Animal Behavior and Social Media

Online interaction looks like the schooling behavior of fish.

Posted Mar 12, 2017

What do the like button and the frowny-face emojis do to our thought processes? Just to float a hypothesis, I would imagine that these digital punishments and rewards have a homogenizing social effect.  If I write a post in order to get a lot of likes, the tendency will be to tone down any eccentricities, to round the corners so that the piece will be appealing to as many people as possible.  Or, on the flip side, a bomb-thrower from the left or right might try to get as many infuriated readers as possible, as even a critical share or comment is better, from a social media perspective, than a post going unnoticed.  The benign-but-cute post and the ugly, attention-getting post are the far ends of the spectrum, with most digital media falling somewhere in between, each post trying to elicit a reaction.

I am reminded of the schooling behavior of fish and the flocking of birds.  I am sure there is wide variation between species as to how the animals navigate in the larger environment and find their places within the group. There is some evidence to suggest that fish, at least, take their cues from their nearest neighbors.  If there is a wide gap between fish A and fish B, fish B will swim faster so that the gap is reduced.  Likewise, the fish will maintain a standard distance between the school and, say, a rock in the way.  The fish on the edges of the school will not veer too far away,  maintaining the compactness of the three-dimensional shape.  With fish, there are “rules of interaction” governing “attraction” and “repulsion,” and these unspoken rules are enough to keep these animals moving in amazingly coordinated ways (Herbert-Read et al 2011).  If you have ever been snorkeling or watched an old Jacques Cousteau documentary, you know how lightning-fast the whole school can move in a different direction.  

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

People are not fish, and yet they are social animals, so we can think of emojis and like/dislike buttons as part of the reward and punishment (or attraction and repulsion) structure governing virtual behavior.  These online cues operate to keep online behavior within an acceptable range, or to keep the fish within their particular school.  It would then be somewhat naive to think of the internet as a space of pure expression or a space of individualistic behavior when it seems more likely that online behavior is highly regulated through interaction within the school.  A viewpoint that seems extreme will be pushed back into line by these rules of attraction and repulsion.  

Does this mean that there are stabilizing factors at work in human social behavior, so that there is always a moderating influence at work in our interactions?  As human beings, we happen to belong to the only species of great ape known to commit not just killing of members of our own species but also to commit genocide.  Why don’t our pro-social regulators keep this sort of thing from happening?  Ants and chimpanzees kill each other, but they don’t wipe out other tribes completely.  How does the social impulse get lost in the case of human intergroup relations?

We might be tempted here to say that technology is to blame.  The American bison were nearly exterminated by the U.S. Army following the Civil War when bounties were offered for their hides in an attempt to starve Native people in the plains region and force them onto reservations.  This process was accelerated by the invention of the machine gun, used to devastating effect in westward expansion and all subsequent wars.  The buffalo went from numbers in the tens of millions to numbers in the thousands, and the genocide of native peoples has yet to be addressed in any meaningful way by the U.S. government or the current-day settler population.  

Without increasingly sophisticated instruments of death, warfare could possibly be kept at the skirmish level, and it would be more difficult to practice genocide.  But there are counter-examples. The fire bombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 was less technologically sophisticated than the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima later that year, and yet the Tokyo attacks killed far more people.  And there was mass death in the ancient world, with spears and swords instead of machine guns. Certainly there was enslavement of whole populations in ancient conflicts.  It seems that once technology crosses a certain threshold, this sort of horror  becomes possible.

We don’t really have enough experience yet to say what effects social media and the internet will have on the potential to inflict violent harm.  The schooling tendency may homogenize behavior within an internet tribe, but it may also entrench identities in a stronger way than was possible in the past.  We are conducting a massive, uncontrolled social experiment in the internet age, and we still don’t really know how human consciousness is being shaped by constant online interaction.  As we co-evolve with technology, new styles of thinking become possible that elide the boundaries between individuals and may test boundaries between life forms, and even between life and non-life.  It seems likely that some changes to our societies will be positive, some will be benign, and some nefarious.  

We should just keep in mind that, whenever we hit like or the little angry face emoji, we are policing the behavior of our fellow human beings.  Such a little act, added up billions of times over, exerts a real influence on civilization and likely leads humanity itself into new directions.  Just like the school of fish moves in a new direction at lightning pace, the same thing can happen in human civilizations.  We could be closer than we think to a new atrocity or a new movement for positive change.  

As much as I might like to be a Luddite and just unplug from everything, it seems likely that we are stuck with the internet and social media.  And, if we are going to be liking and friending and upvoting and downvoting, we just need to be aware of what we are doing and be conscious about our choices.  As we make these tiny choices each day, we have the potential to provoke violence or promote peace.  We can facilitate tribal identity, or we can cross boundaries and make coalitions.  When historians of the twenty-first century look back on our time, we at least want them to say that we did the best we could with the resources at our disposal.  


Herbert-Read, J.E., Perna, A. et al (2011). "Inferring the Rules of Interaction of Shoaling Fish." PNAS Sept. 30, 2011.

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