What can evolutionary psychology say about the social networking fad?

I, Kambiz Kamrani, have a confession to make: I’m on a lot of social networking sites and am pretty addicted. My history with social networking began all the way back in 2000, with LiveJournal which gave rise to Friendster. Friendster died a slow and quiet death, because Myspace was the new hotness. But Myspace’s days were also numbered. Recently, I deleted my account there.

But, I haven’t pulled out completely. I’m still on over a dozen different social networking sites and I check them regularly. From Facebook to Flickr, Pownce to Twitter, YouTube to Vimeo, Digg to del.icio.us… you’d think that I’ve satiated my fix! I haven’t. I am currently waiting to get invite codes to a whole new set of upcoming social networking sites.

Recently, I’ve asked myself, “Self, why are you on so many sites?” Given that I’m so busy and often never make enough time to do activities I enjoy, like go on a hike or a bike ride, I can’t believe I set aside time almost everyday to check these sites. I know one reason why I’m on so many sites and that’s because they all mostly specialize or occupy a certain niche that I find useful. For example, Flickr, is my place to upload photos while Facebook is a place I find and keep in touch with family and friends.

Where it gets tricky are my profiles on Pownce and Twitter, two microblogging platforms that basically do the same thing. Digg and del.icio.us, are also both sort of a social bookmarking and news syndicator… and even YouTube and Vimeo — two video sharing sites. Why am I on both? Why do I ask to be bombarded with messages of every single little thing my friends are doing… what they are reading and bookmarking seems like I’m just asking for a headache?

This condundrum leads me to the other reason as to why I am on so many social networking sites, and possibly why millions others like me (perhaps, you?) are also on them, has to do with our evolutionary history as social beings. That’s what Michael Rogers, columnist at MSNBC, is proposing in his piece, “How social can we get?” I must disclaim the piece is founded on evolutionary psychology, a.k.a. adaptionist story telling, but that doesn’t make it not an interesting read.

Rogers introduces us to a classic book in anthropology and evolutionary psychology, Robin Dunbar, the British anthropologist’s book called “Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language.”Robin Dunbar’s “Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language” I’ve read the book and it is pretty ground breaking but at the same time horrifcally crippled in its reductionist claims. Rogers summarizes the book for us,

Dunbar is one of the more influential practitioners of [studying] how the human animal behaved in our earliest ancestral environments, long before civilization, for clues about why we are the creatures we are today…

[He] begins with the premise that back when our Paleolithic ancestors were still more [primitive], 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.

… 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…. In 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.

What Rogers suggests is that social networking fills my (our ?) social need to keep track of our relationships and status. In otherwords, social networking is,

“an incredibly efficient gossip engine.”

That claim is so painfully honest it is not even funny. To save some grace, it is not even worth outlining the amount of time I’ve spent using it as a ‘gossip engine,’ i.e. to see which of my friends are dating whom, who friended whom… etc. All of us social networkers know that we do it. It is one of the subconscious reasons as to why we sign up, why we visit, and why we pull out of a site when it starts to fade away.

Given that statement, and that we can’t comment directly on the MSNBC article, I wanna open up a discussion related to Rogers’ conclusion,

“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… 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.”

What do you think? Is he onto something? For those out there with over 1,000 Myspace friends or are being badgered with information on Facebook’s news feed, do you think you can handle having so many relationships in your life?

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