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What's in a Number?

In recent conversations, I've been returning to the idea that Facebook and social media generally are driving us insane. Social media, and Facebook in particular are certainly useful. I went to my 30-year high school reunion last year, and Facebook played a major role in shaping that gathering. The Friends of the C-Realm group on Facebook puts me in touch with listeners to the C-Realm Podcast, and probably more importantly, puts listeners in touch with one another. That notion, that C-Realm listeners can be "in touch" with one another via the medium of Facebook hints, in part at least, how social media makes us crazy.

We can't touch one another on Facebook, though we can have conversations. We are social primates adapted to band together for mutual protection and to help one another "make a living," which is to say, to meet our basic survival needs as well as our need for intimate contact with lovers, parents, children, friends, and rivals. Even when we are not physically touching one another, being in close proximity to the people we know and depend on  has a strong physical component. Our empathic brain circuitry prompts us to project ourselves into the skin of the members of our tribe. Based on their posture, their facial expressions, their gate and even their smell, we can not only determine their mood and disposition, but we have a very good idea of what they're feeling. This is not an intellectual capacity. It is something we feel, and this sort of familiarity and proximity counts as being "in touch" in a way that being able to share text, images and hyperlinks does not.

Dunbar's number is the number of people that we, as social primates, can maintain stable relations with. I think of this as the number of people we can know as people. I have, at present, 2,097 "friends" on Facebook. Obviously, most of them are not friends in any meaningful sense. I don't know how many of them I've actually met face to face, how many are friends of friends or acquaintances of acquaintances, or how many are just people that know of my existence through the podcast.

There is a continuum between Facebook friends that I have a real sense of and those who are complete strangers to me. Some of those Facebook friends are people I've never met but who I have spoken to over Skype. Having a voice to go with a name and whatever I can learn from someone based on what they write and post makes them more real to me than people I've never heard speak. When I meet an online acquaintance, even people I've interacted with online for years, they take a quantum leap toward being "real" people in my experience. Being a podcaster, there are many people who know my voice, who have listened to it for years, and who feel a familiarity with me that I don't feel with them. I've found that when I meet such people face to face, even if I've had only minimal contact with them online, that their sense of familiarity is infectious, and very quickly I come to feel a much stronger connection to them than my very limited experience of them would suggest is possible.

Some people I've never spoken to or met in person still occupy a category of familiarity beyond he level of mere acquaintance. The distance and disembodiment of on-line relationships can prompt a level of sharing that would require more trust and familiarity to match in face to face coimmunication. This willingness to share and be vulnerable with people online seems to have withered away in recent years, but I don't know if online culture has changed or if if it's just me. Maybe I've grown older and developed less need for the sorts of interactions that lead to that kind of openness in online communication.

My Facebook friends occupy positions on a spectrum. At the near end of that spectrum are people I knew before there was such a thing as Facebook and other people who would be important to me if the internet disappeared tomorrow. At the far end are people I don't know from Adam. In between lie people who I don't know as people, but who are not complete strangers. This portion of the spectrum is a spectrum unto itself with people at the closer end seeming like real people compared to those at the far end, who are just an iota away from being complete non-entities. These are the poeple with whom I am most likely to get into dysfunctional exchanges. Mostl of what I know about these token people is how their opinion differs from mine. They become the embodiments of opinions that I see as flawed, which turns them into essentially flawed beings. Of course, the people I know in real life are flawed, but the kinship mechanisms instilled in us by our evolutionary history keeps me from seeing the real people around me primarily in terms of their flaws. Those mechanisms do not work in cyberspace. Not yet, away.

I hope and suspect that human culture will evolve to overcome some of the most dysfunctional aspects of how we relate to one another online. Transhumanists may envision upgrades to our neo-cortex that will allow us to know hundreds or thousands of people as intimately as our pre-historic ancestors knew the 150 people with whom they lived and faced the challenges of making a living. Perhaps AI intermediaries will help us interface with distant humans and cooperate and learn from one another without getting hung up on our differences, but I'm betting on cultural adaptation playing the crucial role.

Psychonauts and devotees of the late Terence McKenna will probably remind me that, "Culture is not your friend." This is true. Culture doesn't care about any of us as individuals, and some of the compromises it demands of us strip the joy and spontaneous self-expression from life, but culture does allow us to live in nation states comprised of hundreds of millions of individuals when our biology still wants to gravitate to groups of 150.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Cloudwalking Owl
Feb. 27th, 2017 07:20 pm (UTC)
Social Media is like Fire---Good Servant, bad Master
I have two responses. I loathe social media. It eats my time that I would rather be spending doing something else. But it has two advantages.

First, it allows me to interact with people that I would never get to meet otherwise. I work at a blue collar job, even though I consider myself an intellectual. People are sorted by class in our society, and the guys who move the furniture and wipe up spills don't get invited to conferences or asked to write papers in journals---no matter how good their ideas. (I once sent a letter to an economics journal and the editor looked up my name and called me by phone and asked me for to expand what I'd written into an essay. When he asked what I taught at university, I said I was a security guard. An embarrassed silence ensued, followed by a suggestion that the letter could be edited and published in the "letters" section.) This means that I spend a great deal of my life not knowing anyone that I can discuss anything beyond sports scores or the size of women's breasts. Social media, like the C-Realm group of FaceBook offers at least something of a venue for intelligent conversation.

