Spoiler Alert: We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. Yet.

In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores the evolutionary path humanity has taken to get where we are today. He acknowledges a cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the scientific revolution as pivotal moments in the evolution of mankind. While daily life has changed markedly for humans through each of those revolutions, humanity has remained constant in its need for community. That need for community is where we so far failed, unfortunately, to successfully leverage the digital world available to us.

As Mary Chayko identifies in Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Technosocial Life, though, “Social life—living in tandem with others, in relationships, in families, in communities—is one of the aspects of people’s lives most profoundly changed when information and communication technology enters the equation.” She also asserts that “The internet and digital media connect people together in ways both mundane and significant. they help bring people into one another’s awareness and allow them to discover commonalities and contact one another.” We should be enjoying a transcendence of our differences, but so far we just seem to be entrenching more deeply in them.

I have to wonder what happened in the few years since Superconnected was published to make those optimistic statements feel like a fairytale. Once upon a time, humanity was gifted the internet and everyone lived happily ever after… Instead, our digital tools and social media spaces seem to be dividing us more than anything else. Is it us? Is it the technology? Is it Obama? I think we can find two possible answers to how we are failing to make the most of this recent revolution in the history of our evolution.

First, Harari informs us that our ability to band together and form communities hinged in large part on the commodification of gossip. Relationships and reputations were built, strengthened, damaged, and rebuilt as individuals shared coded information about the individuals in the group in the form of gossip. This hasn’t changed much in the intervening thousands of years. We seem to have reached critical mass in the last thirty years, however. Harari says, “even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.” When gossip was still being exchanged in the local beauty salon or bar or office space, we could maintain those communities. It still works within families, friend groups, workplaces, and small communities. With the ballooning of our communities into spaces that can accommodate thousands and more, however, our ability to maintain community by leveraging “gossip,” and thus personal relationships, falls apart.

Then there’s another of Harari’s evolutionary truths that states “Imagined orders are … the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.” The lack of leadership in these spaces inhibits the ability of the group to make any real progress beyond simply sharing the common interest that brought them together in the first place. Moderators can block users, delete comments, and write rules of etiquette, but there is no real power in any of those moves. The affected parties can either continue to post or start their own group. In this way, the limitless access to communities does less to open our eyes to more perspectives than it does to provide ample opportunities to reinforce our own.

Given that digital reality is so new in its current forms, it’s not surprising that humanity would need more than thirty years to adapt. Until we do find a way to manage and leverage these spaces for good, expect as much division as there is highlighting of commonalities.

Posted on October 5, 2020, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I agree. For the longest time as an internet researcher I was excited because of how quickly things evolved and how the genres weren’t static or walled gardens. Information was out there and sharing was the norm. But nowadays I really have to look for positive exchanges, otherwise (even pre-pandemic) my mood could be ruined for the day. What you say about power, or lack thereof, and lack of leadership is true and sadly all I can do is keep my focus on more positive spaces (communities that I actually pay to be a part of via Patreon).

    • It is *so* exciting to imagine that future where competition has been replaced by a commitment to cooperation and learning, isn’t it? I feel that our angels and demons are fighting it for control over that future as we speak, though.

  2. Hi, Emily! Thanks for your post.
    I agree with what you say about lack of power. I recently blocked a person on Facebook, and while ignoring them gives me some relief, I have now closed my eyes to the perspectives that they are sharing with the world. I felt bad about blocking them, but I assumed this person wouldn’t be open to a logical discussion about their views and felt drained at the prospect of having a written discussion with them. I’ve saved some of my energy by blocking them, but that act has made no impact on that person, no positive change in the world.

    • Leanna
      I totally get where you are coming from on that sorrow to have lost an opportunity for what could have been open dialogue. Unfortunately, the odds of that happening are so slim as to be unimportant in the balance against your mental health and well being. I think it’s a bit like Liz wrote about in her post: our social media spaces are good enough for supplementing the relationship we already have with a person. If that’s true, I will either seek out that conversation in person or pass on the opportunity to have it all.

  3. Emily,
    I really enjoyed reading your post. As you quote Chayko, I believe that the internet and digital media bring people together and that it can be both important and monotonous. I argue, however, that people can share plenty of common interests and information that they need through social media whether it is monotonous or cooperative. It is obvious that social media makes connections among people beyond borders and that people can put their opinions together in the same place, with which people can accumulate their power or support for common purposes or concepts to make changes.
    Thank you for the nice post, Emily.
    YJ

  4. “It is obvious that social media makes connections among people beyond borders and that people can put their opinions together in the same place, with which people can accumulate their power or support for common purposes or concepts to make changes.” This is true, YJ! It’s really incredible the way social justice movements are able to grow because of the connectedness activists can achieve online.

  5. I’ve heard this theory about the maximum capacity of a reference group being around 150 people. I had never really thought much about it, but it seems intuitive that there must be a limit to how many people in your inner circle could gossip about considering you can only gossip about people everyone in the group knows.

    It does seem, though, with the newfound potential to connect with hundreds of thousands of people through social media, that the connections would be all the more shallow since the likelihood of finding anyone in the group who would have a significant number of mutual connections within the group would be slim.

  6. Emily- I really liked your post, especially thinking of the role of gossip in solidifying a group’s connection. The idea of having a common enemy (or, a more positive example: having a shared goal) does allow for an extra layer to a connection, where you might think you have moved to another level of friendship.

    I do wonder how the rise of “screenshots” has affected the prevalence of online gossip. I remember in high school people would copy and paste from one chat to another to talk about what they said. That was easy but effortful enough that it was not something you did in every conversation. Now, my friends and even family routinely send me screenshots of conversations. Our words are not only able to be quoted but could appear as “exhibit A.” Thus, our understanding of who we trust and how much we decide to filter online becomes complicated.

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