The Web Isn't Changing Social Interactions

Twitter or no Twitter, our social networks are basically as small and close as they were in ancient Rome.
  • Transcript


Question: Are the effects of social networks changing or accelerating in the digital age? 

Nicholas Christakis: I don’t think so, and I’ll give you the example that I usually give: The size of a military company in the Roman Army was about 100 men. Centurion, right, led 10 groups of 10 men. They were Decurions that reported to him. Each one led a squad of 10 men and there was a company of 100 men.  It's the Roman Army. In the modern American Army it’s the same, 120, 150 men in a company, little squads of 10 men. Well now why is that? I mean we have invented huge advances in communication. We have telegraphy and telephony and radar and radio communication and the Internet... and yet the size of a working unit in the military is the same as it was. We’ve grown in our ability to communicate with each other by many orders of magnitude and yet the company size hasn’t changed. And the reason is that what limits the ability of human beings to interact with each other, or what permits it even, is not the communication technology, but the fundamental capacity of the human brain to form social interactions and to process social information. So I would argue that actually online networks and modern telecommunications don’t fundamentally modify the capacity of the human brain for social relationships and therefore, while they might affect the efficiency of information transmission and might have other sort of affects at the margins, at the core it hasn’t changed.

And in fact, if you think about this other example different from the Roman and modern army example: talk to your grandparents and ask them how many best friends they had when they were young. They’ll say they had one best friend and two close friends. When you talk to your own kids now it’s the same. So even though my kids might you know Sebastian and Lysandra and Lena might you know have hundreds of Facebook friend, those really aren’t real friends. Those are acquaintances. The core social group hasn’t fundamentally changed despite this incredible new technology that is available. So I guess the way I would answer your question is to say that while it is the case that these advances in communications are astonishing I don’t think they change our fundamental humanity. I don’t think they change our desire to interact with others or our ability to interact with others, because I think those desires and abilities are dictated more by our brain and our humanity, which hasn’t changed even as the technology has. 

Question: Do Web media increase the efficiency of information transfer? 

Nicholas Christakis: No, I don’t think so. I mean think about Twitter. Like, I mean I don’t know how many Twitter followers you have, but you know if they’re all tweeting three or four times a day and you have a thousand followers you’re getting 3,000 tweets. You are not reading those tweets. They’re not affecting you. And in fact, when we looked at like when we looked at some of our Facebook networks we looked at the spread of or the diffusion of tastes in books, movies and music in Facebook networks. We found that if anyone of these random acquaintances of yours expresses a new cultural taste, it didn’t affect you. But people that you appeared in photographs with that you tagged and posted onto your Facebook page. What we call your "picture friends" who might be your real friends. So on average you might have 110 Facebook friends in our data, but you only had about six-and-a-half real friends, picture friends, when one of your picture friends expressed a taste in a certain movie or music or book it did affect you, for some of them. 

Online interactions have enormous scale. You could have thousands of people you interact with. Have tremendous specificity. You can target specific individuals and find them in a way that was very difficult in the olden days. They have a kind of communality, a kind of collaborative feature that was difficult to achieve in olden days, like Wikipedia would be a great example. And they have what we call a virtuality, so for instance, if you’re a man you could have a female avatar. Now you could always pass as a woman in real life too, but it’s much harder in the real life than it is in a virtual world or you can be a disabled person with an enabled body avatar for example, so there is a kind of way in which you can have social interactions online, which was very difficult, if not impossible to have face-to-face. But despite all of that fundamentally I don’t think that these new technologies change human interaction. 

Question: Will the Web ever fundamentally reshape our social interactions? 

Nicholas Christakis: Well I mean ask yourself, I mean do you think that we are different in our sociality after the invention of the telephone as before? You know we’ve only had a telephone for a hundred years. Are we a completely different species than the Victorians? You know, do we have different desires? Are we… No. And now can we communicate more efficiently, transact business and so forth? Yes. And what is also ironic and we discuss this in the book is the ways in which when the telephone was invented and introduced all the same kind of concerns about you know the spread of inappropriate information or people predating on other people or the intrusiveness of the technology. You know the quietness of the dinner hour would be interrupted by the phone ringing off the hook. All of those concerns were articulated just like we talk about the Internet now. And so completely acknowledge that it’s astonishing what the Internet offers. I just am not convinced that the Internet fundamentally is changing how we think or how we really interact with each other. It’s giving us additional ways of interacting, but I don’t think it fundamentally changes friendship, romance, love, violence, all these very deeply human traits.

Recorded March 31, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen