Is Social Media Making Us Less Human? Ross | December 28th, 2010

A few days ago, I read an essay in the New York Times by Robin Dunbar.

For those not familiar with Dunbar – Dunbar is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Oxford and author of a popular book – “How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks.”

I’ve long been interested in the theory behind Dunbar’s Number. There’s much debate concerning social networks and friendships. Some assert that we’re living in the Renaissance of social media and our potential to build friendships is better than ever. I believe we’re in the Dark Ages of social media.

Efforts to leverage technology to “beat” Dunbar’s Number are interesting and feasible, but is there a non-monetary cost to such efforts?

We can’t usually see our friends on social networks (except for their avatar), and that makes our conversations more detached and impersonal. We send @ messages on Twitter, post updates on Facebook, send emails and direct messages, and think of those activities as conversations. And they are indeed conversations – through these conversations, we learn, share, teach, laugh, discuss, debate, etc. As Dunbar wrote in the NYT op/ed piece:

Facebook and other social networking sites allow us to keep up with friendships that would otherwise rapidly wither away. And they do something else that’s probably more important, if much less obvious: they allow us to reintegrate our networks so that, rather than having several disconnected subsets of friends, we can rebuild, albeit virtually, the kind of old rural communities where everyone knew everyone else. Welcome to the electronic village.

But as we continue to become a society that spends increasing amounts of time looking at others through a computer, are we losing a bit of emotion with each conversation? In the quest for popularity, often measured in the number of followers and  friends, are we losing perspective? Are we more likely to forget when we’re online that harsh words and criticism can hurt others? And we quicker to judge others when we have the cloak of invisibility surrounding our online activities? And is this trend impacting our offline relationships too?

What do you think?

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  • Anonymous

    If I had to make a broad generalization of what social media is doing to “us,” I would say it magnifies our existing tendencies. Some of us tend to be grasping for more friends, attention, even fame. Some of us are looking to connect across boundaries. (Without this technology, you and I have limited interaction potential, Ross.) Many people fall into the pattern you describe, but I think it’s part of who they are, rather than a fault of the technology.

    People online frequently describe me as down to earth, or grounded. It’s part of who I am, and that is how I relate online. It’s also why I make time for face-to-face events, to extend the relationships.

    Just my thoughts. :)

  • http://www.thoughtgadgets.com Ben Kunz

    Two answers:

    1. No. Humans have always used code as a proxy for relationships, and social media is no more inhuman than any of the other old systems for filtering connections. Think of how we’ve always judged others: The way you dress, style your hair, the language you use (a very specific type of code), what you say vs. what you mean, what I perceive vs. who you are, have always been screens that get in the way of true human understanding. Influence was our second Darwinian instinct after killing others, and to influence we need to play games of status, and status hierarchies require coded societal structures. So social media tools are just a new engine on top of those old ones, albeit with more horsepower, pulling us toward more filtered relationships. We have greater velocity in our relationship additions, but we just add more human distance over time. Nothing has changed except our speed.

    2. Yes. The fact that I can type this at you, as can anyone, without really knowing you makes you and I both automatons, illusions of human beings connected with each other. With enough computing power I could be a bot pretending to be a guy named Ben, as could you Ross be a program alluding to be an entrepreneur. So the flesh-and-blood aspect of humanity may be disappearing as we move into the code of the computer.

    Living inside a computer. Someone should make a movie about that.

  • http://blog.steffanantonas.com Steffan Antonas

    Ross,

    Dunbar is right – we have the ability to rebuilt the kind of old rural communities where everyone knew everyone else, virtually. Anyone who’s used social media for a long time and cultivates the habit of introducing friends to others based on like-mindedness and mutual interest knows that it can be done very effectively (what you’re cultivating is network density around you). However, after studying the psychological effects of gaming on long-term gamers, I can attest that there’s a lot of convincing evidence and data that implies that more “screen time” in general results in a dulling of empathy. That’s across the board and it’s the key to answering the question of whether we’re more or less human. What’s weird if you look at these studies (especially in massively multiplayer online games) is that other skills like fostering cooperation and communication, teamwork etc all INCREASE, but empathy specifically decreases in one on one interactions that are not face-to-face over time. That’s where the “less human” hunch comes from. It’s not about empathy for the group either – we’re talking about one on one stuff – social queues get missed more often, people tend to speak harshly or more directly in those cases. I’m sure this dulling of empathy carries over into our offline lives, even though we know and interact with more people.

  • http://twitter.com/rosskimbarovsky Ross Kimbarovsky

    Steffan – interesting observations – thank you!

