Donnerstag, 11. Dezember 2008

social networking

Since the Mumbai attacks of a couple of weeks ago, twitter has been touted as the next evolutionary milestone in social networking. During the Indian city's 4 day nightmare, the website was not only used as a forum for the general public, but became a kind of shared platform for a number of media networks. It's puritanical open source structure allowed it to gather and broadcast information and opinions without geographical or editorial restriction, and it quickly became the most up to date and, given the breadth of contributions, in some way the most reliable medium for following the story.

The phenomenon has been discussed in a number of blogs and internet fora I frequent. Whilst there are still large numbers of people who consider the rising internet community to be at best a fad and at worst a devolution of society, there appears to be a growing concensus that platforms such as twitter will be as revolutionary as e-mail, the mobile phone, and sms. All these technologies have allowed people to expand their social networks by reducing the limitations imposed by time and space. Twitter appears to be a great way of managing a large number of internet based relationships simultaneously. It can be used as an extension to personal blogs, as a way of forming and overseeing new internet communities, and a large number of add-ons and plug-ins facilitate a variety of communication techniques useful both to business and private networks.

Personally I have never used twitter, and would rather not get involved in it at this moment in time. The reason I find the subject particularly interesting right now is because I'm reading two books which complement the subject very well. Plato and the Internet, an essay by Kieran O'Hara, looks at how the rise of internets have changed our perception of data, information, belief and knowledge, and arguably even created so called knowledge economies. He argues that knowledge is not something in our minds, but something that is around us, a collective interpretation of our environment, an asset. If this is so, then of course it is something that has always been so. The explosion of data facilitated by the internet has merely forced us to re-evaluate the way we manage knowledge.

This brings me to the second book, The Human Story, by Robin Dunbar. Dunbar presents a number of recent developments in psychology which shed new light on human evolution. Amongst these is an analysis of human social networks in comparison with the social networks of various monkeys and apes. The hypothesis is that speech evolved as a medium to facilitate ever larger social groups, up to the present day social network of approximately 150 people. This means the average person maintains some kind of relationship with 150 other people. Where as monkeys literally groom their relationships by picking at each others fur, and are thus greatly limited in the number of relationships they can maintain because of the time it takes to do so, humans are able to natter away in groups:

So why might language as a social phenomenon have evolved? The answer lies in the social brain hypothesis. We saw that there is a close relationship between neocortex size and group size in primates. The group size that this relationship predicts for humans is 150, and groups of this size seem to be a common feature of human social systems the world over. The principal mechanism that primates use to bond their groups is social grooming. We do not really understand how grooming bonds groups, but the fact is that the amount of time spent grooming other members of the group by different species of monkeys and apes is related directly to their typical group size. The bigger the group, the more time th animals spend grooming each other. If we use the relationship between group size and grooming time to predict how much time humans would need to spend grooming, it would have to occupy something in excess of 40% of our active day.
Language, in short, allows us to keep track of what is going on in the constantly changing world of our social relationships. Who's in and who's out, who isn't behaving as they should, who's showing signs of becoming a promising candidate to be our friends - or perhaps even a mate. That is hugely important for the effectiveness with which our relationships - and the entire social group in which we are necessarily embedded - works.

Sounds a lot like what we use facebook for today...

In the run up to the second paragraph quoted above, Dunbar clarifies that language is primarily used for day to day social chit chat. Linguists and etymologists may be disappointed to hear that the use of language as a form of culture, to record events and script stories, appears to have been secondary. This brings me back to twitter, and internet based social networks, which are frequently derided for the banal level of conversation they host. Through the internet we are able to maintain well beyond 150 relationships, be they business contacts, like-minded bloggers, forum friends, or those people on my space who want to be everybody's friend. I'm not entirely convinced that the internet, in its current web2.0 format, represents the same sort of evolutionary milestone as language did, but I believe it is a step in that direction. The factors that initiated language (expanding populations, increasingly complex social and political situations) continue into the present day, and as such our forms of communication must respond.

Gradually, the synthetic synaptic system is removing itself from the limitations of the body, and rejoining the greater whole. In a way, everything has and always will be internet; a process of exchanging information, responding to stimuli, developing in synthesis, bounding through knowledge. We shouldn't really be talking about the effect of the internet, but the effect of modems and html.

thanks to visualcomplexity for the images and the RR for some interesting opinions.

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