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Problems of Social Media in Evolutionary Perspective

Sharing information may be as important as sharing food.

Key points

  • The multilevel system of social interaction is a feature of all human societies; it fosters the success of social media platforms worldwide.
  • Much of the conversation in surviving hunter–gatherer societies involves gossiping about acquaintances, also popular in social media.
  • The most profound difference between social networks of past and now is that people on social media can be anonymous.

Humans have always used social networks to solve problems of survival. Yet, social media today are used for different purposes.

Complex Social Sharing in Simple Societies

The basic economic unit of hunter–gatherer life was a foraging group consisting of several nuclear families and their children. This arrangement worked well because food was shared. Sharing provided an insurance system. When the number of people in a group increases, there is a greater probability that some of them will find food.

Hunter–gatherers often shared meat—a food that was scarce and highly valued as a source of concentrated energy. Meat contained most of the essential nutrients in the human diet, particularly those essential for raising children. Other foods were shared, also, particularly those that were scarce, or hard to find, such as honey.

Sharing was practiced between groups as well. For example, if a group was finding it tough to obtain food in their hereditary hunting grounds, they might receive permission to hunt in the grounds owned by a neighboring group.

This level of cooperation was possible due to the fluid nature of hunter–gatherer societies. Individuals who encountered hostility in one group could easily move to another one thanks to the existence of extensive networks of kinship and friendship. These connections facilitated the sharing of food not only within families and between related families but also throughout the larger community.

The Persistence of Social Networks

This multilevel system of social interaction is a feature of all human societies, and its existence fosters the success of social media platforms around the world. Sharing food helped our ancestors overcome the uncertainty associated with their way of life where vital resources were frequently stretched. Sharing information may have been equally important. Analysis of interaction patterns in contemporary hunter–gatherer societies found that, in addition to interaction with the nuclear family and close relatives, subjects had three to five close friends with whom they interacted as much as with family members.

These patterns of real-world social interactions are preserved in modern societies.

Human societies are somewhat closed in terms of greater family interactions. They are also somewhat open in the sense that we may treat former strangers with the same level of intimacy as though they were relatives whom we had known all of our lives. Without this kind of openness to outsiders, social media could never have taken off. Of course, it also exposes a potentially fatal flaw in these digital networks.

Anonymity and Antisocial Behavior Without Consequences

The horror stories of social media are alarming and well-known—from the genocide in Myanmar ignited by the introduction of Facebook to the radicalization of young people in online terrorist networks to the rise of anxiety, depression, and suicide among young people whose social world pivots on electronic interactions.

These problems are so severe that we might all be better off if some of the worst offenders in social media were to go dark. However, this conclusion is anathema to anyone who champions freedom of expression.

All of these problems are very recent, but greater insight into them can be gleaned from the differences between social networks in earlier societies and contemporary conditions. Social media today fulfill different functions compared to social networks of the past. There is a difference between sharing food needed for survival and sharing cat videos intended purely for amusement.

Even so, much of the conversation in surviving hunter–gatherer societies involves gossiping about acquaintances—a popular pursuit in today's celebrity-obsessed social media. Ancestral gossip may have helped people to gauge the honesty and reliability of others in the community upon whom they might rely in the future.

The most profound difference between then and now is that people on social media can be anonymous and hide behind nicknames and avatars. This means that they are free to unload innuendo and malicious personal attacks without any fear of consequences or reprisals. Platforms are infected with malicious bots such as those promoting political conspiracy theories on behalf of hostile nations as well as domestic players. They are playgrounds for trolls and sociopaths. When people meet in person, their conversations are generally a great deal more civil because there are real-world consequences to lies and expressions of hostility. (They include physical as well as social retaliation.)

These problems are most acute in more open platforms like TikTok, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Instagram. The continued popularity of Facebook depends partly on the fact that a personal network can be established between people who know and trust each other where civility is more likely to prevail. Many people prefer to function in social networks that closely mirror those of our distant ancestors.

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