    Are the gaming studies that you’re referring to looking at diverse are groups? The average age on Twitter, for example, should be higher than most playing multiplayer games (although massive multiplayer games might actually compare favorably in terms of age groups to Twitter and Facebook).

    I tend to agree with you that empathy may be a big cost to our increasing online connections. But there’s clearly mixed opinions about this. Henry Jenkins, an MIT Professor, wrote a good essay about this some time ago (I’m sure you’ve read it). Here’s a link for those who have not: Reality Bytes: Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked – http://www.pbs.org/kcts/videogamerevolution/impact/myths.html

  • http://twitter.com/rosskimbarovsky Ross Kimbarovsky

    Becky, I long believed that social media magnifies our existing tendencies, but I’m increasingly intrigued by the notion that social media allows people to re-invent themselves in a faceless online world. There are many whose personalities are consistent offline and online. And there are some whose existing tendencies are indeed magnified, as you’ve written.

    But there’s a relatively large group of people whose online personas are nothing like their offline self. For that last group, technology and social networks are clearly enablers. Some are able to completely redefine themselves (in good ways) and merge those online personas into their real personas. But I think that happens only for a small minority…

    I’m curious what you’re seeing in rural communities. How are social networks impacting those communities and do you think that on balance, the impacts are positive?

  • Anonymous

    But where did those new personalities come from, if not from inside the person in question? Ross, we’re dangerously close to a philosophical discussion here. ;)

    A couple of noteworthy rural trends:
    1. Small town people are raised with “community.” When we bring this sense of community with us online, we can do great things.
    2. Small towns everywhere are finding online tools to be great supplements for in person interactions. It’s particularly useful for keeping connected to former residents and alumni.

    Of course, small town people also know the negative side of community, which can be awful as well.

  • http://twitter.com/rosskimbarovsky Ross Kimbarovsky

    Ben – lucky for everyone, you’re a real boy (did you see Mike’s post on our blog yesterday about your tweets?).

    I agree that there are cultural codes (for the way we judge others). There was an interesting interview on this topic a few years back with Dr. Clotaire Rapaille – http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/adam-hanft/change-pulpit/man-behind-culture-code

    The problem (at least for me) is simple geography. Code has historically been geographically driven (French people view others in a certain way but Italians have different opinions).

    I don’t agree with you that social media tools are merely a new engine that allows us to move along faster. Social media tools are also impacting cultural codes by making geography – and the cultural codes based on geography – irrelevant. Does that matter? Should it matter? I’m not sure.

  • http://twitter.com/rosskimbarovsky Ross Kimbarovsky

    There is nothing wrong with philosophy (one of my majors).

    I tend to think that nearly all social interactions are inherently manipulative – designed to influence what other people do and how other people think about us. That’s nothing new – this is true of online and offline social interactions.

    But it’s much harder for an introvert, for example, to be seen as an extrovert when offline. In fact – probably impossible for most. Online is a different story.

    To answer your question: the new personalities come from observing the environment (Twitter, for example) and copying what others are doing (or creating new personas based on people who are successful offline). We often kid around about the millions of “social media experts” – but there’s a reason why there are so many of them, just like there are reasons why there’s still so much junk mail and email – people will believe (and often buy) just about anything.

    Thanks for sharing the rural trends…

  • Anonymous

    In my defense, I have no major in philosophy, nor in psychology. :)

  • http://blog.steffanantonas.com Steffan Antonas

    Ross,

    The samples are actually quite representative of the social media population in the middle to bottom of the curve. Few older adults in the studies – ie over 50 – but theres a wide representative sample. The data was collected for studies on aggression and anti-social behvior related to social gaming, but i think there’s a good argument to be made that there is overlap and that the findings point to the symptoms of the same root cause (too much screen time interaction decreases empathy)

  • dotcomma

    It’s not the same subject but I wonder how kids who text and use facebook who can’t look back on old conversations will feel as they grow up. I’m sooo glad I have 10 years worth of personal history and connections and meaningful conversation in my webmail.

  • http://twitter.com/nonameowns nonameowns

    electronic connection only carries information, not emotions as in person connection.

  • http://twitter.com/rosskimbarovsky Ross Kimbarovsky

    It’s only very recently in history that people began writing down conversations. But you do raise an interesting question about the quality of the conversations. I’m not sure whether texting and facebook conversations are of lesser quality. The amount of information to which kids are exposed today is enormous, and I’ve seen many have serious conversations about serious issues. It’s an interesting tradeoff…and we won’t know for sure for some time the impact on this generation.

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