This is not only "just" an issue of isolation and loneliness. It is also a question of mental limitation. I am of the opinion that "no man is an island", and if someone is not allowed opportunities to discuss "deep subjects", they progressively lose the ability to think these sorts of things, or, at least do not develop as much as they could have. I believe that the dialectic of conversation is integral to human consciousness.

Secondly, I foolishly believe that I have something to share with the world around me. I've written a blog for about 20 years, publish an on-magazine devoted to local news and affairs, and, have self-published two philosophy books. The only way someone like me has any hope of marketing these sorts of things is immerse myself in social media. So, it has become something of a task I have to follow.

Social Media is a job. Just like hoeing turnips, selling burgers, or, mopping floors.
Feb. 27th, 2017 07:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Social Media is like Fire---Good Servant, bad Master
Yes, I can't disconnect from social media for the same reason. Tending my social media presence is part of my podcasting job.
Feb. 28th, 2017 11:17 am (UTC)
No horse
I really enjoyed the semi-rant from the end of episode 512 that covered this. I tend to agree that social media or the way a lot of people are using it is driving us nuts. Partly I blame how it has typically become reactive. Adopting an app or allowing your web browser to interrupt other activity creates an irritation or starts brain juices flowing that drive us away from thought and toward snarling. I noticed that earlier technologies like Usenet generally degraded as more become tended to be always on. In the days of dial-up and download there was always time for thought and the possibility to edit a post before the next batch of messages were exchanged.
Douglas Rushkoff seems to be drifting in the same direction on his musings about social media and the impact of the great distract-or. It might be worth trying to pick this up again with him.
I'm trying to disengage at least with parts of social media and have disabled all messages, making time in the morning and evening to catch up with the friends and acquaintances I value there. I'm also trying to get back into the habit of using LJ but it's been some time.
I avoid sitting on anything with teeth but have frequently listened to the podcast while rowing both on and off the water. Before moving back to the UK it was part of my commute turning an hour of european motorway into something I looked forward to in the mornings.
Mar. 1st, 2017 02:25 am (UTC)
Based on their posture, their facial expressions, their gate and even their smell, we can not only determine their mood and disposition, but we have a very good idea of what they're feeling.

Another aspect of social media that I feel is being neglected is (of course) advertising. Ads used to be cooler conversation material, stuff that would be discussed along with "the game," one of the bigger network productions, or any of the other limited phenomena accessible to all.

Now that we have admissions of psychometric ads being used in the last election, ads disseminated to FB users based on an assessment of their personality types, we have ads that, unlike ads of the past, fit with a person's perspective of the world.

Meaning they are not visible to just anyone. We have come to a world where people can simultaneously view a device and access/see content that no one else in their household or workplace can see.

Predictably, I have work conversations around "the cooler" that tend toward the bizarre, observations of (for one example) traffic that lead off toward wildly different conclusions about how that particular accident/snarl/design should be interpreted.

I've gotten pretty good at noticing AM radio memetic interference spitting out from people's mouths. But how am I am going to get ads targeted to such people, just so I can understand what they might be trying to say?
Cloudwalking Owl
Mar. 1st, 2017 04:17 pm (UTC)
Velocity is the enemy
I just listened to the podcast where KMO read out loud this post. I'm fascinated about how much I had missed in reading both his original post and the comments that other people had made. I don't know if it's multi-tasking or just my giant ego, but I think dode is right about the temporal element to dysfunctional social media.

I noticed a while back while I was taking notes for my on-line magazine stories that if I scribble as fast as I can I lose the ability to really understand or comprehend the points I am trying to record. I work around this problem by forcing myself to slow down and write everything using printed calligraphy.

As for KMO's point about the nature of on-line versus face-to-face relationships, I got to thinking about my marriage. I met my wife on-line---she started reading my blog and introduced herself to me through email. We connected only through phone call and written medium for several years before face-to-face. To this day, the longest we have ever lived together is 2 months. And now, we don't even talk on the phone anymore because she would rather text.

And yet, I feel closer to her than anyone else in my life. Perhaps that says something about the two of us, or where we are going as a society. I suspect that in order to live in an "information age", we are going to have to become "connoisseurs of information" who carefully pick and choose what information we are going to sample. And we will have to be like "wine snobs" who pick and choose what information we expose ourselves to, and take tiny sips of it, roll it around our mouths, and, spit it out in order not to jade the palate.

Of course, this puts people who feel that they have to be involved in social media to "market" their books, blogs, or, podcasts into a dilemma. How much of their "product" is going to be "diluted" or "damaged" by the necessity of guzzling informational swill in order to try to get anyone to see the products of our own thought?
Mar. 2nd, 2017 12:09 am (UTC)
Pretty quickly after getting my first smart phone I removed FB and twitter, because they were so distracting. After the election I went further, blocking both sites on my computer at work. I also meditate at the end of the day, and I won't look at them between meditating and sleeping. I still get bored, I still browse random stuff, and I'm still active on social media, but taking these steps seems to have had a positive affect on my mental state. YMMV.
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