The ancient Greek poet Archilochus said that the fox knows many things about a little, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin used the fox and hedgehog distinction in his brilliant essay about Leo Tolstoy’s view of history and his longing for a unifying insight and understanding.
The hedgehog and the fox is also a good parable for social life today. The hedgehog social life, which is what I think I grew up with, is one where you know a lot, and deeply, and intimately, about a few friends. You might count four people as close friends, if that many, but you know the nooks and crannies of each other’s lives, and you’d be comfortable sharing anything with them. If they call you at 3:30 a.m. and need help, you feel obligated to help them.
The fox social life, which is what I think social media is selecting for, is one where you know a million little things about a lot of people. The fox might have an active social life and many acquaintances, but doesn’t know much about them.
The hedgehog probes deeply and narrowly; the fox skims lightly and broadly.
Obviously, both the hedgehog and the fox social lives have their virtues, and they’re not mutually exclusive. Most of us probably have both, and are fox-ish or hedgehog-ish, but not exclusively one or the other.
Just as Nicholas Carr questions how Google is affecting our brains and cognition, in one of two new book projects I have underway, I’m questioning (among many other things) how Facebook and social media is affecting our hearts.
On the surface, although I’m not wedded to this hypothesis, it seems to be inclining us toward the fox social life.
Our attention is dispersed quickly and pithily across hundreds if not thousands of people; we know a little about an awful lot of people. Emotions are more shallow than deeply plumbed. Sadness and grief are certainly expressed, but in delimited ways that are intuitively suitable to the medium.
Facebook can satiate my social appetite in ways that somewhat trouble me. It can feel like the equivalent of filling up on bread before dinner.
I’ve gotten some social calories in me—some kind of social interaction—and it has the benefit of being unencumbered, the ultimate in no strings attached, and usually affirmative, even effusive, and light. But it is pure fox.
This happened to me just the other day. I had a social “things to do” list on my desk—people whom I wanted to contact for dinner dates. But I spent two hours Facebook-mesmerized, scrolling up and down my wall, liking random comments, reading others, writing some and then seeing who might have liked mine and all the rest. I actually participated in an intellectually substantive conversation, too. I only knew the original poster, none of the others, but it felt like a first day in a good college seminar.
The “things to do” social list didn’t get done. I didn’t feel the need. I’d filled up on bread.
My point is that the fox social life might corrode the imperative of having the hedgehog social life, assuming a zero sum game of social energy.
What constitutes a “friend” relationship in social media spaces also may (or may not) influence fashion standards for friendships that aren’t predominately online. Emphasis is on the curation and presentation of the self. It’s not just that we’re updating or communicating with friends about random goings-on in our lives; we’re managing a presence in a media space. The two processes are inextricable. I wonder if in that old warning from mom, the online friends might be a “bad influence” on the non-online ones. It’s hard to say right now, but hedgehogs, beware.
The allegation, or observation, that mainstream culture is now a celebrity culture rings true for me in some important ways. We collect fans, both literally and informally; our social life unfolds through a medium of display—like graffiti on a wall or, to be highbrow, a piece of art hanging on a wall; our self and self-image are ever more conflated, much as they are with Hollywood celebrities.
My intention isn’t to sound like a Luddite crank, although I’m always susceptible to technology nostalgia. In many respects Facebook is a life saver for me. I work alone, and it’s a way to make a fast but positive connection to people during the day, and to find out about stories that are trending. I can connect with readers on Facebook, which I always enjoy, and get compliments that they wouldn’t bother to send in a letter.
But current research on loneliness finds that a not insignificant percentage of Americans (although not a majority) does not have a single friend—not one—in whom they would confide honestly and fully about meaningful things going on in their lives. They might have a work colleague with whom they share mutual office frustrations. Or they might have acquaintances with whom they share undemanding news of work, or their lives. Some might see their spouses as friends, but others lie, deceive, and/or withhold from their spouses, too, so they can’t count them as true or full confidants, either.
Some might be hedgehogs, and have a life with lots of acquaintances. They might hang out with the other parents in their children’s school, or on teams. But others in the group don’t even have that.
I wonder how Facebook will affect this sort of social isolation generally. Ironically, could it make it even worse, while appearing to expand the lonely, disconnected person’s friends by the scores, or even hundreds?
Meanwhile here’s my quiz to see if you’re more fox-ish or hedgehog-ish:
You’re a hedgehog if…
You’re a fox if…
you gave your friend a hug
you gave your friend a LIKE
you have actually visited the home of your friend
you don’t actually know who all your Friends are.
it would be impossible for one of your friends to be impersonating a man, or a much younger person
some of your Friends might really be inmates or precocious 10-year-olds, and you wouldn’t know
you talk to a friend and feel filled up for days afterward
you talk to a friend and feel hungry for updates a minute later.