Do 21st-century networks hark back to the distant past?
Picture a fire in an otherwise pitch-dark cave, or outside on a still plain on a moonless, starry night. Drop the temperature a bit, perhaps, and add the distant wail of a coyote or some wild dogs. Now add the most important ingredient: four or seven or ten people sitting around the fire talking, with babies or young children sleeping on some of their backs or laps. Extend the scene long into the night.
Thus the nub of the social network, circa 10,000 years ago, and for a couple of hundred thousand years before that. Hunter-gatherer bands consisted of a small number of people, 30 or so on average, mostly related through direct or indirect blood or marital ties. The number could fluctuate upward when a resource was limited-say, water in the dry season-or downward when prey animals were dispersing. The group could also split for social reasons-one way of resolving conflict-and reaggregate as before, or expand again with somewhat changed membership. The band might also move as a whole. But for a few weeks or months at least, these would be the people you saw and talked with every day.
Beyond these fluctuating, mobile bands would be a wider social world of perhaps 500 people you would likely know by name and sight. You would be related to some of them, more distantly on average than to those in your band, and you would think of some of them as people who could help you in bad times, perhaps connect you up with a mate or be there for your children, and even perhaps one day find yourself around the fire with in the same band, talking.
What does this pattern have in common with twenty-first century social networks based on media like Facebook and Twitter? A lot, in my view.
I first heard about Facebook when only college kid had access; I thought, great, they deserve their own social world. But when it opened up to all kinds of people of all ages, although I certainly saw the dangers, I also saw the opportunity. I saw it again in the film, The Social Network , the other evening. The film doesn’t strike me as the masterwork it’s been touted as, but it’s very entertaining. I have no idea whether Zuckerberg, Facebook’s creator, is the autism-spectrum solipcist he’s portrayed as in the movie. I doubt it. But that’s not the idea that matters.
It’s the idea of a private social network of your own choosing, connected to endless other similar networks, and it’s no wonder it spread like wildfire. There was and is a human hunger for contact, and this seemed to be a new kind of contact. The pictures, the personal news, the sharing of griefs and celebrations, the expression of feelings have of course been done for generations, but not instantaneously at a distance.
You now got to choose your own hunter-gatherer band, and your own network of "friends" beyond it. With the advent of multiple levels of privacy, intimacy can be nested in concentric circles just as it was for scores of thousands of years on the African plains. It’s just that it no longer depends on geography, and you have a lot more choice. Whether you are gay, vegan, a kick-boxer, a Baptist-turned-Buddhist, or all those things, you can find and build a network of people like yourself.
But of course, the "friends" of choice often include family, and that part of the network resembles the one from 10,000 years ago. So, for example, I’m friended by all my kids, my stepdaughter, a number of their friends, my wife, our neices and nephews, present and former students, and many of our contemporaries. I don’t spend much time on Facebook myself, but that’s partly because my wife-a smart psychologist and a very loving person-uses her insomnia to follow all those people.
The upshot is she has known immediately when some of them needed help, when some of them started new relationships or saw old ones foundering, when this one had a cold or that one was drinking too much, and it didn’t matter whether they were under our roof or thousands of miles away. Carefully, to be sure, she and I have sometimes responded to what we have learned in this way, sometimes we have only watched and waited.
But the point is we have known so much more than we could have known a decade ago, and we’ve known it in real time. We’re not snooping, because we’ve been admitted or even invited, and we can participate in new ways. With Twitter and its melding with Facebook, the day-to-day becomes moment-to-moment. The exchange becomes more and more a conversation, and the pictures make it almost seem face-to-face.
Are there dangers? To be sure. Impostors are everywhere, and some are dangerous. Another (in my view better) film, Catfish , depicts the emotional consequences of one very sad hoax, and it can get much worse than that. Pimps and other predators are out there finding children. Some people delude themselves that they are "friends" with thousands.
But all advances have a cost. We have entered a new age of social networks that in some ways takes us back to our original adaptation, the day by day and night by night interactions with those we care about, and who care about us, and the opportunity to share their lives.
Note: By invitation, I’ve started a blog on the Psychology Today website, and my latest post can be read there or here, although different comments may be posted there.