The Web Isn't Changing Social Interactions

Question: Are the effects of social networks changing or \r\naccelerating in the digital age? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recorded March 31, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

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

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