, Paul borrowed Ben Horowitz‘s comparison of the mobile phone to the automobile. Each changed everything in communications and transportation, respectively, but they also have and will change everything else. Suburbia and Mega-Marts would not exist without cars. Which begs the question, what massive restructuring will smart phones cause?

Paul doesn’t know. I don’t know. It’s very likely nobody knows. But I am confident that the meaningful, thoughtful curation of quality learning content by LessonPaths community members will guide our transition to a culture where everything is connected and everything is available all the time.

And you can help make it happen.

Grouped, by Paul Adams, is in stores now.