How social can we get?

How social can we get?

What evolutionary psychology says about social networking

By Michael Rogers  / Columnist / Special to MSNBC
Updated: 7:55 a.m. PT Sept 10, 2007

The Internet world is relentlessly enthusiastic in its embrace of the
latest and greatest, and this year’s new flavor has been social
networking.  Between MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Bebo and
scores of lesser start-ups, social networking seems poised to take over
the Internet.  Indeed, some digerati have suggested that Facebook, by
allowing developers to write mini-applications called widgets, might
become the new Internet.

However, from push technology to Pets.com, the former Information
Superhighway is littered with the digital corpses of the next big
thing.  The Internet is the early adopters’ ultimate paradise, an
all-you-can-eat buffet table of novel software gadgets, and it’s
dangerous to rely on the enthusiasms of the blogosphere to determine
the longevity of any new Web phenomenon.  But social networking may be
in a class by itself—for reasons that go back long even before human
memory.

A decade ago, Robin Dunbar, the British anthropologist, wrote a book
called “Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language.”  Dunbar is one
of the more influential practitioners of evolutionary psychology —
looking at how the human animal behaved in our earliest ancestral
environments, long before civilization, for clues about why we are the
creatures we are today.  It’s a fascinating book that suggests both why
social networking is so popular and where it may be headed. 


Dunbar begins with the premise that back when
our Paleolithic ancestors were still more monkey than human,
understanding one’s place in the group hierarchy was exceedingly
important.  Compared to other creatures, primates are unusually social
animals.  And thus knowledge about relationships — who’s mating with
whom, who became allies, who just had a fight — was crucial for
primates to maintain or advance their place in the pack. It was, Dunbar
suggests, the birth of gossip.  But before language evolved, how was
gossip transmitted? 

Dunbar
speculated that the early hominids maintained and communicated their
relationships via the mutual grooming behavior we still see in lower
primates.  Baboons and chimpanzees spend 20 percent of their time
grooming one another.  But grooming, Dunbar argues — besides tidying
one’s fur and feeling good — was a way to establish and maintain
friendships, determine the hierarchy within the tribe and signal one’s
social connections to other tribe members.  One might almost say that
grooming was the first social networking application.

But
there’s more to Dunbar’s theory.  He speculates that at some point, our
early ancestors’ tribes began to get too big for even the most
energetic primate to get around to grooming everyone.  And thus
language emerged to replace grooming as a means of conveying social
relationships.  (It’s not clear which came first — language or the
larger tribe size — but they grew in tandem.)  An exchange of personal
information with language was far quicker than a 20-minute grooming
session, and a single individual could converse with several others at
one time.  So rather than the traditional anthropologic explanation
that language evolved among males to coordinate hunting, Dunbar
proposed that language evolved as a way to maintain and identify social
relationships. And we haven’t stopped gossiping since. 

Gossip’s
primitive significance may explain the unending appeal of celebrity
journalism.  We’re still watching the behavior of the alpha males and
females in our tribe, only now we identify them as Brad and Angelina
(they do look awfully large on the silver screen.)  In a sense, our
gossip appetite is a bit like another bit of programming we inherited
from our hard-living primate ancestors: the urge that tells us to
consume all the food we can when it’s available. Today, of course,
surrounded by fat and sugar, that dietary programming rapidly leads
many of us to excess poundage.  With professionally-produced gossip now
as readily available as fast food, it may be only natural that we
overdose on that as well. 

Web-based
social networking fills the same need on a personal level: it is an
incredibly efficient gossip engine, with an unprecedented ability to
establish the precise nature of relationships (limited profiles and
privacy settings provide plenty of signals as to who’s close and who is
closer). That’s an age-old attraction that’s not going away.  But
there’s another element of social networking that may be something
altogether new.  

It
stems from Dunbar’s observation that, with the new tool of language,
humans managed to increase their group size significantly from the 50
or so members that characterize baboon and chimpanzee groupings.  But
over the last 10,000 years or so, we seem to have hit another ceiling
for an optimum group size in which members are reasonably in touch. 
That number is about 150, a figure supported by examples that range
from the size of Neolithic villages to military units to corporate
management theory.  Organizations, of course, get bigger than that, but
as they do they change character: bureaucracies, levels of authority,
social stratification begin to emerge.  Dunbar theorizes that this may
be due to the limits of how many individuals one can converse with,
based on the acoustics of speech, and still have time to take care of
life’s essentials.

So the obvious question about Internet-based
social networking is whether we humans are once again increasing the
size of our effective groups.  Is this an evolutionary shift that —
while certainly not as significant as the advent of spoken language —
will ultimately change the way we operate as social creatures?  Will
anthropologists of some distant era look back and say that this was the
moment when humans once again created much larger social networks than
we were able to maintain in the past?  Or perhaps in the end we’ll
discover that, once again, about 150 “friends” is as far as our
capacities can take us.    

Whether
or not Dunbar’s decade-old theory about language’s origin in gossip is
correct, it’s a fascinating way to think about what’s important in
human communication.  And it suggests that with social software, we’re
for the first time arranging the Internet in a way that makes sense to
the deeper inclinations of our brains.  While we’re only in the very
earliest days, this new twist may well be the beginning of the Internet
as it is meant to be.  

© 2007 MSNBC Interactive

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