U R Primate: Social Media, Social Animals

Flood Tablet 7th Century B.C.E.
Flood Tablet 7th Century B.C.E.

It’s a cliché by now that social media, from texting to friending, has begun to reshape how we communicate with each other. We now get jobs through LinkedIn,  keep track of our social networks on Facebook, post our favorite links on Google+, and sell our old furniture on Craigslist.

Since we’re primates at heart, what does the shift to the new social technologies mean for us? Now that we write instead of speak, how does that change our interactions?

Humans are social animals–we communicate, mostly, through language. Language allows us access to such advantages as abstraction. With language, unlike other primate calls, we can talk about things that have happened at another time or place (displacement), and we can create new words (productivity).

Without language, as a linguistically-interested friend of mine so poignantly put it, our options are “grunt” and “point.” While this might sound flip, it gets to the heart of the matter: without language, primates can only talk about here and now. After we humans developed language (Chomsky, among others, puts the date at 100,000 years ago: one of the more “recent” dates), there was a long stretch until we invented writing.

Up until the advent of writing (c. 3200 BC), communication was by necessity face-to-face. With the invention of the printing press with movable type (arguably 1450 AD, as earlier printing was only in the hands of a select few), we began to be able to do more than record thoughts. Suddenly we could distribute them to a wide range of people, and people we had never met.

Here and Now

Woman after flood with smartphone showing FacebookIn the Information Age, we can do far more. With hardly any effort at all, we can communicate with large numbers of people. But we’re still developing the politeness rules of social media. We throw about terms like “friend” and “follower” (and I truly do appreciate all of you out there!) and even “like.” These words have taken on new meanings in a new social context.

Publishing, itself, has grown from expensive, professional work to essentially “free“–especially if you don’t want to make any money on it and just want to get your message out there. If “media” is all these methods of communicating via technology, then we arrive at “social media” when the cost of such communication, at least on a per-message basis, drops so low that it becomes a cost-effective way to network socially with all those other human primates.

While “social media” is in many respects a new field for communication, at the same time it still has similar goals and rules. We still compete for the approval of our own groups as well as status within them. Also, we defend groups we identify with from outsiders.

While the means of communication have changed, our goals of reaching out to our “own people” remain. Our desire for a place, and respect, within our social groups has stayed the same. While we can ignore time and space, we can’t ignore that our goals haven’t changed all that much.


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