Social Networking: What Are 'Friends' For?

Consider dropping your resistance to "open" social networking and embrace it with a vengeance. It's the best thing to happen to our species since language.

September 3, 2008
By

Mike Elgan

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Social networking is huge and growing. Some people don't "get it." Others participate, but reluctantly. And, of course, still others are rabid enthusiasts (including Yours Truly).

There are three types of people in this world: 1) anti social networkers; 2) closed social networkers; and 3) open social networkers.

Anti social networkers think social networking is a trendy fad and a waste of time.

A closed social networker has an account on one or more of the services, but restricts connections to only close family and friends. (Many augment this with Linkedin or Plaxo, where they keep business contacts separately.) The idea is that Facebook and MySpace pictures and comments, profile information and status updates are private, and not for public consumption. Most new users gravitate instinctively to closed social networking, and some evolve into open status later on.

An open social networker connects with both with family and friends, and also business colleagues, acquaintances -- just about everyone with whom he or she wants to maintain a relationship.

No matter which kind of social networker you are -- anti, closed or open -- I'm here to urge you to jump on the open social networking bandwagon with new-found energy. Consider signing up for five, ten, twenty or more social networks -- at a minimum, two: Facebook and LinkedIn -- and actively using their discovery tools to look up former classmates and colleagues. "Invite" as many people as you can to be your "friends." Use each social network to invite "friends" on that service to connect with you on the others.

(It's easy to maintain minimal contact on a wide range of networks by using tools like HelloTxt to broadcast status updates.)

Social networks like Facebook, MySpace and others have many uses or purposes. But I think I understand what the most important, long-term purpose is: to maximize the number of people with whom we can maintain a relationship.

Social networks are not about the quality of relationships, but the quantity. But why is this important?

In a book called "Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language," by Psychologist Robin Dunbar, the author tackles a major mystery of human evolutionary development, namely: What is the survival advantage of human language?

Her surprising conclusion: Language enables gossip and other "small talk," which replaces primate "grooming" as the means by which humans maintain social order and cohesion. This switch from "grooming" to language enabled early man to live in larger groups that were more closely connected.

In other words, language enabled the most social of animals to live in larger groups, which enhanced the survival and reproduction of individuals. As such, it was advantageous from an evolutionary perspective, and helps explain why our ancestors survived, and why related creatures without speech died off.

Like "grooming," language clarifies and updates shifting alliances and relative social status. But unlike "grooming," language adds new benefits beyond larger communities. It enhances both hunting and gathering. It dramatically accelerates and improves "culture" -- the sharing of information about survival. And it's mobile -- you can do it while on the move.

Just like social networking.

Without the Internet, it's possible for most people to maintain relationships with between 10 and, say, 200 people. Add the Internet, with its e-mail, IM and other tools, that grows to maybe 300. But social networks enable you to keep better relationships with many hundreds or even thousands of people.

They enhance survival by increasing the chances that someone will think of you when hiring, or by enabling you to maintain professional contacts and actively market yourself when looking for work. And they even enhance reproduction. For single people, "dating" social networks like Match.com expand the number of potential relationships from dozens to thousands.

Many people are put off by the triviality of social networking. People post irrelevant status messages, like " is back to work after labor day, but still sleepy!" and " doesn't think it's very nice to shoot wild animals from airplanes," and " is finished with the book, and it is sent off to the printer. I hope it turns out okay!" These are actual status messages posted by my "friends" on Facebook.

Trivial? It's trivialities that make us human, according to Dunbar. This kind of small talk is exactly what glues most human relationships together, and what makes us feel like we're "in touch with" people. It's the kind of thing you say to your neighbor, for example, when you run into them on the sidewalk. When your mother calls on the phone, you probably don't talk about philosophy or engineering. You make small talk, at least at first, and you do it because that's how humans maintain relationships.

I believe people enjoy social networking because it satisfies ancient and fundamental needs: to maintain connections, share thoughts and experiences and check in on friends and family to see what they're up to.

So if you're a human, think about dropping your resistance to "open" social networking and embrace it with a vengeance. It's the best thing to happen to our species since language. In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan+datamation@gmail.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.

TAGS: Facebook,social networking,LinkedIn,MySpace,e-Mail



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