Did we evolve to Tweet? The evolutionary basis of social networking.

 In one of my previous posts I explained why the human brain and Twitter are so well matched. The limits that our brain has to work within in terms of its’ processing power mean that it ‘likes’ information in brief and easily digestible forms. Twitter, and other forms of digital communication such as texting can be seen as fulfilling this need. Perhaps then this is one reason why they have been so widely adopted – it’s easy and it requires little effort.

This popularity is reinforced when you look at some of the amazing statistics on the use of Twitter. While figures vary it is estimated that there are now an average of 1250 tweets per second, a figure that rose to over 12000 during this year’s Superbowl. I think it’s fair to say, we definitely love Twitter.

There is, though, another important reason why we may be so fond of this method of communicating and this is one that is based on evolutionary theory. When I was completing my PhD studies at the University of Liverpool I was lucky enough to work alongside fellow postgraduates studying a broad range of subjects. Many were studying investigative psychology which is why I am so interested in this field today. But among the others were those studying the field of evolutionary psychology under Prof. Robin Dunbar.

 Now at Oxford, Dunbar wrote a fascinating book called “Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language” which has a lot to say about why social networking is so important to us now. Evolutionary psychology is a discipline which essentially looks at the ways in which our behaviour has evolved, both through the study of non-human primates, and the ways we interact today. So what has this all got to do with social networking? Basically, Dunbar argues that among our ancient hominid ancestors, and even before the evolution of language, understanding our position in the group hierarchy was hugely important.

Primates are very social animals and maintaining the relationships between them is, in evolutionary terms, key in allowing a group to co-operate, breed and, essentially, survive. So, information that helps individuals to maintain these relationships is crucial. It helps to detect threats to an individual’s position in the hierarchy also giving them clues as to ways in which they may be able to progress within it. This information and its transmission is, according to Dunbar, the evolutionary basis for gossip.

Before language evolved Dunbar suggests that our hominid ancestors maintained their relationships by grooming each other. As well as keeping themselves clean this allowed them to reinforce their bonds and ‘share’ the fact that they were not of threat to each other. This was a successful strategy, so much so that eventually the size of groups evolved beyond that which allowed enough of this social grooming, and networking, to occur. Another form of communication was needed, something that was just as effective in terms of allowing us to gossip but more quickly and more efficiently. And that method was, of course, language.

Language, argues Dunbar, is therefore all about maintaining social relationships. By gossiping we share the information that is so fundamental to the survival or failure of these relationships. Without co-operation humans would not, arguably, have evolved or survived as a species which is why this information is so important. Essentially, then, Twitter and other social networking gives us a platform through which we can share this ‘gossip’. It also, importantly, changes the whole notion of how big a social network can be – but that’s another story.

Dunbar, R. (2004). Gossip, Grooming and the Evolution of Language. Faber and Faber.

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