When I arrived on campus for my first year of University, my freshman roommate asked, “are you going to send in a photo for ‘the Facebook’?”
Two months later, my little Ivy was added to a growing list of American schools connected to a website called ‘thefacebook.com’.
I never did send my photo in for the printed Facebook, a decades old tradition at Ivy League schools in the United States, but I did join the online platform almost immediately.
I watched from the beginning as Facebook expanded, added options, and evolved. Sometimes functions came that I didn’t think I needed, but did. Other times a function appear that seemed intuitive.
Today, as an expat, a significant portion of my social life takes place on a platform I gained access to at 18. It has grown up with me.
We tend to think of Facebook, and other forms of social media, as a facile but inevitable element of modern life. There has been a good deal of hand wringing over the ubiquity of social media in our lives.
Google ‘social media’ and ‘relationships’ and you will find mostly pseudoscience and self-help-style commentary decrying the likes of Instagram and Facebook for destroying or weakening human social bonds.
But what if, instead, we thought of it in terms of social bonding? How does social media hold us together, as a species?
In his 1998 book, ‘Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language,’ Robin Dunbar suggested that language evolved in humans as a response to the pressures of social grooming.
On average, our ape cousins spend huge amounts of time engaged in ‘reciprocal grooming’. This grooming is thought to improve social bonds, as well as hygiene.
Lehmann, Korstjens, and Dunbar found that primate groups of more than 40 members struggled to maintain a sustainable balance between grooming and foraging. This, in turn, works effectively to limit group size in the long term.
Humans, Dunbar suggests, needed to overcome this challenge because of their smaller, weaker bodies. Humans do best in bigger groups (approximately 150, according to Dunbar), but the time required to maintain group cohesion in such a group through grooming, would have led to starvation.
Perhaps, Dunbar says, humans developed speech as a means of sociality – not only of communication. This, in turn, has allowed us to increase our group size, and our chances of surviving in the wild.
Has social media replaced speech as the latest iteration of social grooming?
It has been difficult to perform high-quality research on social media. This is largely due to the nature of its use – people need to be observed in real time (i.e. when they post) and over a longer period of time than most commercial research allows to really understand the impact of social media on people’s social relationships, identities, and actions.
Furthermore, it helps to look at more than one group of people at once. Looking backward through troves of preexisting data, tends to reflect the researchers’ own view of reality, not reality itself. We’ve titled this phenomenon ‘Dead Data’, and you can read more about it here.
This is, in part, why a study, the “Why We Post” project, published by nine anthropologists, led by Daniel Miller of University College, London, provides fascinating insight into what is really happening to human sociality now that social media is so commonplace.
Researchers worked independently for 15 months at locations in Brazil, Britain, Chile, China (one rural and one industrial site), India, Italy, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turkey. As is common for anthropologists, they lived alongside the families and communities they studied.
The result is a far more nuanced, and a far kinder, view of the impact of social media on social relationships, individual and group behavior. To date, 15 key discoveries have been shared by Miller’s team – many of which fly in the face of long-held beliefs about social media and society.
The entire site is worth perusing, but here are a few of our favorite findings:
- Social media is not making us more individualistic
“Popular opinion tends to regard social media as making us more individualistic and narcissistic. Individual-based social networking is said to have grown at the expense of more traditional groups. We found this in some instances, but more commonly we found social media being used to reinforce traditional groups, such as family, caste and tribe and to repair the ruptures created by migration and mobility.”
Selfies might not be the end of civilization, after all.
- It’s the people who use social media who create it, not the developers of platforms
Social media developers can suggest the form sociality takes through their design, but ultimately, they cannot control the way the way that users interact across the platform.
In general, this is an important rule of social media-thumb – you do not control or even really own the platforms you create for social interaction.
- Public social media is conservative
The team writes, “The public-facing areas of social media platforms, such as Facebook Timelines, tend to be conservative, and in many of our research sites people avoid political postings.”
This finding contradicts many general assumptions about social media as a perceived extension of ‘the media’ at large, which is believed by many to have a liberal or progressive bias.
Indeed, it makes sense that people censor themselves in a social setting, despite common-sense suggestions that people are more likely to engage in abusive and anti-social behaviors online. Miller’s finding suggests that it is not the nature of the platform, but rather the ability to act anonymously the brings out bad behavior.
- We used to just talk, now we talk photos
According to Miller’s researchers, “Social media has shifted human communication towards the visual at the expense of text and voice. Now a photo can become the core of our conversation.”
As the old saying goes, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. If speech enabled humans to evolve more rapidly because it was a more efficient means of sharing information and building social bonds, it’s not difficult to imagine that the move toward sharing real-time photos and images could similarly catapult human development and cooperation into the future.
- Social media promotes social commerce – not all commerce
Businesses have long-struggled to define a cogent social media strategy. Indeed, entire agencies have sprung up around the offer that there is a right and a wrong way for businesses to use social media.
Miller’s team suggest that this may not be the case. Rather, social media can be positive for certain types of businesses, “Social media helps to develop aspects of commerce that are facilitated by expanding personal networks, such as peer-to-peer selling. The impact on other forms of commerce is more variable.”
- People feel social media is now somewhere they live, as well as a means for communication
Miller’s researchers write, “Social media is not just a technology for communicating or entertainment. It’s now a place where we spend our time. For some people, such as those living away from their family, it can become the main place they live.”
What happens online is real life. Our shifting understanding of social media space – from game-scape to real-space – has profound implications for everything from identity to law.
- Each social media platform only makes sense in relation to alternative platforms and the media
When it comes to social media, once again, platform functions may be less important than the cultural expectations and ecosystems of meaning that have sprung up around them, “Most people now use a range of platforms to organize their relationships or genres of posting.
We are also now judged as to which media or platform we decide to use, making this a social and moral issue. We call this ‘polymedia’.”
So what does it mean?
Miller’s team have produced a fascinating look into the role of social media in our lives, and the impact of our lives on the evolution of social media. Indeed, it is this kind of longitudinal, multi-site research that will continue to offer opportunities for understanding – and anticipating – changes in human sociality, identity, and behavior.
If history tells us anything, it is that changes in the production of social bonds can produce profound evolutionary leaps.
So keep ‘liking’ and sharing photos – it’s probably the new social grooming.
And you don’t want to get stuck picking your own fleas.
Melyn McKay is a socio-cultural anthropologist and a partner with Monticello LLP.