I was listening to a presentation being given by futurist David Houle a few days ago. He began to talk about how technology is changing the way that people communicate and work, particularly with the exponential global growth in cell phone subscribers. As he relayed stats, he discussed implications for how society works. This made me begin to think of something that had been pestering the back of my mind for a while, the implications of the rapid adoption of Facebook.
Recently I read in The Economist, in an article titled Primates on Facebook, about a study that was done of the number of friends people tend to have on Facebook. What is interesting is that the findings are fairly consistent with limitations theorized by Robin Dunbar, who believes that the brain limits the size of a social network an individual can develop. An implication of this that came to my mind is that of the potential of reduced (not eliminated) social mobility. By social mobility I don't necessarily mean upward, but at all.
What do I mean?
Most people go through life making batches of new friends, friends whose interests match theirs at some given point in life. If, however, there is a cap on the size of a social network, and the legacy social network is preserved longer than it would be otherwise by way of Facebook or similar technology, then it would seem that the tendency to develop new friendships would have to be somehow inhibited.
Think about it. How many relationships have you developed in the last couple of years that have changed your life significantly? If your ability to begin these relationships were somehow inhibited by an otherwise full network on your side or the others, such that you did not develop the same friendship, what would your life be like?
This could have important implications. In another article recently in The Economist titled The Road Not Taken a theory was discussed that says that higher home ownership percentages are negative for an economy due to the decreased mobility of the workforce. I had not heard this before, but it immediately made some sense to me, especially in these times of economic stress. It also matched a long held personal belief that government intervention to increase home ownership is messing with nature, at least beyond some point, and thus may have adverse consequences, something that seems to be more evident now.
The reason I mention this is that the idea that increased home ownership percentages might be negative for an economy is, at least initially, a bit counter intuitive. The same goes for the idea of reduced social mobility due to the increased use of online social networks like Facebook - it is a bit counter intuitive. Seemingly the increased communication would be good, for all kinds of reasons. The problem may lay in the fact that we are all, well, primates.
Socially Stunted by Facebook?