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What Can "Alice in Wonderland" Tell Us About Life Online?

How pressure from "the Red Queen" can change social norms.

One of the topics that people think about the most in social networks research is how to make their ideas spread faster than those of other people. Notably, this emphasis on speed is regardless of whether their idea has any long-term benefit for the people who adopt it. In other words, the metric of success is the speed of diffusion, not the ultimate impact of a diffusion process on people’s lives. To understand what this means for the future of ideas and behaviors online, we need to take a look at an evolutionary idea called “The Red Queen Effect.”

The Red Queen Effect is an idea borrowed from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, in which the Red Queen has to keep running just to stay in the same place. As the Red Queen puts it, “Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do just to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast!” In evolutionary theory, the Red Queen Effect is a phenomenon in which a particular genotype that is successful in one generation is suddenly outcompeted in the next generation. The reason for this is that new mutations come along that make it obsolete.

In any evolving system, something that works now will not necessarily be successful in the future. As long as the competition keeps evolving, any successful genotype needs to keep evolving to keep up. Thus, in essence, you have to keep running just to stay in the same place. For innovations in fields as varied as industry, marketing, academics, and politics, the same idea holds: Any good idea is only successful relative to its competition.

Let’s consider what this means for the evolution of memes that are simple versus complex. Simple contagions, like viral media, spread quickly because they are easy and familiar. They can easily diffuse across millions of people, just like a virus. By contrast, complex contagions, such as social cooperation and environmentally sound business practices, require a little more social reinforcement to get us to adopt them because they require a little more effort on our part—even though they are ultimately more rewarding for us in the end. If the social channels that spread memes, ideas, and social influences are becoming increasing conducive to the rapid spread of simple contagions, then the raw surfeit of activity over these channels will make them increasingly less suitable for spreading complex contagions.

As a result, the evolving economy of ideas and behaviors that we commonly encounter in our increasingly connected world is likely to be unintentionally shaped by our social networks. Because complex contagions require more attention and reinforcement in order to spread, cooperative practices that are common now may be easily outcompeted by the increasing pace and volume of media content in the next generation. The upshot is that in a world where political messages, commercial information, and even scientific ideas are struggling to outcompete their rivals, increasing connectedness will inevitably lead to the natural selection of messages that are simpler and more digestible, but less nourishing.

The point of appreciating all of this is not to paint a bleak picture of our future, but to foreground an important concern. While all of this can happen, it also assumes that we forgo any efforts to create social spaces that promote the reinforcement of desirable behaviors. As I describe in How Behavior Spreads (2018), we also have the ability to create new kinds of productive spaces online that promote social learning and behavior change. Putting our efforts into building these spaces is an important next step for shaping the evolution of social life online.

References

Centola, Damon. 2018. How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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